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Panel: Archives of religious orders tell history of U.S. church


  • These are pages from the Spanish-language Catholic weekly La Esperanza, a publication that showed the vigorous and very public life of the Latino Catholic community in Los Angeles in the 20th century. In a March 29 panel discussion in Washington, Malachy McCarthy, archivist for the Claretian Missionaries Archives in Chicago, said it was important to preserve such materials to provide an accurate portrayal of U.S. Catholic life. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)
  • These are pages from the Spanish-language Catholic weekly La Esperanza, a publication that showed the vigorous and very public life of the Latino Catholic community in Los Angeles in the 20th century. In a March 29 panel discussion in Washington, Malachy McCarthy, archivist for the Claretian Missionaries Archives in Chicago, said it was important to preserve such materials to provide an accurate portrayal of U.S. Catholic life. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The history of women and men religious in the United States is the history of American Catholicism and their archives reflect the rich role many played in weaving the fabric of the U.S. church, said a group of historians, scholars and archivists at a March 29 gathering in Washington to discuss religious order archives.

Archives particularly show the roles women religious played in the country's education, hospitals, immigrant communities and social movements, they said, and yet there's a danger of losing some of that history -- as well as that of their male counterparts -- as religious orders consolidate, convents merge or close, and their historical materials are discarded, lost or scattered.

When it comes to the records produced by the religious ministries of women religious, they tend to tell a richer story than official diocesan history, said Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, a panelist in "For Posterity: Religious Order Archives and the Writing of American Catholic History," part of a daylong series of events at The Catholic University of America aimed at discussing the fate of religious order archives.

Connolly mentioned the example of the official history of a parish school, where the priest is credited with its construction, but archives from women religious tell the story of how the women staffed the schools "for little to no salaries" and how they subsisted on other means of income to survive.

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