Photos play major role in solving archive ‘mysteries’

From the Archives
By Mary Woodward

JACKSON – “A picture says a thousand words” is an age-old adage that we often use to describe many situations. In archives, that saying is very true. The photos included this week tell many stories, but more importantly these images, along with thousands of others like them in our diocesan archives collection, help us document history and artifacts.

In looking at the image of three bishops strolling down the street how can I conclude who is in the photo and what is happening? The main evidence fortunately is a date in the lower right corner of the photo is given as on Oct. 15, 1924. Please always date photographs and identify the people in them.

Taking the photograph by itself, I can deduce many things. It is of Bishop Gerow, it appears to be in Mobile because the columns in the background look a lot like the ones of the Cathedral there. But after that for those not familiar with the date on the photograph or Bishop Gerow the trail goes cold.

This photo portrait of Bishop R.O. Gerow displays the pectoral cross he used. Through photographs we know that the same cross was worn by Bishop Thomas Heslin before him.

However, as archivist and chancellor, knowing the importance of that date in diocesan history, I can confirm that the photo is from Bishop Gerow’s ordination as bishop, which occurred on Oct. 15, 1924, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile. How then can I identify the two other bishops? In order to do that, I need to look no further than Bishop Gerow’s meticulously maintained diary. All the information I need is right there on the page in a beautiful passage:

“The ceremony was in the Cathedral of Mobile, and this was proper. Within its shadow I had been born; within its walls, baptized; here I served for many years as Altar boy; here I had been confirmed; and since my ordination to the priesthood here had been my only appointment; here was the only parish in which I had ever had a domicile.

The Consecrating Prelate was Bishop Allen, who had always been to me a father. He had sent me to college to try my vocation; he had kept me near him during my years as a priest; and I feel that his example and training have done much to mold my priestly life.

The Co-Consecrators were Bishop Jules B. Jeanmard and Bishop James A. Griffin, the latter a close companion during my years of study in Rome. A magnificent sermon was preached by Very Reverend Edward Cummings, S.J. Provincial, with whom I had been closely associated during his years at Spring Hill College.”

From this description, one can be almost certain that the two other bishops are Bishops Jeanmard and Allen. To further solidify this, I can search the internet for images of these two men and see if they match up and determine which is which. Jeanmard is on the left for the viewer and Allen is on the right.

I can only deduce that the man on the far left is a Knight of Columbus in formal attire – sword, sash, top hat. This attire was customary for such an occasion in the early 1900s.

Photographs also help us identify various episcopal symbols such as rings and pectoral crosses. In the image of Bishop Gerow we can see a pectoral cross. That cross is kept in the vault of the archives.

The cropped image, which is of Bishop Thomas Heslin (1889-1911), has the same cross. Therefore, we can date that particular cross in the vault to 1889. It could go back further but the two previous bishops went on the become archbishops and would have taken most of their crosses and rings with them.

The ring in the cropped photo also is in the vault and is engraved as a gift from St. Michael Parish, which was the parish Bishop Heslin was pastor of in New Orleans when he was named Bishop of Natchez in 1889. Therefore, we can date and assign that ring to Bishop Heslin.

So, archives can often be a scavenger hunt and an archaeological expedition. Portraits and photos play a major role in solving so many mysteries. In 2016 our diocesan archive was awarded the Cultural Heritage Digitization Award by the Mississippi Digital Library. The award allowed 600 images from our collection to be digitized and uploaded to the MDL.

You can view this sampling of our collection on their website We are a partner listed as Roman Catholic Diocese of Jackson. I hope you will visit the collection and enjoy the journey through diocesan history.

(Mary Woodward is Chancellor and Archivist for the Diocese of Jackson)