The Archivist’s Nook: Farewell and Thanks for All the Files!

“To Build a Stronger Union of Oil Workers”, from the CIO collection, 1950

This week’s post is guest authored by Marielle Gage, a recent CUA graduate in Library Science.

Two years ago, I walked into the American Catholic Research Center and University Archives as a student worker. I thought I would like the job — I knew one of my new coworkers from class, and had approved of John Shepherd’s fine collection of New England Patriots’ memorabilia — but I was surprised by how much. At the time, I was finishing my Master’s in History, and was assuming I would continue on to the PhD. But unexpected circumstances, and my new job, made me reconsider, and this last year has seen me finish a second Master’s, this one in Library and Information Science, and searching for a position in the field of archives rather than academia.

More than once, I’ve been asked, “What is it you do at an archives, anyway?” Normally, I explain what an archive is, and that answers their curiosity, but sometimes I get a follow-up: “Okay, so that’s the use of an archive, but why do you do all day? Just wait for researchers?” That question is actually harder to answer than you might expect, not because there isn’t anything to respond with, but because there’s just so much, it’s hard to describe a “typical” day. There isn’t one, really.

Take just this last month, as I finish my time at ACUA. I’ve processed a collection, including moving files into acid-free boxes and folders and giving everything labels, as well as fully organizing it, coded the Electronic Archival Description for it (using html), created a preliminary listing for another collection, scanned images for independent researchers and CUA staff, updated records, introduced researchers to our archives and rules, pulled boxes, created PDFs of hundreds of pages of original documents, taken phone calls, compiled a list of previous commencement speakers by reviewing old commencement handouts, moved artwork from our stacks to the vault, and more. Sometimes I arrive at the archives not sure what I’m going to work on that day; and even if I think I do, that could change with a phone call from the Registrar or some other university office, or with the arrival of an unexpected researcher. In my two years here, I have very few memories of being idle or without anything to do, even for twenty minutes.

Marvel’s “Mother Teresa of Calcutta”, from the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa collection, 1984

Even more than keeping me busy and out of the proverbial pool halls, my work at ACUA has been incredibly rewarding. Contrary to any stereotypes of librarian-type students, I am very much a people person, and take great satisfaction in helping people along their way: especially if they are seeking information and knowledge. I wish sometimes I had the ability to read the final version of every researcher’s book or article assigned by their investigations here, and it makes my day when we are able to provide something above and beyond the expectations of our visitors. That’s not really to our credit, necessarily: our records really are amazing. Not just highly informative — such as our various labor collections or the USCCB files — by sometimes really fun; we have, for example, a copy of a comic book Marvel produced about Mother Teresa. Even if it is simply her biography (and not, as I was hoping, a team-up with The Incredible Hulk to defeat Professor Poverty) it’s still a delightful record of the cultural impact she had even during her lifetime. There’s dozens of more items and collections I could talk about, but that’s not the point here.

Really, the point is to thank Dr. Meagher, Dr. Mazzenga, Mr. Shepherd, Shane MacDonald, and everyone else at the Archives for such a wonderful opportunity. They took a chance on a bookish girl, knee-high to a grasshopper even in her twenties, and trusted that she would be an asset to their community. I hope I have paid back that trust at least partially, but truly I owe all of them a debt I may never be able to repay. I very much doubt I ever would have sought that second Master’s, or sought a career in this field, if I hadn’t worked here. Now, as I move on to (hopefully), bigger and better things, I’d like to take this final chance to wish them all the very best. So here’s to you, ACUA: may your donors be plentiful and your HVACs never leak.

The Archivist’s Nook: Mother Teresa’s Archival Footprints

Eileen Egan and Mother Teresa, Catholic Relief Services Visit to Leper Families, 1958. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Eileen Egan and Mother Teresa, Catholic Relief Services Visit to Leper Families, 1958. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

On an October day in 1960, a small, sari-clad woman arrived in Las Vegas. It was her first visit to the United States and first time away from her adopted home in India in over 30 years. A former geography teacher and now head of her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, this unassuming nun known as Mother Teresa had arrived in a city she described as a perpetual light festival, or “Diwali.” While little known outside Kolkata (Calcutta) at the time, Teresa had been invited to address the National Council of Catholic Women annual conference. Sitting at a little booth during the conference, she addressed an endless series of questions about her sari, free service to the poor, and Albanian origins.

Months ahead of her trip, Teresa had written to her colleague, Eileen Egan: “Thank God I have plenty to do – otherwise I would be terrified of that big public. Being an Indian citizen, I will have to get an Indian passport.”¹ This one sentence encapsulates much of the relationship between Egan and Teresa, revealing personal elements of Teresa’s life and work, as well as the more mundane background work it took to continue her mission.

Egan and Teresa, ca. 1970s. Catholic Relief Services was instrumental in aiding and spreading Teresa’s mission and message across the world. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Egan and Teresa, ca. 1970s. Catholic Relief Services was instrumental in aiding and spreading Teresa’s mission and message across the world. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Egan, a long-time peace activist and employee of Catholic Relief Services, had been a co-worker of this relatively unknown nun for five years at this point. In the 1940s, both Teresa and Egan each experienced a calling to aid those ravaged by poverty, disease, and conflict. While Egan put her organizational and journalistic skills towards refugee relief, Teresa began the initial steps in founding a new religious order devoted to tending the sick, poor, and dying. In 1955, they would meet for the first time in the streets of Kolkata. Out of this initial meeting, the two women would strike up a close association that would endure the following four decades.

Thanks to Egan’s donation, the Archives holds the records of this relationship in the Eileen Egan’s Mother Teresa Collection. Not only did Egan and Teresa correspond regularly, but Egan collected materials related to the life and work of Teresa and her order. Their personal and professional interactions are reflected through hundreds of handwritten letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and more.

Not only can one glimpse letters discussing administrative duties and spiritual reflection from Teresa, one see the growth of her order and renown as the world became inspired by this quiet sister working in the streets. Among the various highlights are: photographs documenting the first Missionary house to open outside India, in Venezuela in 1965; letters preserved in which Teresa agrees to accept her first honorary degree at Catholic University in 1971; an autographed copy of Teresa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech; and, letters from Sunday school students across the United States writing to the newly-minted Nobel laureate.

Mother Teresa playing with an abandoned child, Kolkata, 1960. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Mother Teresa playing with an abandoned child, Kolkata, 1960. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

For a scholar of Teresa and her order, the collection is rich in biographical insights. In addition, the Archives houses a second Mother Teresa collection – the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa in America. This collection, begun by Violet Collins, catalogs the history of the lay American and international volunteers working alongside the Missionaries of Charity. While this collection is less focused on Mother Teresa, it does provide a glimpse into the work of lay people inspired by her example.

Returning to Egan, however, provides further insight into Teresa’s time in Nevada. To calm herself before addressing the crowds gathered at the conference, Teresa requested a trip out into the surrounding desert. Sitting silently next a cactus, Egan reports that the future saint silently meditated until she felt ready to face her audience. Upon completing her contemplation, Teresa did finally collect a souvenir – “a few of the long cactus spines which were easily twined into a crown of thrones. This she took back to Calcutta as a tangible memento of Las Vegas. It was placed on the head of the crucified Christ hanging behind the altar in the novitiate chapel.”²

Those interested in exploring more of the insights Egan or the Co-Workers collections offer into the life of the saint or the work of those she inspired, can contact the Archives by emailing lib-archives@cua.edu.


¹ Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa – The Spirit and the Work (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1986) 134.

² Ibid., 137.

The Archivist’s Nook: Have You Been Served?

Archives Stacks
The stacks, epicenter of all reference questions.

Tucked away on the northern reaches of campus, one may expect the Archives to receive little in the way of visitors. One may imagine us as a group lost amongst stacks of record boxes, shunning outside contact. However, our little space is frequently called upon by University staff, students, and faculty, as well as scholars from across the country and world. Researchers as varied as middle school students to Yale professors to PBS documentarians grace us with visits and inquiries. But what do they ask of us and how do we handle reference questions?

Whether via phone, email, or letter, the CUA Archives receives a variety of reference questions from a spectrum of inquirers. As one can imagine, calls and email requests pour in from University offices, students, and alumni regarding the history of CUA or the broader Brookland neighborhood. But more than anything, as indicated in an earlier post, our collections dealing with the history of American Catholicism as well as labor history are a major draw for scholars outside the campus community. These two source bases provide a wealth of research material for scholars of American religious and labor history, not to mention those curious about genealogy or Catholicism in general. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: Have You Been Served?”