October marks American Archives Month, a celebration that brings attention to archivists and the important work that they do to preserve the history of the United States. In 1917, Catholic canon law established that every diocese must maintain important diocesan records within its own archive.
The Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists says that the Church in the U.S. was particularly slow when it came to implementing this mandate. The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, for example, officially established an archive as recently as 2002, and this year it celebrates 20 years since its outset.
Within its first two decades of collection, the diocese has engaged only one archivist, Janice Cantrell, who says that her job is to “collect and preserve the history of the diocese.”
Cantrell said that she really enjoyed history and, after completing an undergraduate degree in the subject, she thought that it would be fun to work in a museum. During graduate school at the University of Toledo, she worked in the university’s archives. She graduated with a Master’s in History and became the diocesan archivist in 2002.
She listed a number of documents that the archive collects, organizes, and stores for the diocese, including administrative papers from the bishop and priests, materials from lay societies within the Church, and a number of photos and yearbooks.
“It’s like a history of what each bishop has accomplished in their time here. The really early bishops, I have very little information. [Bishop] Alerding is the first one that I have a bulk collection, and his is strictly his outgoing correspondence. I have just a handful of incoming correspondence for him, but lots of bound volumes of his outgoing correspondence.”
Her biggest source of materials is, of course, the chancery office – the administrative office of the diocese, located in the Archbishop Noll Center in Fort Wayne. A good portion of these artifacts are correspondence from bishops, and she said that Bishop Leo Pursley’s collection is “one of the biggest ones that I’ve fully processed.”
“His consist of his letters, the correspondence that comes in to him, and the correspondence that then goes out is the bulk of it; his pastoral letters, anything that he had. He was bishop when Vatican II happened, so there’s stuff from when he went over to Rome for Vatican II.”
Many of Bishop John M. D’Arcy’s correspondence consists of printed emails, and the papers from Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, because he is the current bishop, still reside with him.
Other important papers that are stored in the archives include documents and sacramental records for parishes that have closed. These sacramental records cannot be destroyed, and many are used for canonical reference as Catholics get confirmed, married, or ordained.
The oldest materials in the archive were received a few years ago from Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Fort Wayne. They had uncovered a box of centuries-old books that belonged to early bishops of the diocese.
Both Cantrell and her contact at Concordia had no idea why the box of books was stored at the Lutheran seminary, but she says that they are now among the most interesting materials stored in the archives.
Contributions from lay people outside of the chancery also comprise important parts of the archives. Cantrell says that she recently received a significant influx of materials from the former Central Catholic High School, and requested that any materials that a person might have in his or her home that would make a great contribution to the collection, to donate it to the archives.
An artifact that Cantrell knows is likely still in private hands that would be a tremendous addition to the archives is a collection of the Central Catholic High School newspaper, The Echo. While she would be more than happy to preserve these artifacts for generations to come, she is at least comforted in knowing that they are safely kept and hopes that someday they will help complete the diocesan collection on Central Catholic.
The Diocesan Museum and the archives, while separate entities, work together to preserve local Catholic history. The museum was established first, but when the archive opened in 2002, many of the papers, bound volumes, and book collections were transferred to the archive. Typically, non-paper materials will be transferred to the museum, and documents will be moved to the archives.
“We both maintain, essentially the same kind of materials, but the museum has the pretty stuff – the stuff that’s fun to look at. I have that stuff that’s just as important, but it’s paper,” Cantrell said.
The role of diocesan archivist also includes managing lay requests for information, either for academic or personal genealogical research.
“I had a gentleman that wrote a dissertation on Bishop [Gregory] Grutka. He was the first bishop for the Diocese of Gary. But because previous to that, he was one of our priests, and he was very close with Bishop Pursley, there was a lot of correspondence between the two of them. So, he came here to do some research on that.”
At least once a year, Cantrell attends a conference put on by the Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists, where they discuss the best way to maintain documents, how to properly handle digital assets, and how long certain records need to be kept. The association also offers a networking opportunity to ask peers questions about certain materials that may have stumped an archivist.
Cantrell and her fellow diocesan archivists continue to uncover and preserve the history of the Church in the U.S., and after two decades, she says this role has led her to learn more about the Church that she never knew before.
“It’s fun to dig through and kind of get an explanation of ‘why this happened this way.’ I know a lot more about the Catholic Church than I ever did. I was born and raised Catholic, but I know so much more about the rules of the Catholic Church than I ever did before, especially the sacramental records and the requirements on those and those kinds of things.”
If there are any documents, artifacts, or other materials that a person believes would make a good contribution to the collection in the diocesan archives, please contact Cantrell at [email protected]. For more information and to schedule an appointment to visit the archives, visit diocesefwsb.org/diocesan-archives.
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