The Archivist’s Nook: Introduction to American Catholic Archives

Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, MD, 1884
NCE 2334 Baltimore, Councils of. Clarke, Richard H (1827-1911) author. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Entry: Baltimore, Councils of. Caption: Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1884–from Clarke’s ‘History of the Catholic Church in the United States.’ Size: f. Source: Unknown. Permission: Permission already obtained for NCE, PD. Image #: 116714.

Before the 1960s, almost no dioceses had more than part-time archivists, only a few Catholic colleges and universities devoted much attention or resources to the collection and preservation of Catholic documents, and most religious orders had hardly even considered the need to create archives. Professional training among archivists in Catholic institutions was virtually unheard of and standards of professional practice nonexistent.

Since then, increased public interest in history (reflected in the formation of new history museums, the popularity of historic preservation, and the increase in the numbers and professionalism of public history personnel) has been mirrored by the development of archives within the Church.

In 1974, in preparation for the nation’s Bicentennial celebration and after effective lobbying by several historians, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued “A Document for Ecclesiastical Archives.” The bishops noted the general neglect of Catholics in the writing of American history and conceded that that neglect had been caused, at least in part, by historians’ lack of “access to the pertinent documents of bishops, dioceses, religious orders.” The document urged all bishops who did not have an archivist to appoint one quickly. More recently, in 1997, the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church contended that “Archives are places of memory which must be preserved, transmitted, renewed, appreciated, because they represent the most direct connection with the heritage of the Church community.” The Commission went on to encourage professional training of archival staffs.

Beyond the records they keep of their own institutions, the archives and special collections departments at Catholic colleges and universities range widely in the kinds of records and papers they have collected to document the American Catholic experience. As a rule they are further advanced in professional practice and particularly in the use of computer technology than diocesan or religious order archives. The largest Catholic college archives are those at The Catholic University of America (CUA), University of Notre Dame, and Marquette University. Other schools such as Boston College, Holy Cross, Seton Hall, St. John’s (New York), and St. John’s (Minnesota), also have critically important collections documenting American Catholic history and most, like Boston College and St. John’s (New York) have professional programs.

Though the founding of Catholic University was approved at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, the University’s Archives did not open until 1949, an event considered “a major event in the history of archives in this country” by Ernst Posner, a noted German born archivist and professor of history at American University.   Known since 2002 as The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, its strengths are Catholic organizational records and personal papers from the twentieth century, including the three most important national Catholic organizations in the country:  the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), and Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA). Also included are the personal papers of a number of important twentieth-century Catholic intellectuals and social activists such as Monsignors John Ryan, George Higgins, and John Montgomery Cooper, who were connected to the above organizations or were members of the University’s faculty or both.

For a more in depth analysis, see the 2003 article from the New Catholic Encyclopedia title ‘U.S. Catholic Archives.’

Share this: