The Archivist’s Nook: The Provenance and Providence of a Public Historian

This semester, we said goodbye to Dr. Timothy Meagher, University Archivist and Curator of the American Catholic History Collection at The Catholic University of America. In addition to his service as University Archivist, Meagher was Associate Professor with the Catholic University History Department, where he regularly taught Irish-American and immigration history. Though we will miss him at the Archives, we know he will be happily plugging away at his magnum opus in his “retirement”: a comprehensive history of Irish America.

Provenance is a word archivists love. It refers to the origin of a collection of archival materials, yes, but embedded in those origins is identity. For this reason, archivists use provenance as an organizing principle for their records and collections. In other words, we try to maintain and organize materials as faithfully as we can to the intention of the original creator and/or organizer of the collection, in order to preserve the integrity and identity of the collection itself.

Dr. Timothy Meagher at his desk when the University Archives was still in the Mullen Library Building. A generous grant from NCSSS Professor Dorothy Mohler enabled a move to a larger facility in Aquinas Hall, which Meagher and then Assistant Archivist W. J. Shepherd oversaw.

Meagher’s own origins are manifest in his career. Certainly, his own Irish and Catholic ancestry inspired his study of Irish America. But he also occupied a unique position as both an academic historian and a public one.  While completing his Ph.D. in history at Brown University in the early 1980s, he taught history in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. But after four years, that job ended and he found himself unemployed. “There were no historian jobs,” he says of the time. So he improvised. There was a position as Assistant Archivist at the Archdiocese of Boston Archives. “Jim O’Toole was there, a historian himself getting a Ph.D. from Boston College.” The two formed a lasting friendship, with O’Toole becoming a prominent scholar of both archival practice and American Catholicism and who in fact, has served on our archives’ advisory board since its inception in 2002. For Meagher’s part, he saw that there were potentially multiple uses for the skills of a historian.

A 2003 photo of Meagher and Dr. Yuki Yamazaki, a former history student at Catholic University and employee of the Archives, examine an artifact from our collections, a Japanese anti-Christian edict dated from 1682.
Archivist’s favorite: Meagher especially appreciates these vestments worn by Archbishop John Carroll. Ordained in 1790, Carroll was the first bishop and archbishop in the United States. The vestments date to ca. 1750-1800.

In the late 1980s, Meagher made his way from Boston to Washington, D.C., where he had years earlier graduated with his Bachelor’s in History from Georgetown University. His interest in public history was now heightened by both his work in archives and a concurrent rejuvenation in the museum field, especially in the area of exhibition and public programming. He speaks fondly of his work with the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he served as Program Officer until accepting his post at Catholic University. The NEH required those who worked in public history institutions to work directly with relevant scholars in the academy, “we had historians and museum people coming in and evaluating the quality of the exhibits we funded—there were some great conversations.”

Having spent seven years making humanities scholarship accessible to broader audiences, Meagher decided it was time to move on. He was particularly interested in the museum collection at the University Archives when he began working here in 1997. From the start, his primary mission was using the archival materials in our collections to teach history to a variety of audiences. “There was a move within the Catholic Church at that point to save material culture.” At the time, few in the field of Catholic archives knew much about preserving sacred objects, so Meagher organized the Saving Sacred Things conference in 1999 to address the matter.

In 2018, the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives received the American Catholic Historical Association’s (ACHA) Distinguished Service Award. From left, ACHA President Father Richard Gribble, Meagher, Reference Archivist Shane MacDonald, and Education Archivist Maria Mazzenga attend that year’s annual meeting to receive the award.

Drawing from his experiences working with professionals in a range of cultural institutions, Meagher expanded the Archives’ outreach and educational programming dramatically. “I was aware that there were other places doing public outreach in archives. I knew people at NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] and other places who put together educational packets using their archival materials.” So he worked with staff and teachers to put together packets related to a variety of aspects of Catholic history for Catholic high school students with materials from our archive. These formed the basis of the now fully digital American Catholic History Classroom an online education site featuring hundreds of digital documents, photos, and teaching resources. “We were trying to teach young people how historians solve historical problems. To look at source material and figure out what happened. We tried to do it with this material related specifically to Catholic life. No one else was doing it on a broad basis. A whole dimension of American life, we wanted to fill it with good history. Our collections lend themselves to understanding national Catholic history.”

Today, the Archives’ outreach and educational programming is thriving.  Thank you, Professor Meagher!

 

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic Yank on the Western Front, 1918

Weary but hopeful soldiers gaze skyward from “I Was There!” With the Yanks in France: Sketches made on the Western Front 1917 — 1919 by Pvt. C. Leroy Baldridge A.E.F., 1919, p. 4. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

As part of our ongoing efforts to mark the centenary of the First World War a previous blog post explored the 1917 experiences of Connecticut Catholic Robert Lincoln O’Connell training as a combat engineer in Washington, D.C. This is documented by the collection of digitized letters to his mother and sisters housed in the Archives of The Catholic University of America. Now we turn to his 1918 accounts of the war as O’Connell and his unit, the First Engineer Regiment, part of the famed First Infantry Division and vanguard of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Europe, saw harrowing service on the Western Front in France during the war’s culmination. To complete their military instruction, which began in Washington, O’Connell and the First Engineers were trained by the French in the construction of trenches, dugouts, command posts, heavy weapons sites, observation posts, wire entanglements, and other obstacles. They also learned to destroy enemy fences by cutting wire or using explosives. In addition, they drilled as regular infantry in the use of rifles, hand grenades, and gas masks.

The First Engineers served near Toul, January-April 1918, where they quarried rock, repaired roads, built dugouts, command posts, and wire entanglements while often being shelled and gassed as they worked. American efforts to strengthen the positions in Cantigny, where the engineers served, April-July 1918, helped the French thwart a German offensive. To contain yet another German attack, the First Infantry Division shifted to the Aisne-Marne sector, with the engineers deployed to the Compiegne forest where O’Connell was wounded on July 18. The engineers not only overcame natural obstacles, but fought in the front line and suffered many casualties, O’Connell among them. During his rest and recuperation, he missed the fighting in the St. Mihiel Salient, but after recovering returned to service in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in October and was there when the war ended on November 11, 1918.

A pontoon bridge built by the First Engineers. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

The O’Connell collection includes fourteen of his often breezy letters and eleven postcards sent home from France. In his March 18, 1918 missive to his mother he noted:

I am writing each week now because I have my own paper, in case I haven’t a chance to reach a Y.M.C.A. tent or an S.A. but there are few places that those people haven’t opened buildings. In this village, the two huts face each other, across the street, but the Y.M. draws the crowd and the money because they have a better equipped place. A real band has been around town for the last week and the way they grind out ragtime is a treat…Yesterday was Patrick’s day but only one man had any green and that was a scrap of weed in his buttonhole, that he had brought back from the trenches. He seemed to be the only good Irisher in sight.

In the same letter he muses about his enlistment and service:

This letter will probably reach you about the end of my first year in the Army. If you remember, it was Apr. 10, when I went up to Hartford to see if they would pass me. It has been a short but lively year and I hope I get home before another passes but I’m glad I got in early because the drafted crowd certainly didn’t have places like Washington Barracks to train in or warm weather, either, but they will have the laugh on us when they get over here and find things cleaned up.

Colorful French postcard sent by O’Connell to his mother in July 1918. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

O’Connell was wounded in action on July 18, 1918, as he explained in his July 24 letter to his mother:

There was a little round hole in my leggin, at the sore spot, so I took my rifle and started back for the dressing station, about half a mile away. It was just an emergency station, though, and they told us to keep going, to a larger place in a big cave. There was five in the party, by now, either limping or nursing a bad arm and that cave was almost two miles farther along. I’d have walked twenty, I think, to get some relief from those shells….When you get this, I’ll be back with the company again, but I’ll have had this rest, anyway, just for a little hole less than half an inch deep.

Robert Lincoln O’Connell in his Army uniform, ca. 1917-1918. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

He apparently downplayed his injury for his mother’s sake because he did not return to active duty until October, demonstrated in several later letters and postcards, such as his postcard of September 27 to his mother where he said:

Ought to be back with the boys in a week or so, Leaving the barracks at this place. A few of the boys are here after the St. Michael drive. No mail since early in July. Guess never will get it all. Have had a fine rest. Seems as if all the original company had been resting. Wish this darned war was over. I want to see what is going on at home.

And, finally, his postcard of October 15 announcing his return to his unit, plus additional commentary:

Got back to the company about a week ago. Received four letters, one from you, and from Mame and Helen. Better than money. Paid last in June. Did you receive the $20 from the YMCA and the piece of German airplane cover? I don’t need any money. I can send it, instead. Hope all are well. Good news in the papers, lately.

The war ended on November 11, 1918, and the First Engineers arrived in Germany’s Rhineland shortly thereafter as part of the army of occupation, but that is another story for a future blog post. O’Connell’s wartime experiences are a well preserved and freely available testament at Catholic University that give voice to the millions of soldiers of all nations whose accounts have not survived.

The Archivist’s Nook: Civil War Catholics – Patriotism on Trial

Undated chromolithograph of Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867), commander of the Irish Brigade, Fenian Brotherhood and O’Donovan Rossa Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The mixed legacy of heroic sacrifice and bitter division of the American Civil War continues to permeate popular culture and political discourse. As a growing minority in the 1860s, making up about ten percent of the United States population concentrated in the north, Catholics were embedded in this conflict. Their relatively unknown story was recently and expertly addressed by historian William B. Kurtz in his book Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America. As Kurtz relates, amidst fears Catholicism was incompatible with republican government, the Civil War gave Catholics a chance to prove their loyalty, with nearly 200,000 serving as Union soldiers, fifty-three priests as chaplains, and over six hundred nuns engaged as nurses. Unlike later wars, especially World War I, there was no national coordination by the hierarchy, though many bishops were supportive, as were many in the Catholic press. In Rome, Pope Pius IX was neutral, considering the war a minor affair. A 2015 post from The Archivist’s Nook related the war’s influence on the grounds of what became The Catholic University of America while this post examines the war more broadly, using archival holdings and museum artifacts from Catholic U’s Archives.

Catholic convert Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), who supported the Republicans and the war via his influential Brownson’s Quarterly Review. Oil painting on canvas by Gustave Kinkelin, 1869. Gift of C.S. Hewit, 1890. This piece currently on display in the reading room of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives in Aquinas Hall. Photo courtesy of Shane MacDonald.

Antebellum anti-Catholicism and the question of Catholic patriotism during the Mexican War was a rehearsal for similar debate during the Civil War. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and resulting secession of southern states, many notable Catholics, such as New England publisher Orestes Brownson and Archbishop John Hughes of New York, strongly supported the Union, as did most Catholic men. Catholic civilians took pride in symbols of their patriotism from the celebrated Irish Brigade to notable high-ranking generals William S. Rosecrans and Philip H. Sheridan. Battlefield interaction and the comradeship of soldiers often weakened religious prejudice as did the service of chaplains and nurses. Notable chaplains included future Minnesota archbishop John Ireland, Notre Dame alum Peter Cooney, and William Corby, who famously gave absolution to Union troops at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.  Nuns, serving as nurses, were largely from the Sisters of Charity, but also Sisters of the Holy Cross, such as Mother Angela Gillespie, a cousin of William T. Sherman whose wife was also Catholic.  

Father Cooney’s Military Field Mass titled ‘Atlanta Campaign-Army of the Cumberland.’ Father Cooney was a member of Congregation of the Holy Cross, C.S.C. Gift of Fr. Eli Lindesmith, ca. 1912. This piece currently on display in the reading room of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives in Aquinas Hall. Photo courtesy of the Catholic News Service (CNS).

However, like most other Democrats, Catholics tired of the war’s bloody toll by 1863 as many resisted emancipation, suspension of civil liberties, and the military draft. While many northern Catholics disliked slavery, they were reluctant to support Republican abolitionists who were often hostile to Catholicism, and there were fears after Republicans eliminated slavery they would next attack Catholics. Notably, Archbishops Hughes of New York and John B. Purcell of Cincinnati, respectively, as well as General Rosecrans supported emancipation while Paulist priests Isaac Hecker and Augustine Hewett bravely confronted Irish-Catholics rioting in New York City against the draft in 1863.  In the 1864 presidential election, Catholics tended to support General George B. McClellan rather than Lincoln, though the latter’s victory in the polls, as well as military victory in the field by armies that still included thousands of Catholics, many of them Irish and German immigrants, successfully concluded the war.  Unfortunately, Lincoln’s tragic assassination complicated matters as many of the conspirators were Catholics, including Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the federal government.  

Nuns serving as nurses was a Catholic war contribution appreciated by non-Catholics, and none more so than the U.S. Surgeon General William A. Hammond, one of their strongest advocates. Daughters of Charity nursing staff at the Satterlee General Hospital in Philadelphia, c. 1862-1865, Courtesy of the Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise, St. Louis, Missouri. Thanks also to William B. Kurtz.

After the war, anti-Catholicism remained strong as additional immigrants from southern and eastern Europe settled in ethnic neighborhoods thus furthering isolating Catholics from mainstream America. Catholic apologists publicized their wartime sacrifices celebrating chaplains and the Irish Brigade while ignoring slavery and the draft riots. Despite his defeat at Chickamauga, Rosecrans rather than the less pious and far more successful Sheridan became the greatest Catholic Civil War hero as the most prominent devout Union officer and Catholic Civil War memory largely became an Irish memory with non-Irish, especially German Catholics, overlooked. Catholics would find new opportunities to demonstrate their loyalty in two world wars.  In 1917 the bishops created the National Catholic War Council to present a united front and patriotic image in World War I. Despite a resurgence in the 1920s, Anti- Catholicism declined thereafter because of the Church’s unequivocal patriotic response to World War II. By the twenty-first century, overt prejudice was no longer a pressing issue and Catholic Americans honor their ancestors without the need to prove their faith’s compatibility with modern American society.