Archives in the basement of the Archdiocese of Hartford’s offices, often handwritten, are a record of what the Catholic district has done in its 175-year history.
Entries in ledgers record donations from parishes in places like Norwich and Fairfield County that became their own dioceses as the number of Catholics in the state grew. Others keep track of baptisms and confirmations at churches that no longer exist.
Other records document things the archdiocese no longer does, like keeping the register for an orphanage it once had in New Haven. In another leather-bound book are donations to the archdiocese’s mission for African Americans and Native Americans from around the turn of the last century, something that has been discontinued for so long memory of why it was done has faded.
The archives tell the stories of parishes that are no more, like Saint Peter in Hartford which opened in 1859 but closed last year because of structural issues deemed too expensive to repair.
Other documents in the collection are about the stories of catastrophes and achievements that brought the faithful together. Those include the move from being a diocese to an archdiocese in 1953 because of its growth and clippings of newspaper articles on the 1956 fire that destroyed the old Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Hartford. The archdiocesan community responded by raising the money to build the new cathedral which stands on Farmington Avenue and opened in 1962.
“There is a lot of history here,” said archdiocese spokeswoman Maria Zone during a recent tour of the archives.
Charged with making sense of the records that document this part of Connecticut’s history is Bridgette Woodall, who was hired in September as the archdiocese’s newest archivist. She comes to Connecticut from Massachusetts, where she helped the Andover Newton Theological School prepare its archives for a merger with the Yale Divinity School. That job was coming to an end when Woodall saw the listing for the job at the Archdiocese of Hartford.
“I had an instinctive feeling that this was the place where I needed to go,” said Woodall.
Woodall’s faith background is first as a Protestant. She thought of entering the clergy and completed much of the ordination process before an interest in history she has had since childhood took over and led into working with archives.
“I have always had an interest in history. When I was five or six years old, my family took a trip to Colonial Willamsburg and I was just mesmerized by everything,” Woodall said. “It comes from a natural curiosity, ‘What is the story behind this?’”
The outlet for this interest in history has been archives.
Much of Woodall’s career as an archivist has been for churches and religious organizations, although she said being a person of faith is not necessary for this job. In junior high school, she helped the retired pastor at the church where she grew up organize its archives. In college, she worked on the archives for the Detroit Conference of the Methodist Church. While getting a degree in library and archive work at Simmons College, Woodall did an internship at the Archdiocese of Boston.
Another job was at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library, where she gathered together records of the Lebanese and Syrian Ladies Aid Society, a group formed during World War I to help people in that part of the Middle East. Woodall said a surprising discovery was that although the society’s meeting minutes were written in Arabic its members were Christians who recited the Lord’s Prayer before getting started.
The archdiocese’s archives are housed in the basement of its offices next door to the cathedral.The collection also includes annual reports from parishes dating back to 1851, memorabilia and personal items, like the ceremonial chalice and paten given to the Rev. Richard Sherer when he was ordained in 1958 along with someone’s golf clubs.
One of Woodall’s projects will be to help organize an exhibition on the history of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph later this year.
But the biggest task will be putting the archdiocese’s records in better order. That includes organizing the collection but also finding out the story behind proclamations, artwork and artifacts that have been in the archives for years. Woodall must also find space for the records of parishes that have closed or are slated to close as part of the recent reorganization of the archdiocese.
“There is enough work here for an archivist for years and years,” Zone said. “Bridgette has a monumental task.”