Why I study in Roman archives

Author: Steven Avella

Vatican December 2021

Steven M. Avella is professor of history in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University. He is a past president of the American Catholic Historical Association and the winner of numerous awards for both teaching and research, renowned for writing histories of Catholic dioceses that situate them within their social and political contexts. In 2021, the Cushwa Center awarded Avella a Peter D’Agostino Research Travel Grant in support of his project “A History of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century American West.” In November, he corresponded with Philip Byers regarding his career-long experience with Roman archives and their importance to his work.

I first traveled to the Vatican Apostolic Archives (Archivio Apostolico Vaticano–AAV) in the summer of 1994 while I was researching a history of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. It was, as it always is, a challenging experience. I have modest Italian language conversational skills, better than average reading skills, and I can read ecclesiastical Latin. The person who helped me understand the system of retrieval and research was Father Gerald Fogarty, S.J., who instructed me which records series might be of use and how I could request them. At that time, finding aids were in volumes in the Sala Indici. One filled out a form and handed it in to the clerks at the desk in the main research room and then waited until the records came up from storage. Father Fogarty also informed me that if I wanted to work in the afternoon with boxes of material I had requested in the morning, I had to request special permission from the prefect of the archives.

After a rough few days at first (language barriers and general confusion about procedures), I caught on and had a very productive summer. I had no laptop computer so I wrote all my data longhand in pencil. I still have those yellow notepads. The work was extremely helpful in writing the history, and the breadth of resources inspired me to come back for more.

Early on I was able to consult the documents of groups called Liste Episcopale. These documents laid out in great detail the paperwork surrounding the selection of bishops: the names proposed, the various evidence for and against them, unexpected problems, and the reasons for the final selection. These were the most illuminating files I had encountered, and I used the data from them in my Milwaukee history In the Richness of the Earth (Marquette University Press, 2002). I also used them in a popular history of the Diocese of Sacramento. For some reason, these records were closed during the pontificate of John Paul II.

Ten years later, in 2004, I was working on a history of the Diocese of Des Moines. The diocese paid for me to travel to Rome again and research its history, especially the definition of its boundaries in 1911. I understood the system, knew what I was looking for, and was able to make maximum use of my time. This time I examined the files of the apostolic delegation to the United States and the files of the Consistorial Congregation (today the Congregation for Bishops). In the former, set up by the diocese, I found a fascinating trove of information generated by respective apostolic delegates reporting on affairs in dioceses and also laying out the complex process of diocesan formation (ecclesiastical gerrymandering). The Consistorial Congregation contained the ad limina reports of American dioceses. These contained interesting diocesan statistics and also covered other diocesan issues and comments on challenges faced by changing demographic and financial conditions.

These earlier experiences led me to the project that I am now working on: “A History of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century American West.” In the “spare time” I had while working on these earlier projects, I often requested files from dioceses in California (my home) and other western states that contained very interesting information about conditions in the American West. Beginning with a sabbatical in 2017, I spent from March to June in the AAV and began to systematically study each of the dioceses of the American West. Here I used the apostolic delegation files and the Consistorial Congregation records. I copied copious amounts of information about each of the dioceses in the states west of the Missouri River and included records about Alaska and Hawaii.

By this time the papers from the pontificate of Pius XI (1922–1939) were opened, and I discovered that the pontiff had directed a visitation of all American dioceses to see how they were conforming to the norms of the “new” Code of Canon Law in 1918. The visitations were directed by apostolic delegate Pietro Fumasoni-Biondi and followed a specified format that examined the status of diocesan finances (generally poor), the quality of leadership, and the numbers of diocesan educational, social welfare, and parochial institutions. He also recorded his horror at racial segregation in American dioceses. Fumasoni-Biondi’s oft-expressed worry was about the state of diocesan finances and the sometimes sloppy ways in which diocesan funds were collected and spent. These concerns would escalate, and these records capture some terrible financial disasters, for example in Fargo, North Dakota, and Fort Hays, Kansas.

The opening of the materials through the pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958) seemed a golden opportunity to advance on all fronts. I would add these new years to my diocesan records and also copy the ad limina reports for that same time frame. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed my plans to go in 2021. However, blessed with a D’Agostino grant and support from Marquette, this year I flew to Rome on May 13th and began working on May 16th to the end of June.

I updated the records from the apostolic delegation files through 1958. Here there was not much, since the new delegate, Amleto Cicognani, was nowhere near as well traveled or voluble as his predecessor. The Consistorial files were a much richer trove of data as many reports chronicled climbs out of Depression-era debt and also gave descriptions of substantial growth in the postwar era. The records from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, under the brick-and-mortar prelate of the West, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, were worth the cost of the trip. This included new church and school construction, the building of minor seminaries, and the expansion of hospitals and other social service agencies. I have a substantive amount of material from this trip.

The impulse for my study is a desire to acquaint a wider readership with the social, economic, and cultural significance of the Catholic Church in the American West, a region I define as all the states/dioceses west of the Missouri River and including Alaska and Hawaii. My project relies on narrative and maps to provide a visual depiction of the explosive growth of the Church in the region. The key feature of that growth was the proliferation of dioceses. Here, Roman records have been helpful in discussing the various changes in diocesan boundaries. Two states stand out as exemplars of this growth: California, which had three dioceses in 1900 but now has 12, and Texas, which began the 20th century with four dioceses but now has 15.

I still have much work to do in the category of diocesan finances. However, the Roman records, especially the Consistorial papers, provided some financial statistics about the diocese (e.g., amount of indebtedness or amount received from the Church Extension Society and the American Board of Catholic Missions, two important funders of Church support in the West). These will be helpful in providing at least a partial picture of the economic impact of Catholic churches, schools, and institutions on their areas. 

Finally, Roman documents have proven essential to reconstructing a transnational view of the topic. The aforementioned reports of the apostolic delegates, the special files on local diocesan growth, and the shifts in episcopal succession all gauge the Roman influences on the American Church. Many matters are referred to Rome by local bishops, and Roman responses to ad limina reports reflect on aspects of Catholic growth and life. The observations of Fumasoni-Biondi on various aspects of American life and culture and his generally low regard for the quality of many American bishops are interesting topics to be further explored.

Overall, my experiences with the AAV have been positive. It was a pleasure to walk through the Porta Sant’Anna each morning and have a Swiss Guard snap to attention, click his heels, and bellow “Buongiorno, monsignore!” (I got a promotion!) It is easy to get a reservation and the check-in service is very efficient. They still have my original photograph on file and getting the required card to gain admission is very easy. The online system is very helpful and the librarians who monitor its use are always willing to give a hand. Once I was familiar with it, the process for locating and requesting documents was fairly simple and quick.

However, this last trip was the most difficult. They still remained on COVID protocols and the requests were limited to three per day. This worked well for many of the medievalists who worked with one book for their entire trip and could have it laid aside for the next day without having to request it. For those of us working in more “contemporary” records, the three-box limit was restrictive. Since the quality of the research material in each box varied, one could hit a “gold mine” in one box and be able to work all day with it. Other boxes contained nothing of value. The problem here was that the daily three-box limit meant that sometimes your research day might be over long before the close of the archives. For international researchers who spent huge sums to travel there, this was a problem. It would be helpful to go back to the old five-box limit.

I was urged by one of the archivists to seek the reopening of the Liste Episcopale, a source I found most helpful in my first research of the American hierarchy. I have put together a proposal, received support from one cardinal, my archbishop, academic colleagues, and respected scholars in the field of U.S. Catholicism and had it hand-submitted by another cardinal to the office of the secretary of state, Cardinal Parolin. While I don’t hold out much hope of success, I wanted to try. If they are reopened, I will make my way back there as soon as I can.

Image: View of the Vatican from the Vatican Museum offices, December 2, 2021. Photo by Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame.