250 archival documents return home to Charleston


CHARLESTON — A veritable treasure trove of historical information was recently returned to the Diocese of Charleston Archives on Broad Street from The Catholic University of America following an eight decade odyssey up the East Coast.

The 250-individual items, while not one cohesive group, “pack a lot of information, and fill in gaps or correct the historical record,” said diocesan archivist Mary Giles, who hand-carried the letters back to the Holy City from Washington, D.C., earlier this year.

The documents contain material not used in the Life and Times of John England by Father Peter Guilday or Richard Madden’s Catholics in South Carolina, considered to be the two definitive historical works chronicling the development of the Diocese of Charleston.

The papers are believed to have been taken to Washington by Father Guilday during the 1920s, while he was conducting research in the Lowcountry for his book.

Giles said that Catholic University, which has been processing the papers of Father Guilday for a long period of time, contacted her regarding the materials, and that it is not uncommon for an institution to be holding documents that might belong somewhere else.

Father Guilday was a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a professor of church history at Catholic University. He is considered the first professional historian of American Catholicism and was the author of biographies of Bishop John England and Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore.

To organize historical work among Catholics, he helped launch the Catholic Historical Review in 1915. In addition, for years Father Guilday’s seminar at Catholic University provided the only professional training available for historians of the Catholic Church.

Father James Wallace

More than half of the material obtained by Giles deals with Jesuit Father James Wallace, a priest who served in the Charleston Diocese over 150 years ago.

Born in Kilkenny, Ireland, he joined the faculty at Georgetown College in Washington at age 18, and taught mathematics, chemistry, and physics. He then became a teacher at the New York Literary Institute in 1809, where he established a friendship with the young widow Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was interested in educating girls.

In 1812 Wallace authored A New Treatise on the Use of Globes and Practical Astronomy, which served as the basic textbook on astronomy until the 1840s, when new developments in science replaced Wallace’s work.

He was known as a gifted mathematician, and was considered by many to be the best astronomer of his day in this country.

One account of Father Wallace’s mathematic prowess is contained in the Woodstock Letters from 1890, which detailed current events and historical notes connected with the colleges and missions of the Society of Jesus.

The publication states that a French minister was dining with the president of Georgetown College when he mentioned a certain mathematical problem that the experts of Europe were unable to solve. The school president said that he had on staff a professor whose ability as a mathematician was as great as that of any European. The minister, surprised by the assertion, produced the problem, and it was delivered by a servant to Father Wallace. The man returned before the end of the meal with the problem solved, adding that it had taken Father Wallace but 15 minutes to solve it.

Six months later, according to the Woodstock Letters, the French Academy presented Father Wallace with “a magnificent set of mathematical works.”

Ordained a priest for the Society of Jesus in 1815, Father Wallace had originally entered the order in 1807.

In 1818, his reputation as a mathematician prompted officials in the Department of State to consult him on the calculation of the exact boundary between the United States and Canada as determined by the Treaty of Ghent.

That same year, he departed for South Carolina with Father Benedict Fenwick, president of Georgetown College, for duties in Charleston. Father Wallace was chosen by Archbishop Ambrose Marechal of Baltimore and Father Fenwick to introduce needed reforms and restore order at St. Mary’s Church, which at the time was in virtual schism.

Madden’s Catholics in South Carolina states, “Father Fenwick pacified the trustees and succeeded in getting them to submit to certain regulations, mainly that the priest appointed by the archbishop was to be the only one accepted by the parish, that the priest and not the vestry was to regulate time of services, etc., and that he was to receive his salary as long as approved by the archbishop.”

Father Wallace stayed in the Holy City for two years, until accepting a position at Columbia College, later named South Carolina College before becoming the University of South Carolina, where he remained until 1834. It was during this time that he asked for permission to leave the Society of Jesus. According to The Life of John England by Father Guilday, “Although he lived and died in good standing, Father Wallace became so absorbed in his mathematical and astronomical studies that the work of the ministry did not appeal to him.” However, the priest was credited for regularly celebrating Mass in the home of Colonel John Creyon for about 150 persons, mostly Irish laborers working on the canal there.

While in the capital city, he also contributed scientific articles to Southern Review and for Stephen Elliott, a leading South Carolina naturalist.

Among the recently returned documents are 20 letters from Father Wallace to Elliott, and a half dozen from the priest to Father Fenwick.

He wrote newsy epistles from Charleston, covering the flurry of activities and whereabouts of the new Bishop England and his sister Joanna with comment on the dominant personalities at St. Mary’s.

Items referenced in some of Father Wallace’s correspondence include mentions of sacramental records not written down.

Several emotional letters were also exchanged between the priest and his niece, Elisa J. Brenan of Charleston. Father Wallace had stored his voluminous collection of books at his niece’s home on the peninsula, however, most of these were destroyed in the tragic 1838 fire which devastated Charleston. His own letters show how he was depressed over this for years after.

Also included in the miscellaneous documents are manuscripts relating to Bishop Patrick Lynch’s appointment as Confederate delegate to the Holy See, correspondence between Pope Pius IX and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Bishop Lynch’s statement on the destruction wrought by Union forces to church property in the Palmetto State.

“This discovery is an archivist’s dream,” Giles said, adding, “We want researchers to use the manuscripts to illuminate our past.”

An inventory of the documents has been completed, and the diocesan archivist hopes to finish cataloging the papers before the end of the year.

Among the more interesting materials Giles cites are a letter from famed organ maker Henry Erben to Bishop England and correspondence from a kidnapping victim’s family to Father Wallace pleading for intervention with the church hierarchy in Mexico.