Long before Borough Hall, the State Archives or even Facebook gathered details on people’s daily lives, one’s church might be the only place making note of your birth, death, and milestones in between. The history held by these churches is a treasure, but a buried one. These houses of worship were designed to serve their congregants and a religious purpose, not the needs of academics and others searching for illumination of the past. Five years ago, Carol Smith and the Christ Church Preservation Trust undertook to unearth these treasures, hold them up to the light and place them where all could see it. She’ll recount these efforts and some of the stories discovered in her upcoming talk: “Preserving the Past: Stories from the Records of Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations.”
Philadelphia is especially rich in this history. Pennsylvania’s early principles of religious tolerance made it a welcome home to some of the oldest and most diverse congregations in the United States. Christ Church, St. George’s Methodist Church, Gloria Dei, Mikveh Israel, African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Episcopal Dioceses Archives, Presbyterian Historical Society, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and American Baptist Historical Society all participated in “Digitizing the Records of Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations: Providing Documentation for the Political, Social and Cultural Developments in Philadelphia.” After countless hours of digitizing and transcribing, the 18th and 19th Century records from these institutions and more are in a form that is easily accessible and preserved. The stories revealed are often more than just basic facts. There are hints to financial and social status of members, and church histories of missionary work give clues to indigenous cultures that might otherwise have never been recorded.
Carol is familiar to many in the Historical Society. After arriving in Haddonfield in 1990, her particular set of skills was quickly enlisted to assist the Society as Vice President and President, and she now chairs the Development Committee. She received a BA in American Civilization and a Masters in Material Culture from the University of Pennsylvania. An independent curator and certified Archivist, in 2005 she began her work with the archives at historic Christ Church. That led to this ambitious project in conjunction with the Philadelphia Athenaeum, and in 2022 she received the Sister M. Claude Lane award from the Society of American Archivists for her work.