New diocesan archivist looks to modernize office


CHARLESTON — Time marches on but it has found a place to rest in the diocesan archives.

The public and private records located in the climate-controlled room behind the Bishop’s residence at 114 Broad St. are in the care of a new archivist, Mary Giles.

In the few weeks that she has been at work organizing boxes and files, Giles has been intrigued by what she has found.

“The Catholic presence in South Carolina, particularly prior to 1820, deserves more study,” she said. “It has been very stimulating. It is my first experience working with ecclesiastical records.”

Mary Giles reviews documents Giles, a former archivist for the South Carolina Historical Society and the Charleston Museum, looks forward to the church’s holdings, those not intended as private or confidential, being made more available to researchers and scholars.

“These records are rich in social history,” she said.

The archives contain records of bishops, priests, religious women and men, chancery offices, sacramental records, photographs, even some vestments and chalices. Items such as a rosary Bishop Patrick N. Lynch donated to the Urseline nuns and then raffled off to a family who donated it back to the church after a few generations of ownership, or records of integration of schools, are valuable as pieces of Catholic history in South Carolina.

The archives have been on ongoing project since Joseph L. Bernardin was chancellor in the 1950’s. He employed young seminarians to organize the holdings during their summers. Father William Burn became a full-time archivist from 1974 to 1990, he was followed by Our Lady of Mercy Sister Anne Francis Campbell, who began applying more current archival practices from 1991 to 1996, and she was succeeded by Susan King, who made preservation microfilming a priority.

The archives require constant attention and the application of up-to-date techniques.

Giles will automate the collection so that it will be accessible by computer, ready for the 21st century. It requires a retrospective cataloging of the holdings producing new descriptive records.

“The best thing to come from automation is leading researchers to material they want,” Giles said. “Historical documents have a way of not revealing themselves all at once. They shed light, then open the door to another search. Today’s scholars are going back over archives and looking at them from entirely different perspectives.”

Though the diocesan archives is small comparatively, it is rich as a resource.

“A substantial portion of our holdings will be on-line in the next five years,” she said.

Giles is not daunted by the rows of acid-free boxes neatly filled with papers and pictures. It takes years to get to know a collection.

“The nature of archives is that there is always more to do,” she said. “We have a long way to go but it can be done. Someone with an appreciation of history gets a lot of satisfaction out of preserving these materials because it is for the long term and the Catholic church has had long-term reverence for records.”

Giles said that reverence could be seen when Pope John Paul II dedicated the new quarters for the Vatican archives and said, “The worthy … preservation of these documents, from the most humble to the most precious, becomes a service rendered to the truth.”

Sister Susan Schorsten, a Sister of Humility and assistant to the vicar general said Giles is a wonderful find.

“We look forward to the plans she will help develop for materials to be placed into archives, what will be retained and why,” she said.

PHOTO: Mary Giles examines one of the public documents in the archives. (By Deirdre C. Mays)