Working at the Passionist Historical Archives A Reflection: August 1996 to November 2008
By Anita Lewis
(Upon her retirement, Anita takes a moment to reflect on her 12 years at the Passionist Historical Archives)
Fr. Morgan Hanlon, C.P., the archivist at the Passionist Historical Archives (PHA), hired me as his assistant in August, 1996. The extent of my experience in the archival field was the few months I had worked part-time at PHA in 1991. My degree is in Medical Technology with additional courses in computer programming. Fr. Morgan and people working in other offices in the building helped me learn Windows and the Microsoft office programs which were new to me.
My initial duties were to type correspondence, keep the financial books, manage the office, layout the newsletter, and answer requests for information. I worked with Fr. Morgan who taught me how to process the small amount of material that was coming into the archives at that time. We determined what material was to be kept, put it in order if required, removed metal such as staples, and put it into acid-free folders and boxes.
Within a couple months of being hired, Fr. Morgan took me to a local meeting of the Archivists of Religious Institutions (ARI). The topic that day was oral history. Over the years I have gone to many ARI meetings where I have learned about the archival field and met people who have helped me. At that first meeting I was very quiet, trying not to let anyone know how little I knew.
November 6-8, 1997, I attended the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) meeting in Wilmington, Delaware. I learned a lot from a day-long workshop on the basics of preservation and another session on accessioning and describing material. At other sessions I felt frustrated by discussions using vocabulary I did not know. The meeting of religious archivists which followed encouraged me again. The conference was an excellent foundation for the work I did in years ahead. I was off to a good start.
During 1997 Fr. Morgan went on vacation. Before he left he gave me an America Online (AOL) disk and asked me to install it and try it out. I told him that I saw no possible use for the Internet, but I did as I was told. We continued using AOL and I soon bought my own computer at home and got online there as well.
In January, 1998, a little more than a year after I was hired, Fr. Morgan had surgery and was not able to return to work at the Archives. He remained the archivist after his transfer to Holy Family at West Hartford, Connecticut, but his health did not allow him to be very active. Luckily, he had taught me a lot in that year we had together and was available to give advice on major problems. Thankfully, there were other Passionists nearby who could answer the many questions I had about the Passionists. The research I did to answer requests also taught me a lot.
Prior to my arrival, Fr. Morgan and his assistant had been looking into setting up a database to hold the information about the contents of the Archives. He had purchased a program designed especially for archives and had begun testing it. We determined after using it for a while, that it would be better to use a more powerful database which was relational, meaning that several tables of data could be linked together. The computer we had recently purchase had Microsoft Access installed. Access had the power we wanted, but there was one small problem—learning to use it well enough to actually create the database system we needed.
After Fr. Morgan had left, I continued to pursue making the database. I got a book on Access and studied it a few hours a week trying out each thing I learned. Russell Gasero, a computer-savvy member of ARI, made a trip to our archives to look at our collections and give me ideas about how to design the system. After several months, it took shape and I began entering data. It was functional by early 1999. It took much longer than that to enter data on most of the material we have. As new material came in, I had to judge whether it was more important to process that or continue with entering data. Much of the new material was very significant, so I decided to be satisfied with having all the boxes listed on the database and spend time processing new material and taking care of other things. Then as time allowed, more folder information was added to the database.
As I write this, we have over 18,300 entries on our folder listing. In addition there is a listing of our books and of the original archives of Fr. Clement Buckley, C.P. which is a separate collection and which has been an invaluable source of information over the years.
In June, 1999, I started the archives website. AOL provided a small amount of space to their subscribers for web pages and I thought it would be good to put up a little information including how to contact us. At this point in time I knew nothing about how to make web pages, but AOL had a gadget to do the job and I muddled through it. Soon it was time to buy another book—this one on making web pages. In the beginning, the pages were articles I found in the archives about the various foundations and missions. Later we would put much more on it.
In Spring 2000, I went to another MARAC meeting in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I took workshops on Access database and making webpages. I learned that I had done some things pretty well on both ventures as well as how to correct some of my mistakes.
In August, 2000, the website was moved to another place, cpprovince.org/archives (later replaced by passionistarchives.org). Currently there are over 2,700 files on it. Most of the ideas and writing for the site have not been mine, but I’ve enjoyed doing the technical part of creating the pages.
In January, 2001, Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P. became Director of the Archives. I had been in communication with Fr. Rob over the years. He had been co-editor of the newsletter, and when he came to visit me in April, 1999 to talk about my work in the archives, it looked like he might eventually take over for Fr. Morgan when he retired. It was a relief when Fr. Rob assumed leadership, because I had felt somewhat like I had been treading water for three years. In retrospect, I can see two things about this change. One, I really had not been treading water, but had accomplished a lot. Two, this time of relief also marked the time when our work would greatly increase.
In preparation for the Sesquicentennial of the Passionists in the United States, Fr. Rob began to summarize the obituaries of each deceased Passionist from both U.S. provinces. It was my job to put all of them on the website. Fr. Rob also began the process of evaluating the documents kept at each foundation site to determine what material needed to be brought to the PHA for preservation. Much of this arrived at the archives to be processed. The first priority was storing it and keeping an account of the work that had to be done. It couldn’t all be processed at once; so Fr. Rob established the priority for the order in which the material was to be processed.
Meanwhile, a large number of boxes containing the files of Fr. Luis Dolan, C.P., who had died suddenly, were being kept in storage by his brother and needed to be moved to the PHA. Fr. Dolan was not a member of St. Paul of the Cross Province, but Fr. Rob wanted to make sure that these records of his important work were kept safe until a more suitable repository could be found. By this time we had a large extra room to contain the volume of material we were getting.
In July, 2002, Fr. Rob and I went to St. Paul of the Cross Monastery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to pack the material in that archives and bring it to the PHA. This was over 80 large boxes of material.
In a nutshell, the last six years have had more requests due to the website, more to process than I thought we could ever do, and lots of new information to put on the website. With all the work, there has been very little that I have not thoroughly enjoyed. Each morning I came to work not knowing what the day would bring. I had a sense of excitement to see what would turn up. The surprise could be something new coming in. Sometimes it was an interesting tidbit that turned up while fulfilling a request or processing documents. Once, it was over $600 in cash tucked away in some personal papers I was processing! The Province financial officer informed me that even though the money wouldn’t go into our collection, it would not go into my pocket either.
There were many times when I felt awe and even tears when I handled the records of real people and saw their stories. There were photos of young men and then pictures of the same men when they were much older after having lived their lives following a call from God. Receiving the records of deceased Passionists whom I had met was particularly moving for me.
I loved the detective work needed to respond to some requests and got better at it the more I did it. A good part of the success seems to have been intuition. For example, there was a photo of a group of Passionists with three dignitaries that I had for over a year trying to figure out what it was. It was obviously a big event, but I couldn’t figure it out. Then one day I was in the stacks and glanced over at a box of unprocessed photos knowing I should look in it. I did, and there was that same photo, but this copy had the identification on the back.
A lot of work has been done in twelve years. Fr. Rob has a deep commitment to gather and keep the historical record of the Passionists of St. Paul of the Cross Province. Over the past 8 years he has created an atmosphere in which people seem more aware of the value of documents that should be given to the archives. I’m grateful to have been able to assist him in processing what has come in. I’m especially grateful that the leadership of this province was willing to fund the hiring of Sean Peragine a couple years ago to help with the processing. Then we were given the grace to have him work full-time a year in advance of my leaving so that he could train to take my place. Sean has far exceeded my expectations of what a new person would be able to learn and do even in that period of time. And if that were not enough, more grace has come in these past years as a result of Passionists and others who have had a keen interest in Passionist history. These people have volunteered on site and collected much documentation for the PHA.
I feel total peace leaving this job. I feel I’ve done well and I know that those who are left here will do well, too.