The Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans documents a fascinating and colorful history, one which has its beginnings three-quarters of a century before the diocese was established, and which includes colonial periods under the French and Spanish. This article will touch briefly on the early history of the archdiocese, provide an overview of the Archives, and discuss more in depth the sacramental records and their significance for researching Catholic heritage, culture, and ethnic diversity.
The mission of the Office of Archives and Records at the Archdiocese of New Orleans is to document and care for the historical records, publications, manuscript collections, and related materials documenting the Catholic experience in Louisiana. Records date from 1718 to the present. There is an active records management program that applies disposition to the business records of the organization.1 Prior to the Hurricane Katrina in 2005, records were stored in three facilities, all of which suffered major damage during and after the hurricane. Since returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Archdiocesan Archives has proactively begun the implementation of an enterprise-wide document management program to insure the records of the organization and to safeguard 300 years of archival material currently in its care.
Erected in 1793, and originally known as the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas, the Archdiocese of New Orleans was a joint creation [End Page 47] of the king of Spain and the pope. Having roots in the Catholic realms of Spain and France, the Archdiocese has a distinctive history unlike the dioceses established in the English and Protestant traditions of the Eastern seaboard. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans became an "American" diocese but the traditions and practices took more than a century to change.
The early history of the Louisiana Catholic Church cannot be separated from the early colonial period of Louisiana. As part of the colonial empires of France and Spain, the settlers of Louisiana were to be Catholic if they were to be faithful subjects. Even the Code Noir, the French law that governed the treatment of slaves, mandated that slaves be instructed and baptized in the Catholic faith, freed from work on Sunday, and treated humanely. As my predecessor, Dr. Charles Nolan, stated "the early residents of this area would have found our distinction between political and religious matters strange and unintelligible. War, a business or marriage contract, and a baptismal ceremony were both sacred and secular."2
The diocese originally encompassed the entire Louisiana Territory from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border, as well as the Florida peninsula and the Gulf Coast. Today there are fifty-seven dioceses in the territory that was once the Diocese of the Louisiana and the Floridas. The Archdiocese of New Orleans is but a fraction of that territory, encompassing 4,208 square miles, eight civil parishes (counties), 108 church parishes, ten missions or quasi-parishes and two campus ministries, fifty-six elementary schools, ten high schools, numerous health care centers, homes for the aged and the handicapped, as well as the organizations directed by Catholic Charities.
For more than 220 years, from Bishop Penalver y Cardenas, the first bishop of the diocese, to Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the fourteenth archbishop, a multi-ethnic population of faithful, clergy, and religious, have preserved and nurtured the faith by establishing parishes, schools, orphanages, hospitals, and other necessary institutions. The faithful have rebuilt communities and churches after floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, wars, and epidemics. This faithful population consisted of French, Spanish, Irish, Germans, Acadians, Canary Islanders, Native Americans, Slaves, Free People of Color, Italians, Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese, and of course Americans. [End Page 48]
Within the Archives there are approximately 6,000 cubic feet of boxed archival material (e.g. administrative files, property files, organizational files, parish visitation reports, institutional histories, photograph collections), 528 bound volumes of primary source material (e.g. funeral expenses, pulpit announcements, diaries, scrapbooks, minute books, cemetery plot books), and 1,456 sacramental registers.3 Secondary sources numbering more than 3,500 include the Official Catholic Directory (and its predecessors), the archdiocesan newspapers, parish histories, and records of...