Archiving Church Records: What Items to Keep and How to Catalogue Them

By Kathleen Parker

Old documents written with a quill and ink

Image by thewordpoint and used with permission.

Originally written for the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society


“You haven’t an idea of the dirt here,” wrote Martha Elizabeth Everett St. John to her mother in 1891. She was describing life in Pittsburgh after moving to that city with her husband, Charles Elliott St. John, the new minister of the First Unitarian Church. Years later she wrote more happily, “The people are all so fond of each other that it is impossible to make them go home when they are together.” Martha's words appear in a collection of letters that she wrote weekly to her mother in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her mother saved these letters, which covered a span of nearly ten years, and luckily, they were found by chance among her papers after she died. In response to a request from Mrs. Ruth M. Anderson, Martha wrote out the portions of the letters that pertained to the church in Pittsburgh and contributed them to the church for the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the charter. The letters constitute a valuable source of information, consulted richly in the preparation of Caroline Mason’s 1940 history of the church, and Kathleen Parker’s history of Unitarian Universalism in Western Pennsylvania.[1] Much would have been lost if somewhere along the way, the letters had been discarded. They are a case in point as to why the archiving of church records is so important.

Church members generally agree that saving church records is a good thing—but the reality of doing that raises a number of questions. Which items should be saved, and by extension, is it okay to throw some items out? Given the quantity of papers that churches produce, and the limitations of available space, one is forced to ask whether, where, and how these records can be safely and properly stored. Perhaps the biggest question of all is this: Who will do the work of collecting, sorting, and cataloging the documents? And given the limitations of expertise, who will advise on how they should be catalogued?

In the years from 2007 to 2010, I participated with members of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in a project to collect and catalogue the records of the six Unitarian Universalist churches in the greater Pittsburgh area. Thus, I write this essay, not as a trained archivist, but as a historian who led an effort, under the direction of a trained archivist well known in Pittsburgh, Mr. David Grinnell, to produce an archive collection for the records of six Unitarian Universalist churches in the Greater Pittsburgh area. The completion of this project resulted in the creation of the Western Pennsylvania Unitarian Universalist Congregational Archive, housed at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center in downtown Pittsburgh. In this essay, I attempt to summarize what we learned in that project and to offer some step-by-step “words of advice” that I hope will be of use to others embarking on a similar project.

First, a congregation must have in mind an easily accessible facility where the records can be stored. For the Pittsburgh area UU churches, that facility is the Heinz History Center. Not every congregation is lucky enough to have such a facility in their community, but the point of this is to say that a safe place must be found. At the First Church of Pittsburgh, previous generations of parishioners had thankfully safeguarded important irreplaceable materials – such as letters, Board minutes and Congregational meeting minutes, Annual Reports, sermons, and—​scrapbooksand in 1990, a historically minded interim minister, the Rev. Dr. Clarke Dewey Wells, gathered these records and deposited them at the Heinz Center. In 2007, the Pittsburgh church obtained a grant from the UU Funding Program (UUFP) to assist with the expense of collecting additional records from the six area churches, cataloging them, and preparing a finding aid for each collection. What follows is a bit of advice based on the work we did together and with the archive staff at the Heinz History Center.

Some Terms to Know

To begin, there are some terms used in this essay that require prior explanation. The word records is used to refer broadly to the original documents, the papers that are contemporary with the time of past events. To create a collection, such documents are sorted and placed in acid-free folders that are labeled and numbered in pencil, and housed in acid-free cardboard boxes that have an acid-free lid.

A collection is the completed set of boxed and foldered documents, organized according to the series (categories) that are identified on the basis on available records. Each series consists of items that are related in content, definition, or theme. Examples of series titles might be “music programs,” “sermons,” or “religious education curricula.” The aim of the finished project is to produce a collection that is identified by the name of the organization or institution and assigned an accession number, as seen in the example: the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh Collection, MSS#550. The assession number will vary depending on the archival location where the collection is being stored.

Forming a Committee and Securing Church Records

The first step is to establish a small group of people – such as a Committee on Church History & Archives—who agree on the importance of archival records and are willing to commit some time to the effort of collecting and preserving them. Committee members should approach the project with a sense of pacing, knowing that the entire project, from start to finish, could take anywhere from one to three years, depending on the size of the collection and other variables. In other words, this is not something you are likely to complete in a few weeks time; moreover, once the collection is established, more records will likely be added over time.

The needs associated with this project may require that special funding be raised or set aside to pay for the acid-free folders and boxes, obtain professional advice, and offer a modest stipend to the person or persons who will perform the work. This not only provides greater incentive to accomplish the work in a timely manner, it also invests the congregation more tangibly in the purposes and outcomes of the project.

The committee will first want to design a plan for finding records—some items may already be stored in a file or closet in the church, but many others will be found in parishioners’ homes, hidden away in long-forgotten boxes in basements or attics. The entire congregation should be made aware of the project, with a special appeal to long-time parishioners to search out where they may have placed old church records for “safe keeping” in their homes. It is probably good to repeat this call two or three times (over a period of six weeks or so), because people get busy and forget!

The Committee will need to establish a place of deposit where documents can be brought, somewhere secure. Parishioners should place documents they want to donate in envelopes or folders labeled with the name of the parishioner who is donating them, which will insure that donors will be acknowledged in the finding aid. Donors should understand that the items they donate will probably not be returned to them. There should be no limitation on donated items—the idea at this point is to collect all you can.

To Save or Not to Save—Some Tricky Decisions

The collecting process should continue for about three months, during which time the Church Archive Committee can begin to sort materials and prepare an inventory of everything that has been collected. This is the most tedious part of the project, but it is from the inventory that categories can be determined: sermons, Board minutes, financial reports, Annual Congregational Meetings, Women’s Alliance records, music programs, religious education curricula and/or RE committee minutes, correspondence of ministers, correspondence of lay people, youth programs, building and grounds, and other categories as appropriate.

Once the papers are sorted by category, the documents in each category will need to be arranged by date, by alphabet, or some other system of ordering that makes sense for a particular category of papers. Some examples: minutes are best sorted by date; sermons are best sorted alphabetically by the minister or lay speaker’s last name; letters are best sorted by the last name of the letter writer (not the recipient). There is no firm rule about the system of ordering within a category—the committee can determine how best to arrange the folders.

The process of sorting and arranging within categories will likely involve decisions about whether to throw some items away. Original letters should never be thrown out, but if you have ten duplicates of a certain item, you only need to save one or two. If there is original handwriting (ex: explanatory notes) on a document, save the copy with the handwritten notes. For example, you might have four or five copies of the same financial reports for twenty years running! You only need to save one set of financial reports. And if reports or minutes come secured in a three-ring binder (church committees and boards love three-ring binders!), the papers should be removed from the binder and placed in acid-free folders. The empty binders can then be discarded.

Among the documents, there might be a letter or report that contains sensitive or potentially embarrassing information. Documents like this should not be thrown out or redacted. It is important to remember that the historical record of the church is being preserved for future generations, who will not be served well if the truth of past events is compromised or erased. Secrets kept “in the basement” can haunt a church (or other organization) and prevent it from openly confronting an issue. In a recent essay, UU scholar Cynthia Grant Tucker asks if we are willing “to let our stories’ subjects be human, which is to say multi-faceted and imperfect.” She reasons, “However good our intentions may seem, we want to make sure we are not simply taking the easy way out by sanitizing our history. There is nothing loving about concealing the imperfections of past generations so that their descendants will never know them as recognizable human beings.”[2] Canadian UU minister John Marsh makes a similar argument: "Good history shows us the skeletons in the closet. Great history takes them out and makes them dance."[3] Parishioners in the future will want an honest understanding of their church’s history, as this will allow them to be more honest with themselves about what they have become in their present circumstances. This will be more possible if archival documents are preserved intact.

With this approach in mind, it may be advisable to “seal” some sensitive documents for fifty to seventy-five years until affected individuals (and their children) are deceased. For example, if there has been a controversy about a minister or other staff member in the church, papers related to that issue should be kept sealed at least until that minister is deceased, and possibly until his or her children have grown up and/or moved away. This provides a measure of personal protection to affected individuals, while at the same time preserving the integrity of the documents for their long term value to the historical record.

Finally, you may wonder whether to save every order of service or every newsletter. The answer to this question will depend primarily on how much space you have. Such weekly or monthly documents offer much detail about the ongoing life of the church community. Moreover they can be consulted on sermon topics, social justice activities, the music being sung or performed, church school programming, social events, and more. They may also contain reprinted versions of addresses, inspirational writings, or poems that were of importance at a particular time. If space is in short supply, it may be best to save one of every newsletter and a sampling of the orders of service, but this is a matter of discretion for each congregation.

As has been stated above, documents to be saved should be placed in acid-free folders which are filed in acid-free cardboard boxes, to be stored on shelves (off the floor) in a cool room (55-65 degrees F.) safe from moisture and humidity. The folders and boxes will be identified, or catalogued, via a labeling and numbering system delineated in the finding aid that must be developed to make your church documents searchable and accessible.

Arranging Foldered Documents in Boxes

Once you have organized and foldered your documents according to series titles, you are ready to label and box the folders in keeping with the Finding Aid you are developing. The Finding Aid is the necessary link between creating the collection and making the contents of the collection searchable and accessible. If your collection is housed in an archival institution, the collection will be given an MSS (manuscript) number, which is how it will be referred to in that facility.

With the Pittsburgh project, we were advised by the archivists at the Heinz Center to organize our series titles alphabetically. In this way, the series “Anniversaries” comes first; “Annual Reports” is second; “Board Minutes” is third; “Building and Grounds” is next; “Correspondence” is after that; somewhere near the end, after “Religious Education,” one finds “Sermons”; and at the very end is “Women’s Alliance.” It is somewhat helpful, in cases where items do not fit any of these conventional categories, to create a series titled, “Special Topics.” Again, the alphabetical ordering of series titles should be followed throughout the collection.

The ordering of folders within a series, by contrast, may be arranged by alphabet, or date, or some other scheme that appropriately accommodates the content of that series. Once that ordering has been established, the arrangement of the folders in that series should be continuous, regardless of whether they complete a box or carry over into a second box. If a series of folders ends in the middle of a box, start the next series in the second half of that same box. Thus, a series might fill the first half of a box, or it might fill two and a half boxes, to be followed with the first folder of the next series in the remaining half box. The numbering of the folders in each box starts with no. 1 and continues to the end of the box, whether or not a new series starts midway in the box. Thus, if a new series of folders starts in the second half of a box where the first half is already full, the new series should continue the numbering already begun for that box. Finally, each box should begin with folder no. 1, whether the folders in that box start with a new series or continue with a series carried over from the previous box.

The labeling of each folder is best done by hand with a No. 2 pencil, writing directly on the extended labeling tab of the folder itself. Avoid using stick-on labels, as such labels can become dry or loose, and fall off. Folder labeling should include several pieces of information, arranged something like this:

  1. A word or phrase on the top left states the name of the collection (First Unitarian Church of Pgh) and under the name is the accession number (MSS#550).
  2. The “Folder Number” on the top right indicates the folder number as it occurs in that box; under the folder number is the box number.
  3. A phrase in the top middle of the label states the series name and contents of the folder, such as, Series XI: Religious Education: Curricula, 1980s.

Here is a Sample of how to label a folder:

Folder Labels
Name of Collection Series Name and Folder Contents Folder and Box Number
First Unitarian Church of Pgh 
MSS #550
Board Minutes, January 1930 Folder #5 
Box 3

Preparing the Container List

As you organize and label your folders according to series titles, prepare a Container List that provides a name and Roman numeral for each series, and lists the folders within each series by number and content. An example of this is shown in the following excerpt from the Finding Aid for the records of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh. Please note that the scope of years included in the series is indicated to the right of the series title, and the date pertaining to the contents of each folder is stated at the right of that folder. Note also that the series, box, and folder numbering follows the scheme outlined in the section above on “Arranging Foldered Documents.”

An Introduction for the Finding Aid

When the container list is complete, an "Introduction" should be added to the Finding Aid. This introduction should ideally include a brief description of the collection; a historical summary of the organization or church to which the collection pertains; and summary descriptions of what each series contains. Below is an excerpt of the introductory material of the Finding Aid for the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh collection. See here the title of the collection, the MSS#, the number of boxes, the location of the collection, the names of organizations that sponsored the work, a brief Historical Sketch of the congregation, and the Scope and Content Note, which provides short summary descriptions of the nature of the documents in each Series. In the completed Finding Aid, the introductory material will come first, followed by the Container List, which has already been prepared.

The beginning of your Finding Aid could look something like this, with names changed to reflect your own congregation or organization:

First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, Records (Pittsburgh, PA), 1860-2009
Catalog Number: MSS #550
Extent: 22 boxes

Library and Archives Division
Senator John Heinz Regional History Center
Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania
1212 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222


Funding to process this collection was received, in large part, through The Unitarian Universalist Funding Program of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, with matching funds provided by the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church (Pittsburgh, PA), East Suburban Unitarian Universalist Church (Murrysville, PA), First Unitarian Church (Pittsburgh, PA), and the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills (Pittsburgh, PA).

Brief Historical Sketch

Unitarianism first came to Pittsburgh in the person of Benjamin Bakewell, an English immigrant who journeyed to Pittsburgh from his home in New York in 1808, intending to take up the manufacture of glass. He did this very successfully, and over time found other inhabitants interested in starting a Unitarian church. With the help of Rev. John Campbell, a Unitarian minister recruited from England, Bakewell and other Unitarians in Pittsburgh built the First Unitarian Church on the corner of Smithfield and Virgin Alley (later Oliver Avenue). The society was maintained with great difficulty because of the transience of ministers after Campbell’s death. It disintegrated by the time of Bakewell’s death in 1844, and the building was willed to Bakewell’s heirs.

The society was revived in 1850 under the leadership of Mordecai De Lange, who served the church as a minister at large until 1860; he was followed by the Rev. Walter Wilson, the first Unitarian Minister ordained in Pittsburgh, who stayed through the duration of the Civil War. De Lange returned for a few years after that, before moving to Meadville, PA. The society went into another remission from that point until the arrival of Rev. James Graham Townsend in 1889.

The congregation had better chances of succeeding after the advent of industrial growth in Pittsburgh, which brought a wider variety of people to the region. The Rev. Charles Elliott St. John followed after Townsend’s departure in 1891. St. John was successful in soliciting funds to build a new church on the corner of Craig Street and Fifth Avenue, in the heart of the fast developing section of Oakland. St. John was eager to have the church serve the good of the city, as he and many members became involved in the work of the Kingsley Settlement House, the Pittsburgh Civic Club, and the adoption of water filtration by the city for the good of public health. His Social Gospel sense of mission however, did not extend as freely to the steel workers in the Homestead Strike of 1892. Prominent members at this time included Mary Semple, Maria and Alice Holdship, George Morgan, James Handy, Robert & Sophia McCargo.

After St. John left in 1900, the Rev. L. Walter Mason arrived. He would serve the church until his death from pneumonia on Jan. 1, 1929. Mason’s ministry was marked by steady growth and increased stability. When the congregation acquired an organ from Andrew Carnegie (through contacts with the Music Committee—Maria Holdship, Mary Semple, and Miss Lippa), the decision was made to sell the building on Craig Street and build a new and larger church on Morewood Avenue at Ellsworth. The new Phillip Wirsching organ was constructed to fit the chancel space in the new church.

[This particular historical summary continues to 2010. It is followed by the Scope and Content Note—see example below.]

Scope and Content Note

The folders that comprise these records have been catalogued according to the series listed below. The scope and content of each series is described as follows:

Series I: Anniversaries (1963-2004)—includes anniversary celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the church founding (1965); the 75th anniversary of the current building (1979); the 100th anniversary of the church founding, aka Charter Day (1990); and the 100th anniversary of the building (2004). Files in this series are arranged in chronological order by date. The majority of them pertain to the 1965 celebration of the church founding.

Series II: Annual Reports—Annual Reports are presented at the yearly Congregational Meeting by the Minister, the President of the Board, and various committee heads. They provide valuable information as to what took place at the church in the previous year.

Series III: Board of Trustees—is contained in three boxes. Box 2 includes three folders of Board Correspondence, 1941-1976; twenty folders of Board Minutes and Financial Reports (combined), 1969-1991; one folder contains a list of past Board presidents. Box 3 is comprised of Board-related matters, including the 1990 Pulpit Search.

Series IV: Buildings and Grounds—files contain drawings, correspondence, and committee reports for projects pertaining to the church building and the grounds that surround it. The files are organized chronologically and broken up into sub-series by project and time.

Series V: Church Governance—these files are contained in part of one box and include general governance policy matters, like by-laws, church self-surveys, a minister survey, staff performance reviews, etc. There are 22 folders in this series.

Series VI: Church Life—these files make up the second half of one box and the first part of another box. They include activities pertaining to on-going and/or special church activities that are not related to governance or religious education or committee work. Examples include the library, coffee hour, auctions, art, the 1980 Concatenation, the Mason Memorial Open House; and files for non-governing groups: the Humanist Group, the Jefferson Club, the Men’s Group, the Roving Roundtable; and files for personal services like counseling, funerals, parish visitors, or weddings.

Series VIII: Congregational Meetings (1893-1993)—here, in five files in the first part of Box 8, are found the minutes of the Congregational Meetings for the years indicated, nearly complete, 1893 through 1989. Congregational Meetings minutes include reports from the various committees and are especially informative of events and feelings about those events being carried out by groups in the church.

Series IX: Correspondence (1889-1979)—these wonderful files make up the balance of Box 8 and include early letters concerning pledges, various items of internal and external correspondence, the letters of ministers relating to church matters, and a letter related to the Citizen’s League that sponsored the church water filter ca. 1896-99.

Series XI: Financial Reports (1944-1995)—these seven folders in Box 9 consist of financial calculations compiled by the church treasurers. There are reports for every year from 1944 to 1977; there is an additional report for 1995, as well as a report with documents for 1987.

Series XII: Ledgers and Receipts (1889-1998)—seven folders that complete Box 9 and seven folders at the front of Box 10; they contain financial documents beginning with bills and receipts from the 1890s (mundane but fascinating); informal budgets spanning the years 1928 to 1998; canvass materials for various years since 1965; and a post-WWII church audit.

Series XIII: Music Programming (1953-2008)—sixteen folders make up the second half of Box 10; includes a program for the visiting Chicago Children’s Choir, materials related to the Folk Orchestra established in the 1990s (1994-2008), an intriguing letter that appears to have been written by Marilyn Thomas (church organist for something like 15-20 years), a notice of Pete Seeger’s 1962 concerts at the church, and more.

[Series descriptions continue through Series XIX for Sermons, and XXIII for Womanspirit, etc.]

The Last Step: Labeling Each Box in the Collection

When all folders have been labeled, and the introductory material in the finding aid is complete, the final step is to print permanent labels for each of the boxes. Each label is printed with the Name of the Congregation, the MSS# of the collection, the box number, and any other information that seems necessary for identifying a box with a particular collection and specifying its place in the collection. With this final step, the Church Archive Committee has nearly completed its task.

Yet, one more step remains – the finding aid should be posted on the congregation’s website and it should be publicized as widely as possible – to let folks know about the collection and what it contains. Ideally it will attract parishioners as well as outside researchers, and it will provide the basis for further research on the history of the congregation, the district, or the region. Such research is now more possible because the records have been safely preserved. Moreover, the collection and the finding aid have made it possible to know what records are there and how to locate them. Generations today and long into the future will be able to learn from the documents left behind by those who came before, making possible a greater appreciation of the legacy that must be carried forward into the future.

Postscript: Electronic Accessibility

The process that has just been completed is essential for retaining and cataloging precious original church records to insure they are not lost, and to make them searchable for future investigation. A further step can be taken anywhere along the way in this process to post selected records on-line, such as special sermons, important letters, and photographs. This will require access to a scanner that can produce scanned photographs as well as multi-page pdfs from multi-page documents. The work will need to be performed through the coordinated effort of the archival committee and the persons who manage the church web-site. A special page in the site should be set aside where links will take researchers to the documents in question. This final step is very time-consuming and requires yet another level of planning and implementation; even so, churches find this final effort a worthwhile thing to do. Making selected documents accessible electronically does not negate the need to physically save and preserve the original documents. It provides wider access to some of the special materials, while at the same time inviting readers and researchers to pursue a more thorough search of the full collection.

Additional Sources


  1. Caroline (Mrs. L. Walter) Mason, Early Unitarianism in Pittsburgh and the Story of the First Church (First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, 1940); Kathleen R. Parker, Here We Have Gathered: The Story of Unitarian Universalism in Western Pennsylvania, 1808-2008 (Ohio Meadville District, 2010).
  2. [Cynthia Grant Tucker, “Memory’s Ministry: Nurturing Our Congregations and Our Narratives,” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, vol. XXXIV, spring 2011, pp. 1,6.
  3. John Marsh, "Review of Guarding Sacred Embers" in Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, vol. XXXV, spring 2012, p. 191.

About the Author

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen R. Parker is a member of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh. She teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh and serves as editor the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History....

For more information contact .