Image courtesy of Seton Heritage Ministries
By Dee Gallo, Provincial Archivist
It seems impossible that anyone who followed Pope Francis’ visit to the United States did not hear that one of two gifts President Barack Obama gave to His Holiness was a key to the original door of the Stone House, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s first residence here in Emmitsburg, Maryland, on the property on which she founded her religious community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. Dating from 1809, this key appears to be like so many others of its time. Yet its symbolism sets it apart – it literally and figuratively opened the door to let in new students who would experience Catholic education and to send out women religious to care for the poor and voiceless by opening service ministries that continue on into our own century.
Up until recently, the key given to the Pope and a second one like it were under the curative care of Provincial Archives of the Daughters of Charity, just across the lawn from where the Stone House now sits. Some people have wondered how President Obama ever came in possession of the key and whether it was really his to give. Well, this key’s path from its archival home to the United States Department of State is an excellent example of the legalities which all archives and archivists must observe when transferring items from their collections.
About two months ago, my colleague, Rob Judge, Executive Director of The National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, told me he wanted to discuss something “confidential” with me. Now, we collaborate with the Shrine frequently to assist in loaning our artifacts for their exhibits; the “gift key,” in fact, was until recently on exhibit in the Shrine’s museum. However, the committee Rob had convened – and sworn to secrecy – was to face another challenge. He had been contacted by the State Department who wondered whether some artifact representing the life of Mother Seton might be obtained and transformed into a gift from the President to the Pope. The Shrine folks were elated – what a wonderful way to let the world know about Mother Seton and the National Shrine! For my part, I was elated as well – an artifact from our Archives would become a part of national history! But “loose lips would sink Papal gifts”; if any news leaked out, we were out of the running.
And so began weeks of closed-door meetings. I enlisted the help of one of my staff, Bonnie Weatherly, who has been working in the Emmitsburg archives for 35 years and has been assisting the Shrine museum with their displays for almost as long. We went through Archives’ collection of Seton artifacts, making lists of objects that might meet the criteria. Our little committee, however, kept coming back to the key for it had the best “narrative.” As Rob suggested, as a gift, it would be “a fitting tribute for a woman who opened the doors for so many women to serve the poor,” and for Pope Francis, “a man who has been a strong advocate for those who are poor and marginalized.”
Then came the legal transfer of the object from our Archives to the State Department.
Any item in an archives has to be “accessioned” or taken into a collection by making a record of its existence and location. This ensures that the repository has the legal “physical” right to it as property. In order to give the key to the State Department for the President to present it as a gift, however, we had to “deaccession” the key. As Provincial Archivist, I’m just the curator of the collections – the Daughters of Charity, Province of St. Louise, actually own everything in the archives. So the State Department presented us with a Donor Form, which I prepared and sent off for the Provincial Visitatrix, Sr. Louise Gallahue, to sign. In addition to acknowledging donation, the agreement also expressly stipulated that were there some change of plans and the key not be given to Pope Francis, it would be returned to the Archives. Only when that document had been completed and received was the key legally no longer part of our collections. The final step, then, was to change our records to show that one of the two keys labeled as items 1-3-#266 [“keys to the original doors of the Stone House”] was donated to the State Department. This will show to archivists (and researchers) in years to come that the Provincial Archives once possessed TWO keys to the original doors of the Stone House and what the disposition of one of those had been. The second key will go into the Shrine Museum to replace its predecessor.
The overall implications of the gift are more numerous than one can count. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s name has been mentioned in the national press and in almost every Mass and religious ceremony at which the Pope presided. The Daughters and Sisters of Charity who follow in her works have been highlighted as continuing her wonderful legacy. And the story of her roles as wife, mother, and widow now give refreshed meaning to Catholic family life. Ah, but to the archivist who was lucky enough to attend that first confidential meeting and to navigate the legal steps of this once-in-a-lifetime property transfer – wow! Just wow!