Team at Notre Dame Hesburgh Library launches impressive digital project


As the preeminent Catholic university in the United States, the University of Notre Dame has a unique opportunity to provide resources that educate and inspire others about the faith.  One such opportunity arose recently as a team at the university made a collection of martyrs’ biographies available online.

The recent study, Book of Remembrance: A Martyrology of the Catholic Church in the USSR, was published in 2000 by Russian Catholic leadership.  This work contains the biographies of 1,900 Latin and Eastern Rite Catholics who faced persecution during the Soviet regime.

Sixteen of the people mentioned in the book are inaugural candidates for a program entitled “Catholic New Martyrs of Russia,” which will advance the canonization of Russian Catholic martyrs of the 20th century.  The process for their beatification, the “Cause of the Beatification or the Declaration of Martyrdom of Archbishop Edward Profittlich, SJ, and Fifteen Companions,” was opened on May 31, 2003.  These 16 martyrs are currently Servants of God.

The compilation of the original Russian book began when the Apostolic Administration for Catholics of North European Russia established the Martyrology Commission for the Jubilee Year 2000 and recruited Father Bronisƚaw Czaplicki and Irina Osipova to collect and edit the biographies.  Much of the material in the biographies was obtained from the state security archives of the former Soviet Union, which partially opened in 1991 and are now closed.  The work was then translated into English by Dr. Geraldine Kelley, a scholar and translator of Russian literature.

As recently as this month, the Hesburgh Library published the translated biographies online.  This internet version of the collection, “Book of Remembrance: Biographies of Catholic Clergy and Laity Repressed in the Soviet Union (USSR) from 1918 to 1953,” allows users to search the biographies by name.  In addition, the system offers readers the ability to sort the biographies by keyword, gender, religious or laity, location, or by the nature of the individual’s persecution.

In early 2000, Kelley came across the Russian Book of Remembrance while researching a community of Eastern Rite Dominican sisters founded in Moscow in the early 1900s.  The biographies in the book intrigued her, and she began translating many of them into English.

After realizing that her work might be useful to others if she published it somewhere other than her personal website, Kelley reached out to Semion Lyandres, Professor of History at Notre Dame, who put her in touch with the library’s Russian and East European Studies Librarian Natasha Lyandres.  Mrs. Lyandres is currently the Head of Rare Books and Special Collections Department.

“It’s a wonderful project.  We know that many millions of people went through gulags, but those seem to be just numbers,” Mrs. Lyandres told the Rover.  “Projects like this give us an opportunity to get to know the individuals who were murdered by the Communist regime only because they believed in God.”

Yury Avvakumov, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, spoke with the Roverabout the new resource, noting that Russian Catholics were often persecuted throughout Russian history.

“The documents reveal how Catholics—priests and laypeople—were systematically and ruthlessly spied on, arrested, imprisoned in labor camps, tortured and killed.  There are dozens of names, faces, life stories here,” he said.


“Archives pertaining to the history of persecutions by the Soviet regime are gradually becoming less and less accessible again,” Avvakumov continued.  “There is a clear tendency in contemporary Russia to deny the horrible dimensions of Communist persecutions and to present the Soviet history in an idealized light.  The materials represented on the Notre Dame site document the real story of the Communist totalitarianism.”

After talking with the translator of the book, Mrs. Lyandres assembled a team of Hesburgh Library staff members to assist her in creating the website for the biographies.

One key member of this team was Bozena Karol, a cataloguing assistant who is originally from Poland, and fluent in Polish, Russian, and English.  Her knowledge of Polish added more depth to the biographies, and she enhanced the collection with her knowledge of Polish keywords.

The names of each person in the book were originally in Russian and then transliterated.  The website maintained the original transliteration, and Karol’s fluency in Polish enabled the group to further transliterate the names.  In addition, Karol used her geographical knowledge of the areas in Poland and Ukraine to assist in grouping the biographies by location.

Mrs. Lyandres said that she has already received correspondence from website viewers, many of whom offered additional information to compile.  “We started this discussion, now this grassroots effort will really enhance the project,” she noted.

The group plans to continue updating and expanding the website as they gather new information.  Mrs. Lyandres noted that the Apostolic Administration for Catholics of North European Russia has made more in-depth information available that will allow for development of the biographies.  The team also plans to update the site as the cause for canonization of the 16 martyrs moves forward.


“I am now working on a new project using biographies and interviews collected by human rights groups in Western Ukraine,” Mrs. Lyandres added.  “These relate to people persecuted for their faith in the Soviet Union.  We may create a new website to expand the focus of project by using the original database as a foundation.”

Matthew Ashley, Associate Professor and Chair of the Theology Department at Notre Dame, spoke with the Rover about the significance of this project for the university.  “This resource is an obvious and important way for Notre Dame to express its solidarity as a community of faith, heart and intellect with the Catholic Church around the world,” Ashley said.

“Recognizing the power of love expressed by these martyrs around the world provides hope and energy to our own commitment to build a world more in accord with God’s will and invests our work as scholars with the seriousness which the Catholic tradition has always accorded it,” he continued.

“This project really fits Notre Dame’s mission,” Mrs. Lyandres asserted.  “The website is a wonderful research tool and connects us with Catholic communities around the world.  Because it contains biographies of both Catholic clergy and laity, it sheds light on people who believed in God … it gives you a glimpse into the persecution of the Church which started in the Soviet Union soon after the October Revolution.”

Bozena Karol focused on the importance of telling the stories of these martyrs: “Giving tribute to people who actually died and were persecuted is the main focus,” she told the Rover.

“This work is morally and psychologically difficult,” Avvakumov noted, “because you learn about so many horrendous crimes committed by humans [against] humans; you see photos of people made after their arrest and in prison, you look into the eyes full of suffering and pain, the eyes of those who very soon after this might have met their death.

“At the same time, learning about martyrdom is also learning about hope, faith, and—paradoxically as it may seem—about joy.  We tend too often today to confuse ‘joy’ with ‘fun.’  This joy is not about fun.  It is the joy that is achieved through knowledge that true humanity is stronger than pain and death.”

Kelley, the translator of the original Russian Book of Remembrance, will be at Notre Dame next month in order to work with Lyandres and her team to further develop and enhance the website with additional information.  Kelley will be available on November 13 at 4 p.m. to meet with students interested in the project in the Rare Books and Special Collections department of the Hesburgh Library, Room 102.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a junior political science major who annoys her roommate by routinely talking in her sleep.  Contact her at