Centuries of Episcopal Church history on the move as Archives packs up collections for relocation

By David Paulsen
Posted Apr 22, 2021

The Episcopal Church Archives is in the process of moving 6,500 cubic feet of archival materials, including letters, diaries, photographs, motion pictures, plans, maps, certificates of ordination, journals of every diocese, various periodicals and magazines, church newspapers, paintings and parish histories. Photo: Mark Duffy

[Episcopal News Service] Mark Duffy is director and canonical archivist of the Archives of The Episcopal Church. He leads a team that collects, catalogues and preserves the centuries of church history that are embedded in what Duffy assesses as “every conceivable format of record that you might imagine.”

The Rev. John Floberg, left, and Mark Duffy, director and canonical archivist of the Archives of The Episcopal Church, hold the Episcopal flag that flew over a North Dakota encampment of demonstrators during the 2016 fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The flag was turned over to the Archives during an October 2016 meeting of Executive Council. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

He’s not kidding. The Archives keeps about 6,500 cubic feet of materials on the third floor of the Booher Library at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Those materials include letters, diaries, photographs, motion pictures, plans, maps, certificates of ordination, journals of every diocese, various periodicals and magazines, church newspapers, paintings, parish histories, and the Episcopal flag that flew over a North Dakota encampment of demonstrators during the 2016 fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

By July 1, all of it must be out of the building.

The Archives has been based at the seminary for more than 60 years; its growth and the seminary’s need to reclaim the space for renovations, led the church to lease a former furniture store a few miles away to serve as the Archives’ temporary base. “The Episcopal Church extends its heartfelt thanks to the seminary and its president, the Very Rev. Cynthia Kittredge, for their generous hospitality,” the church said in a press release announcing the move.

At 10,000 square feet, the new location is somewhat larger than the 8,200 square feet that the Archives has occupied at the seminary. The new space is being renovated to include offices for Duffy and four employees, a lunchroom, bathrooms, a shipment receiving area and an archival reading room – all maintained at a preservation-friendly 70 degrees.

When reached by phone last week, Duffy was focused on the logistical challenges facing him and his staff in the coming weeks as they pack up archival materials for the move. With the relocation underway, research requests will be on hold until Aug. 1.

“We’re scurrying around here. We have been locking down what we know about the collection,” he explained. The challenge of moving an archive of this size isn’t just about getting boxes from one place to another. The archivists also need to know what’s in the boxes and ensure there will be a system in place for finding those contents in the new location.

“The new space doesn’t look anything like this space,” Duffy explained. “We have to map this one to that one.”

At the same time, a relocation offers archivists a unique opportunity to organize their collections in a more detailed, logical way during the process of moving them to the shelves of the new facility. And, Duffy added, it allows the archivists to get to know the items in the collections a little better.

The church’s archival material generally is separated into three categories: materials generated by General Convention and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the church’s corporate entity; personal papers of historically important Episcopal leaders; and various special collections that are focused on specific topics or document types.

Some documents date to the 10th century, Duffy said, but the Archives’ core materials are from the 18th century and later, including the establishment and early years of The Episcopal Church.

Nearly half of the people who request access to the documents have Episcopal connections, from churchwide staff members to parish leaders and lay Episcopalians. Other researchers aren’t affiliated with the church but are interested in various aspects of church history. “Our missionary work is a very big area of interest,” Duffy said. His staff also often gets requests related to Episcopal liturgy. “It’s a huge variety.” One researcher, he said, asked for texts and images related to the history of women in the church for an upcoming book.

The Episcopal Church began years ago searching for new sites for the Archives, partly to address its overflow of archival materials. Until now, overflow items have been kept in rented storage at three offsite warehouses.

In 2009, The Episcopal Church purchased a parking lot across the street from St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, intending to develop part of the parking lot into a new home for the Archives. The value of real estate in Austin surged, and in late 2018, the church chose to sell the undeveloped lot, realizing a net investment return of several million dollars.

That returned the church to its hunt for alternative sites for the Archives. With the Seminary of the Southwest making plans to renovate its library, Executive Council voted in October 2020 to lease and remodel an existing building in Austin to serve as the Archives’ new home for at least the next five years.

A moving company will be entrusted with transport of the Archives’ boxed-up collections from the old site to the new over about a week and a half, tentatively scheduled to start May 15. Each box gets a barcode to ensure it ends up on the correct shelf. Duffy and other archivists are doing the packing themselves – a process that provides a fair amount of archival serendipity.

“It’s like, ‘What’s in this box? We haven’t actually looked in here in years.’ It’s a discovery process,” Duffy said. He also compared it to sifting through family treasures at the house of a grandparent who is about to downsize and sell the property. For an archivist, the family treasures are all the items with historical value. Other items in the collection may no longer be worth keeping.

“It becomes an opportunity to rediscover your holdings in a new way and give them a better order than you’re leaving the [old] building with,” he said.

One personal highlight for Duffy was reviewing the collection of Utah Bishop Paul Jones, founder of the predecessor organization to Episcopal Relief & Development. “It was just full of amazingly good correspondence about the church’s social justice involvement and the individuals that were involved in that, and their thorough commitment to advancing the welfare of those less fortunate than ourselves,” Duffy said. “It was just a remarkable, beautiful collection to go through.”

One of the Archives’ most treasured items, meanwhile, is not a collection of documents but a painting. It depicts Julia Chester Emery, founder of the church’s United Thank Offering and an early secretary of the Woman’s Auxiliary of the Board of Missions. The painting has been on prominent display in the Archives’ space at the seminary library, and it will be hung prominently in the new facility.

It’s also one item that won’t be picked up by the movers. Duffy plans to carefully transport the painting himself.

The Archives’ relocation is expected to be complete by Sept. 1, allowing resumption of public access and normal levels of research assistance. In the meantime, some documents and records will remain available online in the Archives’ digital collections.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.