You've probably heard: on August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will sweep across the United States from west to east. It will be the first total solar eclipse – when the moon blocks out the sun – visible in the continental United States since 1979. But what makes it especially exciting to astronomers and the rest of us alike is that it will be the first to be viewable across the entire continent since 1918.
If Fr. Charles Marie Charroppin, SJ, were still alive, he'd be having a party.
Father Charroppin (1840-1915) was a member of the former Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus. Described in a story in a 1987 issue of the Jesuit Bulletin as an "eccentric genius," he was a priest and educator with a fascination for astronomy and the new science of photography.
His astronomical studies are part of a long tradition among Jesuits, who established dozens of astronomical and meteorological observatories during the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, some 35 lunar craters are named for Jesuit astronomers. Today, many Jesuit schools still have a functioning observatory.
The eccentric and brilliant Fr. Charroppin was born on the island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. He entered St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Mo., in 1863, and began taking photographs of his new surroundings, including his fellow Jesuits. Following his ordination in 1875, he taught at Saint Louis University and continued documenting the world around him in photographs. He even served as vice president of the St. Louis Camera Club and was the "official photographer" of the Missouri Province.
Eventually, he pointed his camera skyward, developing relationships with some of the famous astronomers of his time. He and his fellow scientists traveled together in 1889 for what he dubbed "Eclipse Parties" to study the total eclipse of the sun, visible that year in California.
When he was assigned as a missionary to British Honduras in 1894, the United States government offered him a set of instruments to establish an observatory there, but he was unable to comply. He was too far away from "civilization" to enable telegraphic communication back to the States.
During the May 28, 1900 solar eclipse, Fr. Charroppin set up his equipment at an astronomical station in Washington, Georgia. By overlapping a series of 18 negatives, he generated a remarkable photograph of the sun and its corona.
Father Charroppin served for many years as a missionary in Belize, a professor at Saint Louis University and associate pastor of St. Charles Borromeo parish in St. Charles, Missouri. He never became famous for his astro-photography – there's not even a lunar crater named for him – but his inquisitive mind, creativity and good humor can be resurrected thanks to the Jesuit Archives of the Central United States.
The Charles M. Charroppin collection is among the countless treasures to be found in the Jesuit Archives in St. Louis. The collection includes biographical material, correspondence, loose photographs, photograph albums, hand drawn artwork, and glass lantern slides.
The Jesuit Archives is now closed to researchers as the staff prepares the collections to move to the new Jesuit Archives and Research Center under construction in St. Louis. The new $10 million, 32,000-square-foot building will be six times larger than the existing space and will make documents and artifacts from around the United States more accessible to researchers. It is expected to open in the spring of 2018.