Not everyone’s past is full of rainbows and butterflies, but it’s important to remember the bad and celebrate the good.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Office for Archives and Record Management helps individuals, parishes and entities within the archdiocese to do just that. The archives of the archdiocese collects, preserves, organizes and makes available for research anything and everything having to do with the history of the archdiocese and its 10 counties, said Shelly Taylor, the director of archives and records management.

“Anything and everything” can be boiled down to five major areas of collections: corporate administrative documents going back to the founding of the archdiocese in 1843, historic records of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, records of various Catholic entities, such as the Milwaukee Council of Catholic Women, records of Catholic individuals (the records of Archbishop John Henni seem to be popular), and records of closed and merged parishes. 

Canon law states that every parish is to maintain its own parish archive, said Taylor, and when a parish either closes or is merged with another, it has the option of transferring its records to the office of archives, who will then work with the pastor and parish staff to obtain records when needed. Currently, the office holds records for 75 to 80 parishes, said Amy Nelson, the associate director of archives and records management.

The office gets requests on a regular basis for sacramental records (records of an individual’s baptism, confirmation and marriage). Many people need a copy of their baptismal certificate if they wish to be married or confirmed in the Church, or if someone is to chosen to be a godparent or a Confirmation sponsor, to prove that he or she is Catholic. Nelson said the office gets requests for about 400 sacramental records a year.

In addition to gaining access to sacramental records, the archives helps parishes with technical questions, such as how to fill out a baptismal register, general historical questions the parish may have, as well as questions about records retention, which can include anything from asking how long to keep a bulletin to asking about accessing school transcripts.

The archives can also help a parish organize its historical documents under the right conditions and in an understandable system. “If they go and open up a room or closet and say, ‘What is all this stuff? Where do I start?’ we’re willing to go out there and spend the day and say, ‘Let’s start with this box,’” Nelson said. “Sometimes it’s easier for us to be there to answer some of those questions than for them to explain it over the phone.”

Some individuals like to dive into their familial history, and the office of archives helps with that as well. Those interested in their family history prior to 1920 should make a request to the office, and the office staff will find the information needed. The Office of Archives and Records Management handles about 500 to 600 genealogical records requests a year, said Nelson. 

As this year is the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s 175th anniversary, the archives has been busy, said Taylor. It has played a role in commissioning Fr. Steven Avella to write five brief summaries of archdiocesan history to place on the website, as well as content that focuses on certain themes of archdiocesan history. The office has also been a part of the core planning committee for the celebration of the 175th anniversary, has answered questions for different departments of the archdiocese, and has worked with the teachers who formed the 175th anniversary curriculum.

While the archives is often busy with a small staff, both Nelson and Taylor want to remind individuals that they are always willing to help.

“It’s important and exciting to preserve history and documents,” said Nelson. “Being able to share the things we find interesting and important to the story of the Church and to share that with people is great.”