Archives show the continuity of 180 years of history


If possible, Bishop John England instructed his vicar general, Father Benjamin Fenwick, barely two weeks after his 1820 arrival in Charleston, “purchase ground in a good situation for a large Cathedral Church.” The northeast corner of Broad and Friend (Legare) Streets, proved to be just what Bishop England desired. And from that time to the present, much of Catholic history in South Carolina has been intertwined with the intellectual and physical activity taking place on this site. The bulk of these recorded activities, with one notable gap, are stored in the same vicinity, inside the Diocese of Charleston archives’ climate-controlled vault, located in the 19th century carriage house behind the Bishop’s Residence.

Father Fenwick’s choice was then and is now “in a good situation” except for the night of Dec. 11, 1861. A fire that devastated much of Charleston was particularly cruel to the Catholic compound at Broad and Friend. It destroyed the magnificent cathedral (uninsured and completed just six years before), the residence of the bishop and clergy, the hall of the Catholic Institute, an extensive diocesan library, the seminary library, St. Mary’s Free School, the orphanage, the offices of The Charleston Catholic Miscellany — and all the records within, creating a gap in the historical record rued to this day.

Except for these lost records, our holdings show the continuity of 180 years of history. Gathering the diocese’s historical records in one place and organizing them for use has been a 40-year process that continues today. In 1960, Chancellor Msgr. Joseph Bernardin developed a plan for establishing a diocesan archives, modeled after the archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Letters were arranged chronologically and each item mechanically stamped with a unique number to indicate order and location. Every document was to have a catalogue card indicating correspondents, date, and place of origin. Select seminarians, whose names are familiar today, were chosen for the initial processing: James Carter, Michael DeAntonio, Charles Rowland, Leland White. The result of their fine work still exists — and so do those jarring anachronistic stamps on the manuscripts!

The young seminarians’ work in the archives during the 1960s and early ’70s was followed by that of two talented individuals with backgrounds in history, Father William C. Burn during the mid-1970s and early ’80s, and Our Lady of Mercy Sister Anne Francis Campbell in the early 1990s. Father Burn tackled an 18-year backlog of unprocessed records and put them in a serviceable order. The large number of fact sheets he compiled continues to serve researchers — and amaze the current archivist. Quite understandably, in his preface to Catholics in South Carolina: A Record, author Msgr. Richard C. Madden stated Father Burn “deserves my strongest thanks.”

Sister Anne Francis, in addition to teaching at the College of Charleston, dedicated two days a week to the archives. She brought to the attention of the Curia the need for a more professional archives program and obtained from them a renewed commitment to the archives and an increase in resources to meet that challenge. Sister Anne Francis wrote a successful grant proposal to the South Carolina Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB) which allowed the diocese to hire as a consultant, Marie Hollings, a certified archivist and records manager with a statewide reputation for excellence and leadership in both fields. Together, Sister Anne Francis and Hollings laid the groundwork for an improved program that also qualified the archives for subsequent SHRAB grants.

Susan King came to the diocese in 1996 as the first full-time person in the archives in over a decade. With the aid of a second SHRAB grant, she emphasized preservation microfilming of the early parish registers, which provide the majority of information being sought by the legions of people now engaged in the “roots” phenomenon, searching for family history and genealogy. These microfilm copies allow increased access to the content of those records while protecting fragile originals from repeated handling.

In October 1998, this writer became archivist for one of South Carolina’s most exciting repositories — the Diocese of Charleston archives. What makes it so exciting, besides the records themselves, is that the diocesan archives is a largely untapped source of material on ecclesiastical, social, economic, political and educational topics in this state’s history. As Harry Truman said, “The only new thing in the world is the history we don’t know.” The resources for writing that history are here.

The archives is the repository for the official noncurrent records of the diocese. After being retired from active use, these materials are retained and preserved in the archives for their enduring historical, administrative, legal or fiscal value. Holdings include the papers of bishops, the administrative records of diocesan offices, and those of the individuals, agencies, institutions, and programs which reflect the work and goals of the Church in South Carolina. Correspondence, reports, minutes, parish histories, property records, deed and construction files, architectural drawings, cemetery records, newspapers, photographs.

The authority to create and maintain an archives derives from Canon Law. Canons 486-491 contain the provisions that articulate the responsibilities Church officials have for the security, integrity, and systematic arrangement of archives. Canon Law also establishes the right of “interested parties” to examine and use the archives, under supervised and controlled conditions. It requires that confidentiality be safeguarded and it forbids the practice of removing records from the archives.

The archives functions as an outreach ministry, serving the needs and interests of diocesan staff and parishes, as well as the larger research community, by answering practical questions and making historical materials visible and available. In keeping with the archival principle of equal access, we do not discriminate among researchers on the basis of professional status, institutional affiliation, or objective. Everyone arriving at the archives receives a warm welcome.

Today, the diocesan archives is in the process of reorganizing and cataloging its holdings in accordance with universally accepted archival principles and techniques. While our technological and information-oriented society is accustomed to accessing information with the click of a finger, in the labor-intensive world of archives, we are hard-pressed to respond that quickly. Still, we have obtained the equipment necessary for the automated control and management of the diocese’s archives and artifacts, and we are online through the Diocese of Charleston website ( For those who still like books, we are rapidly adding general reference titles to aid staff and researchers conducting work in the archives.

“Church historians have still not penetrated to the heart of the peculiarly American experience.” This belief, expressed by the National Council of Catholic Bishops in their Document on Ecclesiastical Archives, holds true for our diocese. What remains and begs to be written is not just South Carolina’s Catholic history since Msgr. Madden’s Catholics in South Carolina and Vatican II, but a closer examination of its entire existence, with interpretations and analyses of the work and life of the Church and its people. Source materials for these future works await in the archives.

We want to expand the scope of the archives’ holdings by collecting more personal papers, reminiscences and memoirs. Anyone who has had a relationship with the Church is encouraged to consider giving or bequeathing their papers to the diocesan archives. This means everyone, from priests and religious to the people in the pews. Privacy and confidentiality are concerns archivists respect. We can ensure that the needs of researchers and private individuals are met.

People often keep bits of ephemera that are not represented in the collections. These items were typically produced for some special occasion or event: commemorative programs, certificates, tickets, devotions, ribbons, badges, even menus. Sometimes postcards. Sometimes objects. Photographs especially are an important documentary medium, often unique, and not available for study. Every member of the Church, every reader, is asked to consider whether he or she has some privately held piece of history that might make a suitable donation to the archives for the benefit of successive generations.

Potential donors (and researchers) are invited to call the archivist, Mary Giles, at (843) 724-8372.