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Perils and Surprises on the Way to Rome: Should Americans Flock to the Vatican Archives?


By Luca Codignola


Ask any North American scholars who have done archival research in Rome what to expect on your first research trip to the Eternal City, and they’ll probably mention the excitement of landing at Leonardo da Vinci airport, the crush of Roman traffic, the moment when you arrive at your first archives and present your student or faculty credentials to the usciere (receptionist). But all of that usually comes with some confusion and anxiety—and they haven’t even mentioned the actual research! Once you’ve decided to make a research trip to Rome, where do you start? How do you find the material you’re looking for, or even know whether it exists?

In the early 20th century, the Carnegie Institution of Washington attempted to help scholars in this very predicament. It published a number of guides to archival material for the history of the United States scattered around the Western world. In 1911, U.S. diplomatic historian Carl Russell Fish wrote his “Roman and Other Italian Archives” volume. It was meant to be “a preliminary chart of a region still largely unexplored.” Fish lived in Rome for less than a year—between 1908 and 1909—and although his guide is more than a century old, it is still valuable for scholars embarking on a research trip to Rome.

More recently, between 1966 and 2006, the Academy of American Franciscan History produced an 11-volume “calendar” of the archives of the Propaganda Fide, the Holy See’s department in charge of all missions around the world, including, until 1908, the United States and Canada. This most useful finding aid is, however, limited to one repository, albeit of vast importance for the history of North America.

In 2014, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism convened a seminar in Rome to introduce scholars to a number of archives in Rome and Vatican City. By the end of the seminar, it was clear that a new guide would benefit not just the seminar participants, but other current and future scholars wanting to do archival research in Rome on the Catholic Church in North America. Such a guide would open up new horizons, allowing scholars to devise fresh research ideas, draft the related project, knock at the right archival door in Rome, search for the correct series, and, eventually, ask for the file that contains that special document.


This is the main rationale behind the Guide to Roman Sources for the History of American Catholicism, 1763–1939, compiled by Matteo Binasco, Cushwa’s postdoctoral fellow in Rome, under the supervision of the center’s director, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, and with the assistance of myself, Luca Codignola-Bo, the Cushwa Center’s senior fellow, and Matteo Sanfilippo, a professor of history at Università della Tuscia in Italy. Binasco, who received his Ph.D. in history from the National University of Ireland at Galway, has visited more than 50 archives and libraries in Rome. For each of them, he has compiled an entry that includes information about the repository’s address, hours, holidays, and the documents scholars need in order to gain access. This information is followed by a brief history of the institution, explaining when it was established and for what purposes. Next, the entry describes its holdings (collections, series, sub-series, volumes, etc.) and how they are organized. Finally, Binasco has given the prospective researcher information about known material of American interest—with some exemplary case studies (see sidebar)—in addition to tips on where such material could be found. The guide is currently being prepared for publication and will appear within the next year in both print and digital editions; further details will be announced via the Cushwa Center’s mailing list and social media outlets as they become available.

The time span selected for the guide requires some explanation. The opening year, 1763, is the date of the Treaty of Paris, marking the conclusion of the so-called French and Indian War. In the treaty, France ceded its holdings in Canada and much of Louisiana to Britain, while Spain ceded Florida, solidifying a vast British-controlled North America, much of which would eventually become part of the United States. It took another few decades before British North America and the United States agreed on their respective borders. In fact, many French-speaking western Catholics later became citizens of the United States. As for 1939, that is the end of the pontificate of Pius XI. At the time of the guide’s publication, this is the official “closing date” beyond which scholars cannot expect to consult Vatican archival material. There are some exceptions to this general rule, however. For example, documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), as well as those of Ufficio Informazioni Vaticano, Prigionieri di Guerra (Vatican Information Office, Prisoners of War), dealing with the years 1939 –47, are open to researchers and are housed within the Vatican Secret Archives collections. Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, archbishop of New York, and Egidio Vagnozzi, apostolic delegate to the United States from 1958 to 1968, figure prominently in the proceedings of the Council. Finally, for some time Vatican archivists and international scholars have whispered that there may be new accessibility on the horizon for World War II and Cold War material. However, at this time there is no official timeframe for this material’s release.

Additional guidance

So, now that with the help of Binasco’s Guide you think you know exactly why you are going to Rome, what you want to achieve there, and especially how you are going to do it, allow me to provide you with some extra tidbits. I have been a user of the Roman archives and libraries for over 40 years and, if anything, I have some experience to share!

The first distinction that one must make is between open and closed archives. For a variety of reasons, some archives and libraries are, in fact, closed to researchers. For example, the archives of the Venerable English College (est. 1579), the Urban College of Propaganda Fide (1627), and the Pontifical Irish College (1628) are all closed. That is a pity. Many North American bishops (Francis Kenrick, archbishop of Philadelphia, for one) studied at the Urban College. Given the number of Irish priests and bishops who went through the Irish College before serving in the United States, this archive contains a wealth of information on New York, Pittsburgh, Charleston, Chicago, Detroit, and other American locations. Meanwhile, in the first half of the 19th century, Robert Gradwell and Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, while rectors of the English College, constantly lobbied on behalf of their American associates. Also closed are the archives of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, whose members are better known as Pallottines. In 1884, they established the church Our Lady of Mount Carmel in New York, a key institution for the local Italian and Italian-American community. The Archives of the Maestre Pie Filippini and the General Archives of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are unavailable as well. These congregations also provided significant assistance to the newly-arrived Italian community. Mother Francesca (Frances) Saverio Cabrini, canonized in 1946, belonged to the Sacred Heart of Jesus community. Lack of staff seems to be the main reason for the unavailability of these archives; for example, at the Urban College, the archives were open to researchers in the 1990s, whereas today they are closed for lack of staff. Still, researchers are advised to check from time to time. The English College, for example, is simply reorganizing its holdings under the capable supervision of Schwarzenbach Research Fellow Maurice Whitehead, who is currently in charge of its archives.

Among the open repositories, I have found it useful to distinguish between libraries and archives. Libraries store books, whereas archives preserve documents that were accumulated as a result of some institutional activity. In Rome, however, such a distinction must be used with care. Given that most of the libraries are centuries old, many also include a manuscript section. Take, for example, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican Library). Established around the fourth century—a thousand years before the invention of the printing press—the library holds some 80,000 manuscripts, in addition to drawings, paintings, and maps. A report on the early Jesuits in Maryland in the 1630s, forwarded by the nuncio in Flanders, is there, as are the reports on New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Boston written between 1906 and 1910 by Italian journalist and vice-consul Luigi Villari. Outside Vatican City proper, but still part of the Holy See’s heritage, other libraries—such as the Casanatense, Vallicelliana, Angelica, and Corsiniana—hold unexpected treasures, such as the 1816 –18 letters of the Louisiana Vincentian, Felice De Andreis; or an early 20th-century correspondence involving three renowned American and Italian scientists, Evans G. Conrad, Hale G. Ellery, and Vito Volterra. Another library, that of the Waldensian Faculty of Theology, holds documentary material on the life of Alessandro Gavazzi, a former Cleric Regular of St. Paul (Barnabite) who became a Protestant chaplain in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s army; his 1853–54 promotional tour in New York, Montreal, and Quebec City almost got him lynched.

As for archives proper, their variety is mindboggling. Institutional archives such as those at the Vatican Secret Archives, Propaganda Fide, or what used to be called the Holy Office of the Inquisition (now Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede), closely follow the daily routines of the Roman church. It was the Holy Office, for example, that had the last word on a prospective marriage between a Native American woman and a European settler, by either granting proper dispensations or making their union null and void. Documents of American interest may also be found in unlikely institutional repositories, such as the Archivio Storico Generale della Fabbrica di San Pietro (the body overseeing the building of St. Peter’s Basilica). The Fabbrica features the correspondence of prominent members of the American hierarchy such as Bishop William H. O’Connell of Boston and Archbishop Michael Joseph Curley of Baltimore, who expressed their wish to purchase copies of the St. Peter’s mosaics. In the Archivio Storico della Congregazione per le Chiese Orientali (Congregation for the Oriental Churches), Binasco came across the politically incorrect opinion given in 1916 by the bishop of Columbus, James J. Hartley. The local Slovakian community of Byesville, Ohio, had petitioned Pope Benedict XV for a priest who spoke their language. Bishop Hartley, who was against such a request, explained his position: “In the next world the Slovaks will not be able to speak to God in the Slovak tongue anyway.”


Other Roman institutions remained quite separate from the Holy See proper, and their archives tend to reflect the life of their community. To the Irish College and San Paolo Fuori Le Mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls), we could add the Scots College and the Pontifical Institute of Santa Maria dell’Anima, the latter a church traditionally linked to the German-speaking community. The Institute’s archives preserve, for example, the correspondence of Alois Hudal, who was its rector from 1923 to 1952 and played a key role in the migratory network that allowed many Nazi German and Croatian families to take refuge in the United States or South America after World War II. Other archives came into being after the Kingdom of Italy’s 1870 conquest and annexation of Rome. It is in the Archivio di Stato di Roma and in Italy’s Archivio Centrale dello Stato (National Archives) that American students must look for the personal files of their ancestors of Irish or Québécois origin (the zuavi pontifici) who fought for the pope against Garibaldi, or for the records that Fascist Italy kept of its political exiles who had fled to the United States.

I have left for last any mention of the archives of the regular orders. But here is Elizabeth Galitzine, the assistant general of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who in the early 1840s recommended to her sisters not to let their disappointment show when dealing with the American public: “Avoid any air of repulsion and of boredom for the country, its customs, and its laws. Avoid any comparison with other countries that might be detrimental to America. Americans shy away from those who hurt their national pride.” This document, and the archives of the order, are found in Rome; and so are those of several other women’s orders, among them the Daughters of Saint Mary of Providence, who in 1913 established their first U.S. mission in Chicago.

As for the men’s orders, the significance for the study of U.S. history of archives such as those of the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Capuchins, the Carmelites and Discalced Carmelites, the Servants of Mary, the Dominicans, the Redemptorists, the Oblates, the Brothers of the Christian Schools (or Christian Brothers), or the Congregation of the Mission (or Vincentians) is also well known. During his peregrinations among the Roman archives, Binasco found a 1917 letter in which an American Capuchin explained to his superior why he and his confreres were never invited to social occasions. Could it be, he wondered, that “the appendages on our face, which people refer to as hairy entanglements, are repulsive to the American idea of appearance?” In fact, he added, “Catholics as well as non-Catholics are so accustomed to see priests clean-shaven,” that the fathers had difficulty explaining that the Capuchins were priests, in spite of their whiskers and beards. This very practical preoccupation reminded me of documents that I myself had found in Roman archives, such as the letters of the parish priest who wondered whether he could employ a Protestant organist in his church, or of a bishop who asked whether he could accept an oath taken on a Protestant Bible.

Seasoned Roman archive visitors certainly have their own special documents that they have encountered in the course of their research, and students and scholars visiting Rome for the first time can look forward to their own thrilling moments of discovery. Binasco’s forthcoming Guide will whet their appetite for research in Rome and ease their entry into the maze of archives there. I can assure you that with time, patience, and the help of this guide, the fog that obscures the view of those new to Roman archives will dissolve, leaving greater opportunity for fruitful research.


Case Study: Conducting Roman Research on Elizabeth Ann Seton


Here’s one example of the challenges a researcher might face in undertaking archival research in Rome. In late 1803, a young woman from New York City, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, traveled to Italy with her oldest daughter, Anna Maria, and her ailing husband William Magee Seton. His doctors had told her the milder Italian climate could assuage William’s tuberculosis. It was not so. William died two days after Christmas, leaving his distraught wife and daughter penniless and unable to speak the local language. Luckily, the brothers Filippo and Antonio Filicchi, whose firm based in the port of Leghorn (Livorno) had been a partner in the Seton family business, took the widow and child under their care. In the late 1780s, Filippo had lived in the United States and had married Mary Cowper, herself from New York City. Filippo could speak English, and in 1794 President George Washington had appointed him as the U.S. consul general in Leghorn, the earliest appointment of that sort in the Italian peninsula. As is well known, after her return to the United States, Elizabeth Ann Seton converted to Catholicism, established a school for girls in Emmitsburg, Maryland, founded the Sisters of Charity, and, in 1975, went on to become the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church does not certify applications for sainthood easily. A special committee studies each case. The process involves collecting all the pertinent documents. Once treated, these are duly filed and placed in an archival repository. In the case of Mother Seton, these consist of 24 volumes of printed and manuscript material now stored in the Congregazione dei Riti (Congregation of the Rites) archives.

Actually, things are a bit more complicated than that. The 24 Seton volumes are numbered from 6057 to 6080, because they are part of a sub-collection titled Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi—Processus, which consists of 13,283 archival units. Yet there is more. The

Congregazione dei Riti archives are but one of 600 archival collections that are collectively known as the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (Vatican Secret Archives). This is the most important archival repository of the Holy See. Officially established in 1612, but in fact storing documents that go back to the eighth century, the Archivio Segreto Vaticano consists so far of 85 linear kilometers (55 miles) of documents. Without a proper guide, you would never find those 24 volumes on Mother Seton.

Without a proper guide, you also would not know of the existence of a letter that young Filippo Filicchi addressed to Pope Pius VI in 1785, asking for permission to travel to the United States on business. The letter still exists and is now stored in a different archival repository, that

of the Sacred Congregation “de Propaganda Fide,” in volume 23 of the series Udienze. Had that petition been turned down, Filippo and Mother Seton might not have met—but wait, there is more. Upon his first return from the United States, Filippo wrote a letter to his parents in which

he told them of his impressions of America (the “unbelievable” freedom enjoyed by the young and “mostly beautiful” American women, etc.). A copy of that letter still exists, and is now stored in the series “Miscellanea di carte politiche e riservate” (in other words, a mishmash collection) of the Archivio di Stato di Roma, which stores all sorts of documents pertaining to the Eternal City prior to its annexation in 1870 to the recently-founded Kingdom of Italy. And here are two more archival gems to be found in a Roman archive as part of the “Seton connection.” In

1862, Henry Seton, Elizabeth’s grandchild and a Union Army captain, sent to the abbot of the San Paolo Fuori le Mura basilica, the Benedictine Henry Smith, a lengthy letter describing the ordeal of the Civil War in Virginia. And here is a diary written by Henry’s brother, Robert Seton, describing his own experience in Rome and Italy from 1857 to 1865 as a student in the Pontifical North America College, and his return journey to the United States (Robert went on to become titular archbishop of Heliopolis in 1903 and wrote the history of the Seton family).

All in all, this example shows both the incredibly rich promise of Roman archives for researchers of American Catholicism, and the difficulties of untangling the many locations in which relevant material may be found. It is this situation that the new Guide seeks to remedy.


Sidebar: Archives Included in the Guide

Abbey of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Archives
Angelica Library
Apostolic Penitentiary, Archives
Archives of the City of Rome
Archives of the State of Rome
Augustinians, General Archives
Brothers of the Christian Schools, General Archives
Capuchins, General Archives
Casanata Library
Central Archives of the State
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archives
Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), General Archives
Daughters of Saint Mary of Providence, General Archives
Discalced Carmelites, General Archives
Dominican Order, General Archives
Doria-Pamphilj Archives
Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, Archives
Franciscan Order, General Archives
Historical Archives of the Italian Foreign Ministry
Irish Dominican College, Archives
Irish Franciscan College of Saint Isidore, Archives
Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Archives
Maestre Pie Filippini, Archives
Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, General Archives
Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, General Archives
Museum of the Risorgimento, Archives
National Central Library of Rome (Vittorio Emanuele II)
Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, Archives
Pontifical Institute of Santa Maria dell’Anima, Archives
Pontifical Irish College, Archives
Pontifical Scots College, Archives
Pontifical Urban University, Library
Propaganda Fide Historical Archives
Redemptorists, General Archives
Roman Archives of the Society of Jesus
Sacred Heart of Jesus, General Archives
Santa Maria Sopra la Minerva, Archives
Servants of Mary, General Archives
Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottines), General Archives
Vallicelliana Library
Vatican Libraries
Vatican Secret Archives
Venerable English College, Archives
Vicariate of Rome, Archives
Waldensian Faculty of Theology, Library