The Role of Archives in Writing Histories: CARA Meeting June 26, 2014

The Chicago Area Religious Archivists gathered on June 26, 2014 in the Dorothy Day Room of DePaul University's Richardson Library, hosted by Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts, Archivist/Librarian at DePaul University Special Collections and Archives Department. The topic of the meeting was "The Role of Archives in Writing Histories," and the assembled group was a convivial mix of long-time CARA members, new members, and non-members, all interested in the subject of how archivists and historians collaborate to write histories--specifically the histories of religious congregations.

After refreshments, socializing, and a brief business meeting, the presentations began. Historian Ellen Skerrett provided a fascinating account of her research for the historical installation she curated for the National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. The shrine, located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, originally closed in 2002 after Columbus Hospital was sold. A grand re-opening of the shrine was planned for 2012, and Ellen was hired by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to research the life of Mother Cabrini to help prepare an exhibit in her honor.

Mother Cabrini's address book on exhibit.
Throughout her talk, Ellen highlighted the importance of primary sources to her work, especially Mother Cabrini’s address book. This seemingly prosaic “little black book” provided invaluable information about Mother Cabrini’s network of friends and supporters, as well as being a showpiece in the exhibit. As Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts remarked in the question and answer session after Ellen’s talk, the usefulness of the address book is affirming because it gives us direct evidence of the importance of the preservation and cataloging work that we do.

The second presenter was Marcia Stein, Archivist for the Robert M. Myers Archives of the Chicago Province, Society of the Divine Word. Marcia’s talk was a wonderful complement to Ellen’s because it provided an archivist’s perspective on the process of writing history. In 2010, Marcia launched a project to have the SVDs write the histories of the communities in their Province, an ambitious undertaking that would take four years to reach fruition. Marcia detailed the steps involved in guiding this project, starting with building enthusiasm via the order’s newsletter and getting buy-in from the order’s leadership, to writing a charter, holding a planning meeting, and gathering the histories as they were completed.

Marcia Stein, Archivist for the Robert M. Myers
Archives of the Chicago Province, Society of the Divine Word
Marcia was refreshingly candid about the archivist’s need for flexibility in this process. Sometimes the vision you have at the beginning of a project will not match the outcome. In Marcia’s case, she had initially intended the histories to be for internal use only, but then four years later, they ended up serialized online and accessible to the entire world. Part of the required flexibility is the ability to multi-task; the archivist may be called upon to play multiple roles in the history-writing process: project manager, research assistant, fact-checker, copy editor, and indexer. For further information on this topic, you may wish to contact Marcia directly for a copy of the hand-out she provided at the meeting. Her email address is

The meeting concluded with a brief presentation from Malachy McCarthy about the work he and Brother Dan Magner (also present at the meeting) are doing on a pictorial history of the Claretian Missionaries, USA Province. The next CARA meeting will occur in Fall 2014. We hope to see you then!