4/19/12 | 778 views
Roots, Records and the Rock of Peter
During Easter week I visited my good friend Father Michael P. Morris, archivist of the archdiocese, in his office at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, to see an item there that could become a kind of relic.
It’s the typewriter that belonged to Dorothy Day, journalist and founder of The Catholic Worker newspaper and movement, whose cause for canonization has been introduced. The typewriter is a heavy, black Royal manual that sits on a small table in Father Morris’s office. It made Dorothy Day seem almost present, as though she had just stepped out of the room. Father Morris and I talked about her gifts as a writer and journalist, in addition to her saintly work on behalf of workers, the poor and the forgotten.
Her typewriter made me think about the importance of the archdiocesan archives and why they exist: to preserve the treasures and records of the past, so that we can appreciate our history as we plan for the future.
“It’s probably one of the most important depositories of the Church in America, particularly in the 20th century,” Father Morris said. He holds a master’s degree in American history from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and has completed the course work for a doctorate in the subject at Fordham University. He told me that the archives include letters from popes, U.S. presidents and heads of state of other nations, among them a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Archbishop John Hughes. Also in the archives is “every piece of correspondence that was saved” from the tenures of New York’s archbishops beginning in 1826 with Bishop John Dubois, Father Morris said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and Father Morris remarked that the archive contains many letters between Cardinal Francis Spellman and the Vatican relating to the council. It was Cardinal Spellman, he noted, who brought to the council the man behind its groundbreaking document on religious liberty, New York Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray.
The archive contains bound volumes of Catholic New York and its predecessor, The Catholic News. It has architect James Renwick’s drawings for St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Also preserved are documents dating to the 1600s about missions in what is now New York state and northern New Jersey. There are parish histories, financial records and even a collection of anti-Catholic books dating from the 19th century that reveal the prejudice Catholics faced.
People donate items. On the day I visited, a letter arrived with an admission ticket for the consecration of St. Peter’s Church on Staten Island by Bishop John Hughes on Sept. 7, 1845. The yellowed piece of paper bears an engraving of a church on a mound of rock—“the rock of Peter,” Father Morris remarked—battered by a storm but standing firm.
The archives do not provide genealogical research, and they are not open to the public, only to academics and others engaged in the professional study of history. Father Morris noted, however, that plans are under way for the archives to move from the main seminary building into the Archbishop John Hughes Archive Center on the Dunwoodie campus. It is expected that after the relocation there will be occasional public exhibitions of items in the collection.
What about people who are not professionals but who are interested in learning more about the archdiocese? Father Morris suggests that they start by studying their parish and its history. Virtually all parishes, he said, have a history that was written for a centennial or another special observance.
“A parish becomes a micro-history of the archdiocese itself, and the Church in America,” he said.
He added, “Everyone has a historical sense…Anyone who is rooted in family life and faith has to have an appreciation for the past.” On a sunny day in April, surrounded by the history of our archdiocese, I realized he’s right.
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