Giles loves digging for treasure in the diocesan archives

CHARLESTON — At first glance, the world of diocesan archivist Mary Giles is one of row upon row of gray boxes and somber-hued leather volumes. But open the boxes and the books, and the colorful history of the Diocese of Charleston spills out. A jeweled and embroidered bishop’s miter, the gift of a pope to a bishop of Charleston. Photographs of the cathedral in ruins after the great fire of 1861. Copies of The Catholic Miscellany from the 1850s, with the eagle on the nameplate holding a cross in one talon and a chalice in the other. Documents from the 1700s, before the diocese was formed.

There’s even a beautifully tinted late-1800s tobacco card with a picture of Frank W. Dawson, the Catholic editor of the Charleston News and Courier who was knighted by Pope Leo XIII. Tobacco cards, the precursors of today’s trading cards, were inserted into packs of cigarettes as a bonus. The people pictured on the cards were usually baseball players and not newspaper editors, but Dawson was famous around the country and his murder in 1889 caused a sensation. Giles found the card advertised on eBay, and snapped it up.

Giles’ soft voice brims with enthusiasm as she talks about the unique items in the archives, and she makes no secret of the fact that she will miss her work when she retires at the end of this month.

She has loved history since her childhood in Iowa, “since the day they first passed out the textbooks,” she says. She majored in the subject in college, then lived in England and traveled widely in Europe, North Africa, and Central and South America. When she began to think about finding a place to settle down, she decided she wanted to live somewhere near the water, in a place where she could ride her bike to work. And it had to be “a place full of history.” She moved to Charleston in 1985.

“I wanted a job working with original historical materials,” Giles says, and shortly after moving to Charleston she walked into the South Carolina Historical Society and asked if any positions were available. “Two months later, I was working there.”

She did graduate work for a master’s degree in archival studies, and worked as an archivist at the College of Charleston and the Charleston Museum. She came to the diocese in 1998.

“At the time I was hired, I think Bishop Thompson had a vision of truly putting our documentary heritage at the service of the church, not just keeping the records responsibly, but promoting the archives and making our cultural heritage more visible and available,” Giles says. “Before his day, the diocesan archives functioned more as a records storehouse than an active center for research. That’s all changed now. This is an active and vital center of historical information, not just for the church, but for the broader research community as well.”

“Our old records are being used for new purposes,” she explains. The documents and other materials are mainly used for historical research, rather than theological purposes. As Giles has made the archives’ holdings more widely known, authors, researchers, genealogists and others have found their way to the converted carriage house behind the bishop’s residence on Broad Street. More than 150 people have conducted research in the archives this year.

The archives has benefited from these visits, in more ways than one. Authors’ published works draw attention to the archives’ presence and holdings, and visits from parishioners and others sometimes result in donations of items to the archives, such as a South Carolina woman’s journal giving an account of her visit to the pope in 1912.

Giles is looking forward to the publication of two books about a priest and a bishop of the diocese. Both authors used the archives extensively in their research. An unfinished project that Giles hopes to see completed one day is recognition of the black Catholic burial ground adjacent to Charleston’s Crosstown expressway. The diocese purchased the land in 1843 to be used for the burial of black Catholics, “slave or free,” and an urban archaeologist has estimated that anywhere from 600 to 1,000 unmarked graves are located there. Giles would love to see some sort of memorial on the large barren lot that thousands of motorists pass each day.

Giles will continue to work on special projects and assignments for the diocese after her retirement. Come January, though, she plans to be “a full-time wife, and to travel more with my husband.” She is married to attorney Armand Derfner, whom she was introduced to — appropriately enough — by a fellow archivist. Also appropriately, the introduction took place at an annual meeting of the Charleston Library Society, another outstanding research facility.

Giles will miss spending her days among the archives’ warren of boxes and books, among the wonderful items she knows and the ones waiting to be discovered. When asked what she would run to save if the archives ever caught on fire (don’t worry, the vault is fire-resistant), Giles is silent in consternation at the thought of losing anything at all. Then she says firmly, “I’d run for more people and get them to help out!”