Sadly, I got a big NO to my request to see the original record of my great-great-grandmother’s birth at the Cathedral of Sts. Pete and Paul here in Charlotte Amalie. My contact emailed me that the Monsignor “is in the process of trying to get the records preserved and until that time cannot allow anyone to handle the records.” This was after being told that a staff member would do the search and I asked just to be present to see. I’ve reiterated my request of course, but received no further response.
This is the first time in my 25 years of family history research that I’ve been denied access to original documents. I sat in a vault in the basement of a church in Philadelphia and paged with reverence through 225-year-old registries. In a city archive I was handed carefully wrapped books of 19th century handwritten court records and told to unwrap them; they would be rewrapped in fresh acid-free paper when I was finished. I’ve dug through archival boxes at historical societies, libraries, state repositories. Records are for a reason. They preserve names and events for posterity and that means they must be open and shared. To say I am disappointed is to not even scratch the surface. This place, this birth, this ancestor, Marianne Riou, represents a turning point in our family’s history that put us in one place rather than another, whose journey to Philadelphia from here meant her descendants are American rather than Haitian or French or West Indian, perhaps why we are white rather than black. I came a long way to see her birth record, not just in sea miles but in years of the painstaking, often tedious work of family research. I am crushed.
Several years ago I was working on Jack’s family and needed to get copies of some birth records from Romania. But Romania does not allow microfilming or photocopying of the records. They are available nowhere except in the official archives which you can visit in person with prior permission, but you will only gain access to those specific books and pages that you request ahead of time. Paging through a parish record to find the complete picture of a family is not allowed. In order to get the records we needed we had to write a letter to the government of Romania asking for specific records and giving our reasons for wanting them. The letter was then translated into Romanian and sent to the appropriate agency. We were granted permission through an agent who went to the archives, found the records we needed and the officials created an abstract of the record because no photocopying is allowed. We have never seen what the original looks like but just have a paper with the information and a lot of stamps and signatures on it.
So the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul is like Romania and their attitude goes against the very purpose of archives. Archives are by definition old and many are delicate, especially in challenging environments like the Caribbean. But they are either preserved or not preserved. If they are not preserved they will crumble into dust one day all on their own whether someone looks at them or not. And it would have been nice to see Marianne’s baptismal record before they are lost forever while the Monsignor denies access to those of us seeking to interpret and share the stories they tell.