Catholic University Archives: Hidden Treasures

Take a sneak peek into the hidden collections of artwork, and precious historical objects stored in vaults at The Catholic University of America located in Washington, D.C. 


A roof tile from Mission San Miguel depicting the mission located in San Luis Obisbo, California. Painted by a Sister of Mercy pupil, 22 tiles were donated by the Sisters of Mercy of San Francisco. The tiles date back to the building of the California Missions by the Franciscan Monks between 1769 and 1833. Image courtesy of Catholic University Archives.

The Catholic University of America's Archives keep the history of American Catholics alive. Comprised of museums and document collections, the archives serve as a mix of art, manuscripts, records and more from around the world throughout time. In its vault, hunting materials lie beside letters from President Grover Cleveland. Tapestries sit feet apart from Eastern pottery resting. In the archives, boxes containing official records sit next to a taxidermied lizard.


Reference archivist Shane MacDonald and acting archivist William J. Shepherd serve the campus and D.C. community. They collect works and exhibit them in galleries and blog posts. With other libraries, museums, and archives in D.C., the Catholic University Archives create a massive database for researchers to explore and study. Through their curation and research, MacDonald and Shepherd seek to showcase the American Catholic experience. 

WJS: William J. Shepherd | SM: Shane MacDonald

WJS: We wear three hats: the university archives, the manuscripts collection online, and other non-university organizations. The museum manuscripts predate the archives by at least sixty years. It goes back to be beginning of the university, around the 1880s, and the archives started around the 1940s, so they were separate institutions. The museum and the archives were not put together until the 1970s. The museum had a specific curator for most of its history, but now [curating has] been added as one of the archive’s responsibilities. The museum’s eclectic in nature; it’s got a little of this, a little of that, obviously with some Catholic themes. It’s hard to define in some ways, but we try to through some of the blog posts. We have a gallery and specific exhibit spaces all around campus. With any administrator or faculty member, if you see something hanging on their wall, it’s probably on loan from the museum collection. There is the May Gallery in the Mullen Library, and occasionally we have things on display for specific occasions. Usually [the loaned object] is hanging in an office or in here.Other parts of the university archives cover different parts of the institution, so we have records from the president, the board of trustees, deans, department chairs, public affairs, student officials and leaders. There’s a fifty-year restriction on access to these [records].

SMExcept for anything that’s been published, so musical programs, photos from the 90s, productions. We collect the Tower, the student newspaper, the yearbook; those are online.

WJS: We’re servicing the campus community here, so we have the online community, photos, source material,  or a general counsel has their records here. The manuscript collection’s whatbrings researchers. We have over 400 collections. Our largest collections is from the Bishops Conference. That goes back to 1917. If someone’s trying to do research; if they’re working on a PhD, if someone wants to know the American Catholic Church’s position on an issue, like birth control or communism, then that collection will have that. There are other collections not as large but still significant like Catholic Charities or the National Catholic Education Association, [or] various lay groups, mostly Catholic lay groups, like the Catholic Labor Union or the Catholic Daughters of America. There’s a significant section on labor history. A lot of the early labor leaders were Catholic and had an immigrant background. There’s a part on Terence Powderly, the leader of the Knights of Labor around the 1870s, the first successful national labor union in the U.S. From more recently, there’s stuff from the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. We have this phenomenon of the “labor priest,” who have ties to both owners and workers and try to reach a common ground. Probably the most famous of those is Msgr. George C. Higgins, who was involved with [Cesar] Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association. There’s things going back to Fr. John A. Ryan, one of the first to come up with the minimum wage. There’s also some ethnic-related questions, with the Catholic Immigrations Council, one of the first interracial Catholic organizations. That’s an overview of the three parts. Our staff tries to maintain what we have and bring more material in and promote it on the blogs and social media. More recently we’ve added the responsibility of the rare books collection.We’re doing this with only three full-time workers.

A recent acquisition of the archives was of Lindsey Whalen, a recent [CUA] graduate. How much significance does the archive place on having some CUA influence weigh into getting a place in the archive?

WJSWell, it depends on what’s being offered. We’re not actively collecting for the museum because of space limitations.  We’re part of the consortium with other libraries in area. That’s [how] we’re able to store our paper records, and there’s supposed to be the possibility of storing museum items offsite.

A recent piece acquired by the archives in 2018 by graduate Lindsey Whalen from her senior project titled "Resurgence." Image courtesy of Catholic University Archives.

What is the oldest piece in the museum?

WJS: Probably one of the coins. There’s some Alexander the Great pieces and some from Philip II.

SM: Of those that are not coins, I do know there’s earlier, but off the top of my head, there’s a thirteenth century French sculpture. It’s a small Saint Peter stone statue that the database states that it is thirteenth century. You can see that there’s some fire damage,  you can see soot. That might be the oldest item, a lot of our stuff is more modern. we have some Renaissance art, around the fifteenth and sixteenth century. We’re not suggesting that you move the art, but if you look behind most of the statues, like for instance a Pope Leo, you’ll find one of our tags. Sometimes the custodians throw it out, and I have to replace it. That’s not the oldest, but it’s just to give you a sense of what’s out there.

Rumor has it that the university has also acquired a full samurai suit?

WJSLet me just say, that used to be in the Curley Hall vault, which is dimly lit, and if you forgot about it while working, you’d turn around, and... (laughs).

SMThere are some things and statues in there that are spooky, and they’re colorful too. They don’t look like statues (laughs).

What are some of those statues?

SMMarian statues, so not as terrifying as a suit of armor. The samurai’s in the [student center]The administrative assistant is more than happy to show if off to you. That dates from the seventeenth century. [The armor] didn’t come with it, but there’s supposed to be a samurai sword that goes with it? I don’t think they came together, and [the sword] is in a different office.

WJSThere’s a Japanese poster from around the seventeenth century. It was posted in a town square offering money for a priest. They outlawed Christianity at that time, so it makes for an interesting timepiece.\

What is the collection like for political art or imagery?

SM: I don’t think there’s much in the museum, but there are pieces spread around in just the general collection. (MacDonald gestures to the walls) if you look at the walls around you, there’s three pieces of World War 1 art.

WJSThe Bishops Conference has changed their name and format a couple times, but their first name was the National Catholic War Council in World War 1. There’s a lot of stuff in the collection promoting the war effort. This later incarnation is the National Catholic Welfare Conference. For example, in 1928, you’ve got the first Catholic candidate running for president, Al Smith on the Democratic ticket. There’s a lot of anti-Catholic, pro-Ku Klux Klan material. So we have both pro-Catholic and anti-Catholic material in this collection.

SMWe just digitized that collection of the pro and anti-Catholic propaganda, so researchers could have it.

WJSThere’s a lot of pro-Catholic works that we have as well. Some of the published stuff, like the Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact were given to Catholic schools. It’s child-friendly, pro-Catholic, and also pro-American work that’s promoting being a Catholic, being a good citizen too.

SMWe have a lot of anti-Communism material and anti-Cold War too.

WJSFrom the 1940s especially and a little bit later, there’s this notion of convincing non-Catholics that Catholics are good people and citizens too; they’re loyal to their church and loyal to their country as well.

SMI know in the Labor collection has a lot of pro-union flyers, very 1930s style. We also have the William Ball papers. He collected a lot of extremist literature, so while there’s a collection of Communist literature, there’s also some Nazi literature. He studied issues of extremism. At first we didn’t know what to do with this collection, and then we found out he wasn’t a Nazi, thankfully (laughs). He fought in World War II. We also have, if you’re familiar with Father Coughlin, who was a demagogic priest.

WJS: He was a priest version of Rush Limbaugh. He had a popular radio show in the thirties that was at first pro-Roosevelt, and then by 1936, an election year, he’s attacking Roosevelt. He went from mild left to off the right end. In 1938 they got John A. Ryan, another Catholic priest of minimum wage fame, to get on the radio. They wanted a pro-Roosevelt priest that was going to counter Coughlin.

SMBecause of his contribution, FDR invited him to give the benediction at the 37th inauguration, which was the first official benediction. We have a lot of 1937 inauguration materials: flyers, tickets, and such. For Coughlin, we have printings of his newspaper called Social Justice. We also have blog post coming up about Kristallnacht, which the 80th anniversary of that is happening next week.

WJSIt’s interesting that the European Catholics weren’t condemning it at first, but over here at the Catholic University, they were, and we have a recording of that.

Roman coins dating back to 49-48 B.C during the reign of Dictator Julius Caesar. Image courtesy of Catholic University Archives.

I have a question about what you collect; you have both KKK and pro-Catholic material. What do you think is important about having both sides of debate so-to-speak?

WJSWell, the Catholic Church has been pushing since the twenties or so that there’s this middle path between, at that time, fascism and communism. If you’re pro-union, that doesn’t mean you’re a Commie. You can be pro-union like that. So it’s important to them and important to us to show the gamut. Our job as archivists is not to promote a point of view. We collect it and let researchers find it and argue what it means. We’re here to argue, “this is what it means in terms of the documentation we have,” but we try not to put too much interpretation on it.​

SMIn our collection scope we have the history of the Catholic Church, the American Catholic people, and that’s from all perspectives; we won’t just pick the positive or the negative. We also want the reactions. In the 1900s, you had racism, fascism, and communism. If you want to talk about the history of the twentieth century, you have to talk about that. This is not as extreme as dealing with fascism or communism, but recently a researcher here is working with the collection of Richard Neuhaus, a leading conservative intellectual, a Catholic convert who advised George W. Bush. We mentioned Msgr. Higgins, and it’s hard to use these terms with priests, but he was more on the left side of things. Both got the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Higgins got it from Clinton, and Neuhaus from George W. Bush, and we have photos of both getting them.

WJS: They’d revise each other’s works, and most heated discussions between them would end with “we’re still friends, right?” It’s great to see this dialogue from both left and right.

SMWe have both of their papers, so we have both sides of the debate, and researchers can look at both of them if they want to or look at one if they’re just looking at one side. Just by coincidence of how the space was, we have Higgins on one side and Neuhaus on the other. We like to say that if you’re down there in the stacks on a quiet day, you can still hear them debating. We built a website about their debates and used our collection as the sources without interpreting it but pointing out both sides, because both sides are part of the American Catholic experience.

Following up on that, is there anything that would be inadmissible to the museum for any reason besides storage space? What could be considered too extreme?

WJSI don’t think that’s really come up.

SMWe reserve the right not to accept things, and that’s from our collection scope. One thing I like to consider is besides collection space whether or not we have the expertise to maintain it. So if a researcher would want to donate to us an original Michelangelo or da Vinci, while it might be a huge boon to the university, it may not be fair to the piece or to the long-term preservation for us to maintain it. If it’s a piece that has to deal with something that doesn’t fit our collection scope but might fit Howard [University]’s better then we’d try to give it to them. Sometimes it’s a case-by-case basis of whether or not it fits our collection scope, it’s unique, does it fit our expertise, and this isn’t really a factor, but asking, “are we really able to do anything with this?” If it’s a profane piece of work, will it just be shoved away and never see the light of day, because no office will put it on display, we can’t promote it because the university won’t be happy with it, and we have to ask, “is it fair to this piece of art that it’s never shoved away and never seen again?”

Does the university lend pieces to public spaces or museums?

SMJust recently we loaned out to the Knights of Columbus museum in Connecticut for their World War 1 exhibit, and we’ve also loaned out to the Saint Pope John Paul II Center. We’ve also loaned out the vestments of Archbishop John Carrol, and that’s around two hundred years old.

Japanese anti-Christian signboard from 1682, a time when Christianity was illegal in Japan. Image courtesy of Catholic University Archives. 

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