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Preserving Our Past: Maintaining Church Archives
John Hurley, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Director of Information, historian and archivist, stressed the importance of maintaining accurate church records and archives as a way of keeping alive the history of a church in order that we may pass them on from one generation to the next.
One success story of how archiving a church's history has helped to build community was featured in an article published in Vol. IV #2 of InterConnections. The 1st Universalist Church of Denver, CO, rescued and reconstructed their past from forgotten documents stashed in boxes in the basement. This has now led to an annual Archive Sunday service, an intergenerational service involving costumed characters from the church's history.
Another way for a congregation to reconstruct and keep alive its history can be incorporated into the Coming of Age program where a youth is paired with an older, possibly a founding, member of the congregation with the objective of the elder passing on oral history of the church to the youth. The youth can then share these stories with the whole congregation.
A well-written and concise church history is a good marketing tool, so post it on the church's website or include it in the visitor's packet as a way to reaching out to the public.
Hurley emphasized that the work involved in building and maintaining a church's archive should not fall on the shoulder of only one person, but that a committee of archivists would be ideal. The First UU Society of Marietta, OH, has produced a job description for a Church Historian as a part of their shared ministry program.
A copy of your church history can be sent to UUA to be kept in its archive. Other documents that may be archived at UUA are those related to building dedication and significant events like a fiftieth anniversary celebration.
The UUA's Department of Ministry keeps records of all active ministers. Periodically, these archives are sent over to be kept at Harvard Divinity School. To obtain ministerial records of deceased ministers, contact Frances E. O'Donnell, Curator of Manuscripts and Archives, Andover-Harvard Theological Library.
Documents are not the only form of archives, Hurley explained. Artifacts, artwork, and photographs are parts of a church history, and some of them can be valuable. The first step is to create an inventory of all artifacts, and then have some reputable firm do an assessment. Inexpensive replicas of valuable documents could be displayed without harming the original document.
Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton.