Catholic history in Mississippi goes digital

By Mary Woodward
JACKSON – A little-known treasure hides in a vault in the Chancery building in Jackson. This treasure chronicles more than 200 years of Mississippi and regional history and is housed in a 10′ x 20′ room on the ground floor. In this small space, Bishop Richard Oliver Gerow, who served the diocese from 1924 to 1966, created a diocesan archive filing system still in use today. The good news, this little-known history is about to get new life and new exposure, thanks to a grant from the Mississippi Digital Library (MDL) and the work of the diocesan chancellor’s staff.
It often is said Catholic Social Teaching is the church’s best kept secret, but preserving and protecting records and history is another one. Canon Law requires the church to keep all sacramental records of its members, but it also requires a historical archive to be kept so that the events in the life of the local church can be chronicled for future generations.
The diocesan archives gives a unique accounting of history through the growth and spread of the Catholic faith within the boundaries of the 20th state of the Union. Papers and records in the archives date back to Spanish Colonial times in 1796 Natchez and travel forward through the establishment of the diocese in 1837, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, world wars, great floods, economic depression, the Civil Rights movement up to the present day. Items from these archives, gathered and maintained by Bishop Gerow and his successors are now continually updated by the diocesan chancellor’s office.
Throughout his 42 years as bishop, he meticulously indexed and journaled all the previous bishops’ papers dating back to the beginnings of the diocese in 1837 and beyond, making sure the legacy and expansion of the church in its developmental times would be properly documented.
Bishop Gerow also chronicled the growth of the church in the state by taking a camera along on his journeys around the diocese for dedications, ordinations and confirmations. In his tenure he amassed more than 1,700 photos depicting church life in those five decades of his episcopacy. Many of his photos are of structures that no longer exist, especially in the coastal counties. Although now the Diocese of Biloxi, these areas were a part of the diocese during Bishop Gerow’s time.
These photos capture not only church history but, on a greater scale, the story of Mississippi and the surrounding region. The diocesan archives contains papers on the development of Mississippi’s journey to statehood from the earliest times.
For this reason the Mississippi Digital Library (MDL) awarded the diocese its 2016 Cultural Heritage Digitization Award (CHDA).The MDL is hosted by the University of Southern Mississippi.
According to its website, the MDL provides an online space to search and explore the wealth of materials available in Mississippi. Its board includes digital preservationists, archivists, librarians and experts in the field of history from around the state, including the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, The University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and Delta State University.
The award, given annually, offers 80 hours of scanning of historic documents and photos by MDL staff and partners. Lisa Jones, MDL director, described how excited they were to see the Bishop R.O. Gerow collection of photos and documents when she came for the onsite visit during the application process. Staff and board members were impressed with the breadth of material reflecting a unique angle of the history of Mississippi through the lens of a Catholic bishop.
During the week of Aug. 8 – 12, Nicole Lawrence, coordinator of MDL, and Susan Ivey, digital initiatives librarian, from Ole Miss, spent eight  hours each day scanning 614 items from Bishop Gerow’s collection. Notable items included several papal Bulls, including the decree establishing the original diocese of Natchez by Pope Gregory XVI. Sue Anne Booth and Donna King, staff of the chancellor’s office, worked tirelessly to get all the photos and documents in order and wrote metadata for each object.
Each day, members of MDL’s board offered training sessions for chancery staff on topics including: archiving digitally born records such as emails, texts and recent photos; best practices for digitization, digital storage space on servers and using cloud-based services and prioritizing documents and collections in archives for digitization.
As Chancellor for the diocese, it is my responsibility to maintain on behalf of the bishop all diocesan records as well as the historical part of the archives. The opportunity to partner with the MDL gives our collection better exposure to researchers, teachers and students who are studying the growth and changes in state history. It is an opportunity to educate more people on the Catholic faith and its contributions to the overall community, state and region over the past 200-plus years.
In the coming months, the scanned items will be housed on the MDL website in a collection named for Bishop Gerow. More items will be added as time goes on. So stay tuned to and Mississippi Catholic for updates.
(Mary Woodward is the Diocesan Chancellor.)