Know Your Archives, Part VIII: American Catholic Archives Tip Sheet


As all red-blooded Protestants of the 19th century loved a good convent captivity narrative, so too do all blue-blooded historians of the 21st century love a good archival horror story. Sadly, I have no such tale to add to the genre. I spent the better part of six years in and out of archives specializing in the history of American Catholicism. I concentrated my attention on Catholics in the antebellum United States. And I came away with the impression that most archivists of Catholic institutions hardly resemble the image of the gruff guardian of the church’s secrets whose sole purpose in life is to foil the research agenda of even the most alter-boyish of academics. Perhaps this has to do with the apparent harmlessness of my research topic—French émigré priests in the trans-Appalachian West. Or perhaps it’s to do with the fact that, as someone once told me, when it comes to gaining access to the personal papers of Catholic priests, the deader the better.

At any rate, here are a few archives that may help someone out there interested in 19th-century American Catholicism:

Thanks to the collecting acumen of 19th-century librarian and historian James Edwards, the University of Notre Dame Archives (UNDA) has become a sort of clearinghouse for all-things-Catholic in the United States. UNDA’s commitment to the accumulation and dissemination of Catholic Americana made this former graduate student’s life a whole lot easier. One week I could concentrate on the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky, collections, and the next I could shift gears to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, finding time in-between to consult microfilm versions of archives previously accessible only in France and Italy. Side note: don’t remind the archivists and priest-historians of Louisville and New Orleans of your love for UNDA. A Louisville priest once told me about his plan to sue UNDA for “stealing” documents related to Kentucky Catholicism; fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed. And if you find yourself in the Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, you’ll notice that most 19th-century manuscripts are photocopied; that’s because an archbishop in the 1890s gave them to Notre Dame's Edwards for safekeeping. Let’s just say the New Orleans folks don’t brag about this fact.

Before you plan your trip to UNDA, look into applying for a Research Travel Grant from Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. You will not find an institution more supportive of American Catholic studies in the United States. I personally owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Timothy Matovina and Kathleen Sprows Cummings of the Cushwa Center for their kindness, generosity, and criticism. They are true ambassadors of the field.

If 20th-century American Catholicism is your thing, then the American Catholic Research Center and University Archives at Catholic University of America is a fine place to start. I consulted the papers of Peter Guilday and John Tracy Ellis (arguably the founding [ordained] fathers of American Catholic history) during my visit a few years ago. Manuscripts related to the Second Vatican Council are especially relevant to recent trends in the field of American Catholic studies. And CUA’s archivists have started to digitize some of their collections, including documents on the burning of the Ursuline Convent of Charlestown, Massachusetts, and the First Vatican Council (the 19th century, it should be said, is also well represented in CUA’s holdings). The archives also offer the Dorothy Mohler Research Grant to folks on an annual basis. Again, an all-around outstanding place to conduct research.

When it comes to regional archives (as opposed to the more national-oriented repositories at UND and CUA), I’d single out the Associated Archives of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland. Located on the campus of, you guessed it, St. Mary’s, the Associated Archives include the collections of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, St. Mary’s Seminary and University, and the Sulpicians of the United States, effectively offering historians of the early American Catholic Church with no better place to get one’s sea legs. The facilities were recently renovated and the archivists are incredibly generous with their expertise as both librarians and historians.

Lastly, a word of caution to those interested in American Catholic studies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Historians of American Catholicism (myself included) are in the habit of focusing most (if not all) of their attention on Catholic-specific archives like UND, CUA, and St. Mary’s. There are very good reasons for this pattern, not the least of which is the practical appeal of one-stop-shopping. But my recent work in earlier periods of colonial American history—periods covered less thoroughly in the collections of American Catholic repositories—has made me realize just how much I may have missed in my 19th-century studies. Walking into a place like UNDA can be exhilarating—where to begin? when will it end? so much!—but it can also be suffocating.

Photo #1: Knute Rockne, University of Notre Dame
Photo #2: United Mine Workers of America, Catholic University of America
Photo #3: Altar Boy Procession, St. Mary's Seminary and University


Kelly Baker said…
The UND archives are fantastic. I love researching there, and the archivists are equally helpful and knowledgeable.