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Church Archivists Try to Salvage Katrina’s Soggy Legacy

c. 2007 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ In her spare office, Emilie Leumas, the new archivist for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, unties a string-bound folder and exposes the loose, ruined pages of an old parish ledger book. The pages once recorded the baptisms, marriages and funerals of hundreds of parishioners of St. Dominic […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ In her spare office, Emilie Leumas, the new archivist for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, unties a string-bound folder and exposes the loose, ruined pages of an old parish ledger book.

The pages once recorded the baptisms, marriages and funerals of hundreds of parishioners of St. Dominic church in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood. Now some of the entries are legible, while others faded away after weeks of immersion inside a flooded church vault.

Leumas’ job, insofar as it’s possible, is to restore the lost entries.

And that’s only part of it.

The recovery attempt follows the mammoth job of rescuing and stabilizing millions of priceless documents from New Orleans’ past, work that Leumas and her predecessor, Charles Nolan, have been engaged in for the past two years.

Leumas, formerly the archivist for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, took over the job this month. But she has been intimately involved in salvaging some of the city’s historical records since the archdiocese sent a special rescue team to New Orleans two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

Archivists are the custodians of memory, a critical job in a city nearly 300 years old.

For much of early New Orleans’ life as a French, then Spanish holding, church and state were joined. For years there were no independent civil records of births, marriages and deaths because government relinquished supervision of those events solely to the Catholic church.

From 1763 to 1801, “under Spanish rule, membership in the church was mandatory,” said Leumas, making baptismal records good proxies for all births,including those of slaves.

So in many ways, what New Orleans knows about its early life is accessible only in the climate-controlled vaults of archdiocesan headquarters and at the Catholic archives office building.

The archives are vast _ from beautifully handwritten 18th century French entries recording the earliest weddings and funerals at the old St. Louis church to sacraments celebrated in suburban parishes last month.

They reflect the local church’s ethnic roots: Records are in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Latin. The sacramental records for St. Louis Cathedral remained in French until 1911, Leumas said.

There are boxes of ancient diaries and an invaluable collection of more than 10,000 pre-Civil War letters rich with daily gossip that New Orleans clergy exchanged among themselves, Leumas said.

Other holdings include rare books, bishops’ official correspondence and some of their personal journals, old vestments and sacred objects, modern film of historic events, old archdiocesan newspapers and parish newsletters _ and increasingly, the digital torrent of official correspondence still pouring daily out of an archdiocese of some 372,000 members.

Leumas, a New Orleans native, knows the city’s archives well.

She was working in Baton Rouge when Katrina swamped the city 80 miles to the south. Two weeks after the storm, she participated in a joint Baton Rouge-New Orleans rescue mission to archdiocesan headquarters, where the basement was badly flooded, to save the crown jewels: the undamaged French sacramental records going back to the founding of the city, Leumas said.

Other old records were stored in the high ground of the old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter, where Nolan spent four days cut off from the world after the storm.

The rescue mission also retrieved a valuable collection of rare books, including a 14th century Bible, from Notre Dame Seminary.

Eventually, all the archdiocese’s crown jewels, and most of its parish-based sacramental records, were found to be safe, Leumas said.

But in 11 parishes, ledgers of sacramental records were sodden wrecks, deeply submerged in foul black water for up to six weeks. Ledgers still in daily use remain in local rectories for easy access; many contain entries dating to the 1920s, said Leumas.

In some cases, Leumas, Nolan and others found that swollen ledgers were stuffed so tightly in cabinets that the cabinets had to be cut apart to free them.

Back in Baton Rouge, where the Archdiocese of New Orleans had set up temporary shop after the storm, archivists and volunteers from both cities gently bathed all the books to remove heavy sludge, then placed the ledgers in a deep freeze to stop the deterioration.

Leumas said that, in the ensuing months, they thawed them one at a time, removed the heavy covers, spread them on soft-drink racks and interleaved each page several times a day with blotter paper to dry them out.

Remarkably, the heavy paper did not dissolve.

More remarkably, many entries are still legible, especially those made with the indelible ink of an ordinary ballpoint pen, whose virtues Leumas preaches in workshops on parish record-keeping.

“Sometimes it looks like the day they wrote it, even after five months of being wet,” she said. “But that ink we used to see in elementary school _ remember that gorgeous `peacock blue’? Gone, just a blur of watercolor.”

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. The reporter is not related to Charles Nolan.)

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