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David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Original from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Assumptionchurch2.jpgNews over the past weekend that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis would restructure it parishes by closing or merging congregations with others brought to mind all of the same challenges of relocating membership, maintenance costs, manpower shortages, and more long faced by rural churches of many denominations.

The news and reaction does not mention the impact to historical resources as a result of what may be necessary decisions. Every place has a history, and has generated historical records that researchers will want access to in the future. What local history organizations could do should be prioritized by time, resources, and energy available.

One of the easiest things local historical organizations can do when they learn of the closure of a congregation in its area is to pose the question, “Where will the records go?” At the very minimum the local historical organization should know where to send those who are later bound to inquire. However, be prepared appraise the records if the congregation offers them to you: there is a certain amount of responsibility to make them accessible.

The local historical organization additionally should collect as much as it can about the merger or dissolution. While many things happen daily, and it is the job of local history organizations to document history as it happens, not everything can be. Some events are more self-apparently important (e.g., I-35 Bridge Collapse) than others, and certainly the closure of virtually any institution in the community will be significant in the future.

Some local historical organizations who recognize the significance of events like this will even take their service to the community a step further. Such organizations have created special exhibits on the history of the church, others will host memory nights where members can verbalize what their church had meant to them, and still others might conduct formal oral histories with members. All of these kinds of activities not only capture history, but can prove cathartic. History can promote healing.

Other aspects to consider when a congregation opts to close or merge deal with tangible reminders of history. Certainly material culture of the congregation could be evaluated for inclusion in a local historical society’s collection. These should be evaluated on the same basis as any other donation, and must be able to relate several stories and have the integrity of authenticity. The church buildings also need to be carefully considered: is there an appropriate reuse? how will the building be maintained? mothballed?

What are your experiences with closing churches? How have you chosen to preserve the history of those congregations?

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8 Responses to Role for local history during church closures

  1. Patty Dean says:

    One model these parishes might consider is the Montana Preservation Alliance’s NEH-funded Touchstone program. MPA recently assisted the Friends of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church of Danvers, MT (originally settled by Czechs & now a town with only three houses) to not only save their decommissioned church but to also preserve on-site primary sources documenting the dispersed community’s heritage. Digital copies of these resources will also available on the Web via the Montana State Library’s “Montana Memory Project” web site. MPA received $49,146 in NEH “Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant” monies for its Touchstone Project to help communities preserve their heritage and threatened historic places, and share their human experience with a broad audience. Professional historians and curators will pilot this innovative effort with people in four small Montana towns, ensuring that materials are handled, housed, and digitized according to the highest curatorial standards in order to save threatened heritage while creating a hopeful model for celebrating history and reinvigorating neighborhoods and communities. [Excerpted from the NEH grant abstract.] For more detailed info,see: http://www.preservemontana.org/projects/touchstoneproject.html and http://www.preservemontana.org/2010%20preservation%20awards.html

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  2. A. E. N. says:

    In rural Renville County, Minnesota, there are a number of small, abandoned churches. One of these is a former Norwegian Lutheran church that closed its doors in the ’60s, and has been sitting vacant since. Luckily, the building has been preserved and in the last few years descendants of some of the original members have begun to organize annual maintenance events and one particular family has erected a small “booth” where visitors can find two three-ring binders that give extensive information on (as well as photos, if possible, of) the people interred in the cemetery as well as tidbits relating to the history of the church (old anniversary publications, photos, etc.). It’s the best church and cemetery information display that I’ve seen, and is so helpful for family history buffs as well as general historians.

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  3. A. E. N. says:

    Also, regarding the church records: I’m not sure about where Catholic records might be kept, but I think that Luther Seminary’s collections of ELCA records is a brilliant idea.
    http://www.luthersem.edu/archives/

    I know that occasionally church records may end up in strange places (i.e. Minnesota church records relocating to Iowa or Wisconsin, as a few of Renville County’s have done in the past), but I think it’s important to keep them relatively near the church, or at least in a state repository, so that researchers can more easily find them.

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  4. Mike Worcester says:

    The records issue is one that struck me also. We have a number of church records on microfilm, and some of them are closed congregations. Those microfilms make a great resource for tracing those members.

    It is frustrating to find that a person being researched went to a closed congregation whose records have been lost to the mists of time.

    So if they can, get those records filmed before they end up somewhere. While there are those who view microfilms as a dying medium, in the absence of a better–and affordable–alternative, get those records filmed!

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  5. Thelma Boeder says:

    Different denominations have different requirements related to records of a discontinued or merged congregation. In the United Methodist Church, such records are to be deposited with the conference archives. Conference (analagous to a diocese or synod) boundaries vary, but here the Minnesota Annual Conference coincides with the state. Over the past 30 years and to some degree many years before, such records have been brought to the archives housed in Minneapolis at the Minnesota Church Center. This includes churches from predecessor denominations, Methodist, Evangelical United Brethren (and more). I offer this for information for those unfamiliar with our system and to affirm it. Having a denominational policy in place is a huge help in preserving these records. (I retired as archivist several years ago; Kathy Spence Johnson is doing a great job as my successor.)

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  6. Michelle Engel says:

    The archives of the denomination to which the church belongs often acts as the repository for parish registers and other records of closed congregations.

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  7. David Inman says:

    Having just stumbled on some microfiche concerning American Lutheran Church congregations while at the Minnesota Genealogical Society Library, follow-up poking around on the web led me to the Lutheran Seminary’s Memory Work:
    A Guide for ELCA Congregational Archives and History
    (somewhat ironically buried within the site that A. E. N. referenced earlier). Much of the information is applicable to any congregation, not just those considering the use of the ELCA Region 3 Archives.

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  8. Bob Frame says:

    Having worked for several years at the Minnesota Council of Churches, I’m aware that numerous faith-based organizations have offices at the Minnesota Church Center on Franklin Ave. in Minneapolis (mentioned in Thelma Boeder’s post above). Some of these organizations have records and documents stored there in varying states of archival organization and accessibility. The Church Center, and perhaps the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC), could be a starting point for contacts with such groups about their records. In fact, MCC ran a note about this issue in its most recent e-newsletter, “News for the Common Good.”

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