A Tale from the Archives


Joseph M. Lalley

Our volunteers who are generously transcribing the sacramental records of the Diocese of Wilmington for placement on our web site sometimes come across the unexpected. Recently two such generous persons discovered they have a common ancestor and are now happily sharing the results of their research.

A surprise of a much different nature stirred the ubiquitous curiosity of Michael Carroll as he began putting the finishing touches on the databases containing the mid-nineteenth century sacramental records of St. Peter Church, New Castle, Delaware before placing them on our web site. He wrote:

"I've noticed that in the 704 records for St. Peter, Newcastle, there is a huge gap in the page numbers between page 85 and page 106. The dates at the end of page 85 are 1865 12 23 but the first date on page 106 is 1865 07 27 ?

Get to it, Sherlock Holmes!


I replied to Mr. Carroll :

Elementary, my dear Watson!

Patience, fortitude, and concentration are now demanded of you, my dear man. Read the facts carefully lest the solution elude you.

Indeed there is such a gap. There was but a single register for this church containing both baptisms and marriages. The first half of the book was reserved for baptisms, the second for marriages. Someone did not anticipate that the baptismal half would fill up the register faster than the marriage half.

The solution was to place a note at the bottom of page 85 beneath the record dated 1865 12 23 announcing that "baptisms for 1866 are found at the end of the Matrimonial Register in this book."

Little did those who conceived this pragmatic remedy anticipate the confusion that arose when the register was microfilmed. As Nancy Menton Lyons photocopied the microfilm, she found it impossible to determine the pagination of the register. With characteristic persistence and dedication, my dear Watson, our ever-reliable Nancy obtained permission to examine the small original book. Sad to report, her visit to St. Peter brought her no closer to an orderly resolution of the pagination problem.

After my trip to Wilmington last July, your obedient colleague called upon the distinguished Donn Devine, CG [SM], CGI [SM] and archivist for the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware. At first Donn saw no need to do more than look at the microfilm. Soon the distinguished archivist recognized that he could address our concerns more effectively by examining the St. Peter register with Nancy and me in New Castle.

For an hour or so we compared the microfilm copies with the pagination of the register. We soon discerned that space in the register for additional records continued to haunt the dear Reverend Fathers. To solve this problem they recorded sacramental records on pieces of paper of varying sizes which then were loosely inserted at odd intervals. Compounding matter still further, some marriages and baptisms were recorded on the same page. Egad, some records were even written on the backsides of the loose pages. When microfilmed, the same full page was partially obscured by as many as ten inserted pages.

To our deep dismay, someone had the loose pages bound into the register during a rebinding. Some ingenious soul even taped two loose pages together to form a single page!

We also observed that after page 106 one finds for the most part baptisms with an occasional page containing both marriages and baptisms or a page containing marriages only.

The first issue now became how to bring some order to all this confusion while honoring Donn's fervent wish to maintain the pagination sequence of the original register. After considerable discussion we agreed to number each page in the register including the inserted sheets with a unique numeral which identified its place in the register whether the page contained baptismal or a marriage records or both. I agreed to send Donn hard copy printouts of both files permitting researchers to find data in the order they appear in the register and on microfilm.

I subsequently transcribed all the marriage records and baptismal records up to page 115; Nancy did the rest, a task by no means less easy to transcribe because many records were scarcely legible.

The second issue was how to manage the different formats within the register without creating a new format consisting of many columns which in turn would be not consistent with the formats we now use on our web site. You do understand, my dear Watson, that these format differences are irreconcilable. With Donn's blessing we have combined all baptisms into a single file and separated out all marriages into a different file without changing the unique number assigned to an individual page. The gap you observed, Watson, was as a consequence of the creation of separate baptismal and marriage files for our web.

The third issue was how to identify the loose pages now bound in the register. As we worked our way through transcribing the records, we hit upon a simple solution. A sharp (#) after the page number denotes that that page had been inserted into the register.

The trials and tribulations Nancy endured with this register made her think she was experiencing burnout. I mean not to boast, Watson, but was it not fortunate that I arrived on the scene at such a timely moment?

And so, my dear Watson, the case is laid out before you. Difficult issues with simple solutions prove that there are "no problems, only solutions." Elementary, Watson, elementary.


Response from Watson :

"Splendid sleuthing, my dear Holmes. A tale well told and itself a revelation. Sleep well, my dear Holmes.


Postscript just in from from Nancy :

"It is amazing we didn't all quit!"