Tricentennial Thursday: Archdiocesan Archives stretch back to 1718

By Dr. Emilie Leumas, Contributing writer

There is an emotional power that one gains when exploring an archives and finding a true historical nugget of golden truth. Sometimes it is tracing the history of our ancestors or knowing how a church community started.

Historical documents offer intrigue, first-hand knowledge, and yes, gossip.

The Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans is no different. It documents a fascinating and colorful history, one which has its beginnings three-quarters of a century before the diocese was established. 

The mission of the Office of Archives and Records is to document and care for the historical records, publications, manuscript collections and related records documenting the Catholic experience in Louisiana. Records date from 1718 to the present.

A diverse treasure trove

Within the Archives there are approximately 6,000 cubic feet of boxed archival material (administrative files, property files, organizational files, parish visitation reports, institutional histories, photograph collections); 528 bound volumes of primary source material (such as funeral expenses, pulpit announcements, diaries, scrapbooks, minute books, cemetery plot books); and approximately 1,500 sacramental registers.

Secondary sources numbering more than 3,500 include the Official Catholic Directory (and its predecessors), the archdiocesan newspapers, parish histories and the Society of the Propagation of the Faith.

But how did it all begin?

A ramble through the precious, old registers of the St. Louis Cathedral is like a reunion of New Orleans families and a front-row seat to Louisiana’s past. These old registers give us a glimpse into the narrative of the masses, from the affluent leaders, to the workers, to the enslaved and to the Native Americans.

All the great names familiar in the history of French and Spanish colonial days are to be found – French noblemen and Spanish officials, counts and marquises, barons and baronesses, Spanish grandee, chevaliers and military officers – as brides and grooms, witnesses and godparents.

Foresight of bishop

After the Good Friday fire of 1788, which destroyed the Church of St. Louis and numerous irreplaceable sacramental records, Auxiliary Bishop Cirilo de Barcelona ordered all records be kept in a safe place. At this time, the archdiocese had not yet been created, and the Louisiana colonial territory was under Spanish rule, by the Diocese of Havana, Cuba.

This order, given on Jan. 12, 1790, created the Cathedral Archives in the sacristy of the St. Louis Cathedral, which eventually became the Archdiocesan Archives.

Today, the archives are kept in a temperature- and humidity-controlled secure vault by a team of archivists who are dedicated to preserving the history of New Orleans and the surrounding area.

Scholars, historians and researchers use the material to tell the Louisiana Catholic story, to gain knowledge in how that story is relevant today, and to guide us into the future. 

Dr. Emilie Leumas is the archivist of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. She can be reached at lleumas@arch-no.org.

Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”

 

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