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Archival Treasures

The diocesan archives contain the papers of the Vicariate Apostolic and of the Bishops of Saint Augustine, from Augustin Verot (1858-1876) to the present ordinary, Bishop Victor Galeone. The mosaic cross above belonged to Bishop William Kenny.

Right: Sister of St. Joseph Thomas Joseph McGoldrick, archivist for the Diocese of Saint Augustine, examines one of the oldest documents penned in the United States in 1594.

The City of St. Augustine has been a favorite travel destination since just before the American Civil War. Visitors are fascinated with the historical significance of the “ancient city” and historians consider it a land of treasure. Catholic faithful have played a significant role in the establishment of this community and throughout Florida. A large deposit of documents testifies to the work, in this and the previous century, of priests, women religious, and laypersons in the operation of parishes, schools, hospitals and charitable agencies.

The Diocese of Saint Augustine preserves in its archives the oldest written records of American origin in the United States. These are the Spanish parish registers of St. Augustine, dating from 1594 to 1763. The first pages (1594-1638) record baptisms, marriages and burials. Subsequent Spanish registers carry the St. Augustine parish data forward to 1763 and from 1784 to 1821. Also preserved in the diocesan archives is the “Golden Book,” the sacramental register of the Minorcan community from 1768-1784, with the signature of Father Pedro Camps. Later registers in the archives continue the administrative and sacramental records through the United States period from 1821 to 2007.

Nothing predates these records in our country’s history. “They are the oldest European historical documents of what is now the United States,” says Bruce Chappell a historical archivist and coordinator of special collections for the George A. Smathers Libraries of the University of Florida in Gainesville. A parishioner of St. Patrick’s, Bruce has been deeply involved in the diocesan archives for the past 30 years.

After many years of study, the diocese is moving forward to ensure these archival treasures are conserved for future generations. In 2005, Bishop Victor Galeone designated the diocesan records dating from 1594 to 1905 as the official historical archives of the Diocese of Saint Augustine. At the same time, he appointed Sister of St. Joseph Thomas Joseph McGoldrick as the archivist.

Under the leadership of Father Michael Morgan, as chancellor of the diocese, the 1594 Committee was formed to help the diocese preserve the records of the historical archives and to find ways to establish a major center for the study of Christianity with an emphasis on Catholicism in North America.

“We are very fortunate to have a number of experts willing to provide professional guidance toward the goal to preserve the historical archives through sound archival methods and practices,” said Father Morgan. He said the 1594 Committee has been working hard for about a year to secure funding to complete the conservation work and to build a center for research, which is expected to cost $300,000.

To date the 1594 Committee has raised $20,000. A grant of $10,000 from the Catholic Foundation of the diocese along with another $10,000 in contributions was obtained by Father Greg Fay, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Jacksonville and a member of the 1594 Committee. Another significant contribution was made by the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine.

In partnership with the diocese, the congregation is providing a building where their own archives have been kept to house the historical archives of the diocese. “It is probably the strongest building in St. Augustine,” said Sister Thomas Joseph. Located on the grounds of the convent, next to the O’Reilly House Museum on Aviles Street, the two-story building was built like a fort in the 1940s and is located in the heart of the city.

The property of the motherhouse belonged to Father O’Reilly. He left the property to the Sisters of St. Joseph upon his death. And the people who lived on the property before Father O’Reilly are some of the very families that are listed in the early parish registers. Families like the Florencia’s, the Leon’s, the Sanchez’ all lived there. “These records really document the lives of families that started our church here in Florida,” said Sister Thomas Joseph.

Work is already underway on the building that will create a safe environment for the historical archives. “We have emptied the building, the contractors are lined up and the architect is on board,” said Sister Thomas Joseph. All that is needed now is funding to complete the project.

Once completed, the second floor of the building will house all the materials on compact mechanical shelving. All the digitizing equipment and a dark room will be located there. Downstairs, on the first floor, will be rooms for research, administrative offices, a library and workstations complete with Internet connections for other institutions to access information. With much of the materials in the diocesan archives already on microfilm, the next step is to create digital images of the oldest records. According to Bruce Chappell the digital records will be kept on servers and back-up servers making it easier for qualified historians to access them for research. But he adds this is a very lengthy process - a process that will take many years.

The diocese is hoping the conservation project and research center will be completed in the next couple of years - provided funding is obtained from grants and individual contributions.

“The historical archives of the diocese means so very much for us as Catholics,” explains Bruce. “Our patrimony binds us together and the preservation of this patrimony is absolutely vital to us as a church.”

To contribute to the diocesan efforts to conserve its past, please send a check made out to the Florida Catholic Heritage Museum, Inc., c/o Father Michael Morgan, 11625 Old St. Augustine Road, Jacksonville, FL 32258 or call (904) 262-3200.