On Feb. 1, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond announced the online launch of a database of previously unpublished sacramental records, dating back to Louisiana's past under French and Spanish colonial rule. The records document the baptisms of many slaves, as well as free black citizens.
“Our local Catholic Church has a long and diverse history,” said Archbishop Aymond. “It is our hope that this will towards healing division in our community and an acknowledgment of the sins of the past,
The previously unseen records date back to 1777, beginning with baptisms that took place during that year at St. Louis Cathedral. The first batch of records to be released, in five digitized volumes, runs up to 1801, 11 years before Louisiana became the 18th U.S. state.
In five dense volumes, the newly-released records detail the baptisms performed by Spanish missionaries – typically for men, women and children whose last names were unknown, unrecorded, or never given. They also record funerals, and the marriages that were permitted to slaves. Despite the lack of last names, researchers may be able to determine the identity of individuals by checking these baptismal records against other city archives.
Many of the last names that were recorded – generally those of slave owners, or former slaves who were freed – are exactly the same names that one still commonly encounters in the city of New Orleans.
On Feb. 1, archdiocesan archivist Lee Leumas spoke enthusiastically of the “incredible amount of history in these volumes.”
However, Archbishop Aymond acknowledged that the Church's role in New Orleans' colonial history was regrettable in many ways. Local church officials refused to enforce the numerous Papal condemnations of slavery, and some religious orders even owned slaves.
“I apologize in the name of the Church,” the archbishop said, “because we allowed some of these things to continue.”
Despite its possession of the historical materials, the archdiocese has not had the resources to operate a research center. Many of the documents now being made available are fragile, and uniquely difficult to digitize in ways that more modern documents are not.
But as Leumas noted, the digital format was worth the investment – since it can make the contents of its Office of Archives and Records immediately accessible to anyone with an interest, around the U.S. or the world. “People can sit in their slippers at 11 o'clock at night and read away,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
However, the records will primarily be of interest to historians and dedicated genealogical researchers, since they are written in Spanish and with a cursive script that can be difficult to decipher. Some of the records have deteriorated significantly, although others are well-preserved.
While the records themselves will appeal mostly to specialists, Archbishop Aymond hopes that they will contribute to the kinds of scholarship and cultural projects that promote an honest reckoning with the past, and reconciliation between diverse peoples.
“We hope this is a means to combat racism, which is a sin,” he said, “and to help young people grow in a deeper understanding of their history.”