Organizing A Church Archives

By Evelyn Cherpak

When a Committee on History and Archives was created by my local church parish council in January, 1978, I volunteered my services, along with several others, to collect, organize, and inventory all textual and photographic records pertaining to the parish’s history over the years. Although an archivist of naval records by profession, I was keenly interested in the historical base of the Russian Orthodox Church in America and especially the beginnings of my own parish, Holy Trinity in New Britain, Connecticut, which was founded and organized by immigrants from Sub-Carpathian Rus and White Russia in 1902. In addition, family interests and a bit of “roots” nostalgia motivated me to take up the project, for my paternal grandfather was one of the three founding fathers of the parish.

Locating Materials

One of the major and most pressing problems our committee faced was to locate materials to create the archives we wanted to begin. A ready and immediately available source for materials was the attic of the parish house. This dusty, cluttered space, untouched for years, proved to be a veritable treasure trove of materials, an archivist’s dream, to wit, and we found just what we needed to form the basis of our nascent archives. We uncovered photographs dating back to 1902, souvenir booklets and programs from the nineteen twenties and thirties, church financial records, correspondence regarding the founding and dedication of the parish, and a variety of bulletins and notices.

The collection of this particular body of materials was not without incident, however, and a rather humorous one at that. On a particular rainy Saturday morning, one of my co-workers and I collected the materials from the parish house and proceeded to transport them to an apartment in the rear, which we had designated as our work and storage space. We made several trips, loaded down with materials, exiting the front door and running through the rain to the back apartment. On our last trip we were confronted by a police officer who had just received a call from a neighbor who reported that a robbery was in progress at the parish house. Needless to say, we explained our mission and our story was verified by the priest’s wife. Such are the perils of archival sleuthing!

A second and most fruitful method of locating pertinent records was by contacting and appealing to parish members through the monthly church bulletins. Our priest included notices in several bulletins asking parishioners to donate old photographs, newspaper clippings, and any other records to the History and Archives Committee. These appeals brought an enthusiastic response from parish members, and we soon found ourselves sorting through old newspaper clippings, historical narratives, and organizational records.

A third concern centered on the collection and maintenance of all current and forthcoming records, in whatever form they might take. Since individual committee members were given specific collecting responsibilities, the accumulation of all current material proved to be a relatively easy task and all records since 1978 have been integrated into the archive.

Sorting and Categorizing

With all extant past and present records gathered, we set about cleaning and sorting our precious materials. As we surveyed the materials, they naturally fell into their appropriate divisions. The archives were divided into five record groups: historical records, bulletins and notices, records of organizations, financial records, and miscellany. Historical records consisted of a potpourri of items: a narrative account regarding the founding of the parish written by the daughter of one of the original founders, the deed to the church property, and a group of interesting letters between local church fathers and the Orthodox hierarchy concerning preparations for the laying of the cornerstone and dedication of the church in 1902.

The letters presented somewhat of a linguistic problem, for Cyrillic orthography had been partially transliterated into English. Happily enough, one of our parishioners provided a clear translation. From the “translated” letters, we discovered that Archbishop Tikhon of North America, later elevated to Patriarch upon the restoration of that office in 1918 in Moscow, was present at the dedication ceremonies. Anniversary booklets and souvenir programs completed this series.

The second series, bulletins and notices, had been issued on a monthly basis since 1967 and we were able to obtain copies of all of them. They are especially valuable for documenting parish life, both liturgical and social. Special notices, the pastor’s annual report, and minutes of council and annual parish meetings completed this series. Records of parish social and charitable organizations along with Sunday School records formed the third series.

These included the financial and business meeting records of a ladies’ guild and the attendance and curriculum records of the Sunday School. (The records of other parish organizations can also be included here.) Parish financial records, Series IV, consisted in part of old account and ledger books, many of which were written in Russian and dated from the early years of the parish. These were relatively easy to translate and decipher.

The last series, miscellany, included newspaper clippings, choir books in Old Church Slavonic, and photographs dating back to the early 1900’s. The identification of persons in the old photographs proved to be a bit of a problem, but not one without a solution. The photographs, complete with blank mockups, were identified by parishioners during Sunday morning coffee hours. This proved to be an expeditious and enjoyable method of identifying unfamiliar faces.

Storing the Material

Once the records were organized and arranged, they had to be boxed, labeled and inventoried. A sum of money from a parish discretionary fund was used to purchase supplies, namely acid-free folders and boxes. Labels were designed and printed free of charge, courtesy of another parishioner, and finally an inventory was prepared by this author.

Although the archives is small and there are evident gaps in record coverage, there are sufficient materials to give a researcher a good outline of the organization, growth and development of a parish of the Orthodox Church in America. For me, the experience of organizing a church archives, literally from scratch, has been an exciting and rewarding experience, and one that I look forward to continuing in the future. I encourage others interested in church archives projects to volunteer their time, take up the challenge, and plunge in. I am sure they will find it worthwhile.

Checklist -
To Organize A Church Archives
  1. Locate Materials
    1. Check storage closets, attic and basements in the church and parish house.
    2. Ask parishioners for old photos, news clippings, souvenir books, organizational records.
    3. Assemble records - minutes, reports.
  2. Sort and Categorize

    1. Historical records.
      (1) Narrative accounts already written. (2) Deed to the church property. (3) Correspondence between the parish and the hierarchy. (4) Anniversary and souvenir booklets.
    2. Bulletins and notices.
      (1) Parish bulletins and/or newsletters. (2) Special notices. (3) Pastor’s annual report to the parish / Bishop. (4) Minutes of the annual Parish meeting and the Parish Council meetings.
    3. Records of Parish Organizations and the Church School.
      (1) Financial and Business Meeting records. (2) Church school attendance and curriculum records.
    4. Parish Financial Records.
      (1) Ledger books. (2) Financial reports.
    5. Miscellany.
      (1) Newspaper clippings. (2) Choir books. (3) Photographs.

  3. Store the Materials

    1. Box. Buy acid-free folders, boxes.
    2. Label.
    3. Inventory.
    4. Find suitable spot to keep them.

Evelyn Cherpak is an Archivist-Librarian for the U.S. Navy. She is the first woman appointed by Metropolitan Theodosius as a Lay Leader for the Department of Chaplaincies.