Catholic collections and the future of American Catholic history

Author: Christopher M.B. Allison


There is a crisis in the future study of Catholic history in America, and it is an archival crisis.

In June 2022, I attended the Twelfth Triennial Conference on the History of Women Religious, hosted at Notre Dame. The conference was full of innovative studies and approaches to the history of women religious, exciting scholarship that will soon be in the world. I also noticed acute angst over the future of Catholic sources for study. I share this concern. This is the case especially among women religious in America.

Mary And Jesus By Mary Of The Compassion Web
Christmas card designed by Sister Mary of the Compassion, O.P., a contemplative Dominican nun and accomplished artist who sold her works to raise money for her monastery in Jersey City. Used with permission of the McGreal Center for Dominican Historical Studies.

The crisis is mostly demographically driven. Vowed religious communities often stand adjacent to diocesan structures, serving within them but largely accountable to their own communities’ authority. This means that the major record of their historic work is sent to their provincial headquarters, motherhouses, monasteries, or the like. The orders are usually the caretakers of their own records and heritage. However, many congregations are consolidating or coming to closure; the breaking point for many is within the next decade. Dioceses are facing similar consolidation and closure challenges, but their records situation is more straightforward. 

To be clear, consolidation or closure is not new in the history of Catholicism in America.  Population shifts in the 19th century precipitated a lot of founding, closing, and consolidation of parishes, schools, congregations, convents, and monasteries. But the Catholic population did grow, even if it physically moved. As Patricia Wittberg reminded us in an August 2012 article in America magazine, while there were almost 50,000 sisters in 1900, the midcentury Catholic population boom led to over 180,000 sisters in 1965, per the Catholic Directory, which constituted “an astounding increase of 265 percent in just 65 years.” 

But this current moment is the result of a rapid decline in professions since Vatican II, most acutely among the women: by 2009, the number had fallen again to about 56,000. This makes sense; women in the Church and in broader American life have had other ways to live out their vocation that may have been closed to them before the period of Vatican II, prompting many to choose to remain laypeople instead of entering consecrated life. Prior to this period, many Catholic women saw a choice between “family life” or religious life. It wasn’t just the conciliar changes but changes in American society broadly. Neither unfolded, of course, in a vacuum—the integration of people who lived in urban ethnic parishes merging into broader American life, growing secularization, growing opportunities for women, declining attendance at church activities, and scandal have all played a part. 

. . . estimates vary widely, but some say up to 12 congregations of religious close per year in the United States; others estimate higher numbers.

CMSW Workshop, Denver 1963.
Conference of Major Superiors of Women, later Leadership Conference of Women Religious, held at Denver’s Loretto Heights College in August 1963. Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), for example, has long recognized the need to prepare for the future of religious life, while acknowledging that in many parts of the world there is substantial growth of sisters. Their multi-year “Discerning Our Emerging Future” initiative has led to a series of publications and conferences to imagine new ways of collaboration and to set a vision for the future. Religious life will not disappear from American shores, but it will change. Anecdotally the estimates vary widely, but some say up to 12 congregations of religious close per year in the United States; others estimate higher numbers. This, of course, is not only an American problem. The issue of preservation has been high on the minds of many in the global church. The “Charism & Creativity” conference in Rome in the spring of 2022, sponsored by the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and the Pontifical Council for Culture, sought to convene global partners to understand how we can preserve the cultural and historical record of the Catholic past. Pope Francis, addressing the conference, acknowledged the need for custodians of “a very relevant part of the cultural heritage of the Church and of humanity: archives, books, historical and liturgical works, and the buildings themselves.” He also noted that the historical record

may be considered as testimonial goods in which to preserve this [given community’s] charism in order to proclaim it anew, to rethink it and actualize it . . . we understand that the need and, at times, the burden of preservation, can become an opportunity to renew, to rethink one's charism, to recompose it in the current socio-cultural context and to plan it for the future. 

That has been LCWR’s approach. 

But practical matters remain. The “ending of historical mission” creates a problem of where the matter of their historical mission should go. Acute concerns about healthcare for aging religious, property sales, new purchases or new construction are often the biggest concerns among religious communities on the way to completion, especially for the leadership responsible for the welfare of their community. This is understandable and responsible. While the communities’ immediate future can sometimes eclipse the weight of their past, their historical presence and impact are materialized in their archival records and material culture. To riff on a Dominican turn of phrase, archives allow the past to preach into the present and future. They also allow moderns to confess and reckon with their past, even as they may seek inspiration

. . . archives allow the past to preach into the present and future. They also allow moderns to confess and reckon with their past, even as they may seek inspiration.

On that note, I think there are two arguments for urgency: one ecclesial, one scholarly. The first is from Pope Francis, quoted above, namely that religious cultural patrimony is important not only for re-envisioning the future for religious communities and orders but also for accessing the charism of the past. The other is for scholars of American Catholic history. What will we do if the records of the American Catholic experience are on the edge between the dumpster and preservation? And what can we do to make the study of American Catholicism easier, consolidated, searchable, and accessible?  

To reiterate the point, the choice between the dumpster and finding an organization to take a collection is commonplace, not dramatic flair. At the McGreal Center, we get calls from communities across the country and beyond that are in a panic because they have to decide what to do with their records when their campus is imminently closing. 

Humility is good Christian ethics, but sometimes it can overly downplay the historical impact of a community. The history of religious in the United States is the history of social work, healthcare, education, urban and rural life, immigration, women, men, and children.

Our role at the McGreal Center is to advise them on what the best way forward is. And sometimes this requires articulating a strong argument for the historical value of their collection. Humility is good Christian ethics, but sometimes it can overly downplay the historical impact of a community. The history of religious in the United States is the history of social work, healthcare, education, urban and rural life, immigration, women, men, and children. Without these records, our vision of the American past will be distorted by the lack of evidentiary backing.  

Training School For Nurses
Nuns in an early nursing class, circa 1900, from the inside cover of Lavinia L. Dock, A History of Nursing: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day with Special Reference to the Work of the Past Thirty Years, Vol. IV (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912). Digitized by David O. McKay Library, Brigham Young University-Idaho; public domain.

If you read major studies of Catholic life, it is interesting to pay attention to the introduction or the back matter about sources to see how very hard it is to write broad histories about Catholicism on American shores. As part of the research for her book on Catholic sisters in the American West, Across God’s Frontiers (UNC, 2012), the late historian Anne M. Butler wrote 125 letters of inquiry to discrete congregations of women connected with Western missions, with over 90 responding positively and two declining involvement. The condition of these archives, she reported, ranged from “state-of-the-art-facilities” to a “cordoned off . . . basement, close to the boiler and two sump pumps [with] ledgers on the floor or bookcases under the water pipes.” Butler’s herculean effort to work through this material, travel to access it, and correspond for permission is a credit to her brilliant work and tenacity. But such study need not be so onerous in our current digital age. This is why consolidated, collaborative, digitally savvy archives could spell new directions in the study of the Catholic past. Helpful consolidation of Catholic repositories could overcome some of the traditional problems that have dogged American Catholic historical study: disparate, far-flung collections, unevenly organized, with too few resources, little digitization, distrust and secrecy, and too few staff or resources to maintain them.  

But who will take care of these historical records, sources, objects, and architectural spaces? Where should they go? Who should communities collaborate with? How can communities fund the maintenance and care of their historical material for perpetuity?  

There are options. We have significant existing institutions that have tried to come together to preserve the records of Catholicism in America. And we also have emerging institutions that are trying to work together to build repositories of the legacies of their communities. For example, a collective has emerged in Cleveland, Ohio, and at Saint Mary’s College (Indiana) to create a model to host various communities’ records together. University-based collections also exist; Boston College and Santa Clara University already have taken many collections and have promised to accept many more. And there is the Chicago Collaborative Archive Center (CCAC), a project to repurpose several abandoned and significant buildings in the heart of Chicago for an ecumenical archives center, with significant space for Catholic collections. (Full disclosure: I am a founding member of the CCAC board.)     

The Dominican Sisters of Tacoma provide a helpful case study of this process. In the 1980s, the Tacoma Dominicans began planning on how to care for their aging sisters. They had spent their lives, like many Dominicans, devoted to education. One result of this planning was to sell their motherhouse, Marymount, and reinvest those funds to support elderly sisters in retirement. The original location had experienced some serious maintenance issues, and they found a buyer in Harold LeMay, who promised continued access to the site while updating and expanding the campus, which now largely serves as an event space. As of 2018, the Dominican Sisters of Tacoma entered into a covenant with the Sisters of Providence to share governance and care for elderly sisters but also collaborate around their common mission goals, such as working against human trafficking, empowering women on the margins, and protesting the death penalty. Around the same time, the congregation arranged for their records to be deposited at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution in Silicon Valley. The congregation also provided funds to help support the collection. One notable thing about the Tacoma Dominicans entering into a covenant with the Sisters of Providence was that they stated that they would be united “in Christ” but separate in their unique expressions of their individual community’s charisms. Sister Sharon Casey, O.P., wrote

We knew we did not want to merge with another community but wanted to create our own preferred future. After several years of study, conversation and exploration, we discerned that the Sisters of Providence, M.J.P., were an ideal fit; our long-term shared values aided our discernment. Although we express them differently, our charisms unite rather than divide us. We are united as women religious, called to live the Gospels and Evangelical Counsels. 

There were four parts to their covenant with the Sisters of Providence, but the fourth—legacy—is the most important for our purposes: As Sister Casey stated, “Critical to a covenant relationship is that neither community loses its identity. We will remain Sisters of St. Dominic of Tacoma until the last sister dies. At that time there is a process in place for finalizing our affairs.” While their collection ended up at a Jesuit institution, they worked very diligently to make sure their unique identity was not subsumed by the Sisters of Providence or the Jesuits. They set aside funds for the maintenance of their collection. They had a long-term plan that addressed the medical needs of their congregation while protecting their unique legacy. They chose a regional depository for their collections, in this case at a university. Bringing their own funds to the table, however, gave them authority to manage the acquisition of their collection on their own terms. They could confidently go into their future knowing that their past was in safe hands.  

Sister Benigna Holland Osp
Sister Benigna Holland, O.S.P., teaching Cuban students in Spanish at St. Frances Academy in 1946. Used with permission of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Marcel Mauss, the early 20th century French anthropologist and sociologist, famously argued in The Gift that the gift is never free. His point was not necessarily that it was bad that gifting had strings attached, but that it was good that it did. His argument was that gift giving of all kinds brought societies together because it bound them in mutual obligation and thus created social cohesion, even peace. If a closing community is offered free hosting for their collection, the question for them is what are the strings that are attached? If a community is able to bring funds to the table, it becomes a transactional agreement. You take care of our historic record, and we deposit these funds for their care. But what if there is no transaction?  

Offers of free hosting of collections are more complex than they seem. If the organization is directly related to the community in question, the mutual obligation is obvious. For example, the McGreal Center’s collection is housed in a university sponsored by Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, so our obligation to the congregation is clear. They created the university. The McGreal Center’s missional commitment to the Dominican Family broadly means that we have an obligation to help, host, or advise all Dominican communities in the United States.

But what if the obligation is not there? Or not in the same way? In this case, contracts demand more scrutiny. Does the community sign over all rights for their collection? What can they expect for the care and maintenance of the collection? Will their reference requests be addressed in a timely manner? And what are the copyright issues related to the publications and material created by the community?  

Maybe a local historical society is willing to house a vowed religious community’s collection for perpetuity, for no cost. That would be good news. But it generates questions. Is a regional historical society the best place for records of a congregation of religious? Would they understand the vagaries of religious life, its polity, mission, or even understand the concept of “charism”? Likely not. Would they have a sense of how the congregation’s collection interfaces with American Catholicism or broader American religious history? Likely not. Would they be able to answer detailed reference requests? Maybe, but likely not. Would an ostensibly secular, possibly publicly funded collection be motivated to engage the broader public in the history of the religious life of the congregation? I am not sure. Clearly the aim, or “the gift,” here is to accept the congregation’s collection in honor of their regional contribution to the history of the area. But is that what the congregation wants? To be reduced to a local history story?  

So how could the situation above be improved? The best scenario is that collections of religious communities come to institutions that honor their multi-dimensional impact. Regional proximity makes sense, as the congregation’s ministry had a geographic relationship to the history of the area. In Tacoma’s case, they are keeping their collection regionally accessible to the congregation and those interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest and locating it within a Catholic institution. But the second question is: are the caretakers knowledgeable about the nature of the collection itself? Do they have an understanding of American religious history broadly, Catholicism, religious orders, consecrated life, and why the collection is historically important? In Tacoma’s case probably so, but if they went to a local secular university or historical society likely not. They would also need assurances that the curators or archivists of their collection knew the difference, for example, between the Dominicans and the Jesuits. Thirdly, is the collection reasonably accessible? Would researchers and the public be able to find the collection, make reference requests, and see material, either digitally or in person? Digital access is one aspect of this—making sure the catalog and finding aids are accessible within internal and external systems. But I think the most important question is this: is the repository the most intuitive place to deposit the material? Where will it have the most impact?  

The archives of religious life house the story of American Catholicism.

This final question touches on the matter of legacy. To quote, via Hamilton, my collaborator Sister Mary Navarre, O.P., “Who is going to tell your story?”  

That is the biggest question I pose to communities. Who do you want to tell your story?  

The archives of religious life house the story of American Catholicism. It is not complete, but it is an integral part of the historical record. Is a community’s collection housed in a place that makes sense? How easy is it to find? And does the repository have the resources for the storyteller?   

In my role at the McGreal Center, I have had a front-row seat to these issues among Dominican communities in the United States. For the rest of the essay, I would like to provide several suggestions to ensure the vibrant study of the American Catholic past.  


In the name of cost savings, professional care, facilities efficiencies, climate control, and shared equipment, collaborative archival projects are necessary. This also speeds and deepens the study of Catholic history in America. If there are three to four major hubs for Catholic collections, scholars can more easily find new sources and more insights about their work, especially if they are processed well with good metadata. Furthermore, collaborative archives can more easily share archival management software, digital storage, and connect their collections to national finding aids and databases, allowing scholars deeper indexing and searching ability for their research interests.   


Religious communities need to trust the repositories that host and care for their records. This requires a center that respects and understands their charism and conducts their work in a professional manner. Any collaborative archival or research center must be in agreement with the donating community on their restrictions, timelines for access, and how to manage their copyrighted material. To further cultivate trust, there should be a board or an ombudsman office that can ensure that communities don’t feel their collections are being attacked or abused, field complaints, manage permissions requests, and guard intellectual freedom. 


Collaborative archives will require training for lay archivists in the history and culture of the community. We cannot expect most graduates of major masters of library and information studies/science programs to have deep knowledge of the community they are serving; generic archival education is insufficient. Religious archives present unique challenges. Names alone make it hard to track individuals from their secular to professed life, with some leaving communities under new or old names and many changing their name again if they leave consecrated life. But this works in the other direction as well. Archivists of religious communities without professional archival training need means to learn professional practices to organize their collections in such a way that is cognate with general archival practice in the United States. For example, they need records that can accommodate multiple names. Maintaining good archival practice helps the collection remain vibrant even if it is transferred into another repository. Bespoke organizational methods are commonly used in pursuit of this goal. But they do inhibit access in the present and in the future if the collections are transferred, because the organizational method is unintelligible to the broader professional archival or library world.  


Communities also need to know they will have access for their reference inquiries, if it be biographical files, personnel files, annals, or institutional records. Furthermore, any collaborative archive cannot be a mausoleum for the records of the past. A concern for the unknown within the archives is not a justification for a blanket restriction. Communities must commit to separating the truly restricted from what should be available. Anxiety about hypothetical legal exposure should not trump one’s knowledge of actual legal exposure. There must be a commitment to access and availability for study, counseling on how to manage restrictions, internal processes for adjudicating access requests, and timelines for unsealing records or documents. The field is always better for allowing increased access. With the appropriate safeguards in place, all benefit from a transparent archive.


Communities that plan in advance will have better outcomes and will be more confident in the agreements they sign. Most communities are well suited if they begin to plan five years in advance. This helps them assess the size of their collection, adjudicate restrictions, entertain possible repositories, and help estimate ongoing costs if their collection moves elsewhere. Good planning also honors the community; there is an affirmative statement made by the community by planning for proper care of their archival record. Communities that plan well are also proclaiming that their ministry mattered.  


The vision of collaborative Catholic archives should allow equal access for poor and rich communities alike. Communities with resources should invest in creating endowments for the maintenance of their records. Communities with fewer resources should be invited as well with equal treatment. Philanthropy can help cover gaps in the cost of maintenance. And charism-based collectives can share resources to help support a common archive for the whole order. We must lean on philanthropic partners to make sure all are included in the historical record, no matter their ability to pay for the upkeep of their collection. But I also encourage communities to look at their archives as an arm, perhaps a trailing arm, of their historical mission. They can continue to impact the future through the power of their past. The past gives communities the weight of history and an arc to the narration of their ministry and story. Among Dominican communities that I serve, we seek to be honest with our shortcomings and not shy about the traditions’ achievements. We openly discuss the Dominican order’s role in the inquisitions, their role in shaping the Caribbean, New World colonization, the brilliance of theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Catherine of Siena, their contests with other religions, their engagement with indigenous education in North America, and their commitment to the education of vast numbers of immigrants. Philanthropy has a role to amplify that story of truth and love and to set an example. All should be able to make their story accessible, studied, and interpreted. 

Christopher Allison is the director of the McGreal Center for Dominican Historical Studies at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, where he also teaches in the history department and the Graduate School of Information Studies. In 2021, he won a Mother Theodore Guerin Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center for his project “The History of Ending Historical Mission.”  

Feature image“Candidates for Admission to Dominican Convent in Jersey City,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newsletter, August 19, 1882. Used with permission of the McGreal Center for Dominican Historical Studies.