There is an almost sensuous pleasure in doing research. The sheer fun of the process itself is as important as the final product. I had already enjoyed this pleasure in two brief visits to the Episcopal Archives, so I was delighted when a generous grant and a sympathetic supervisor made possible a six-week leave of absence for further work.
After settling into my quarters, I climbed the stairs to the archives and presented myself to Jennifer Peters, raring to go. Among other joys, I was looking forward to working again with her and others on the Archives' staff. I had never failed to find them eager to help, efficient, and kindly trusting that no matter how near I pressed my work to closing time, I would actually leave when I was supposed to.
My project involves a history of St. Margaret's House, one of several schools in the Episcopal Church that prepared women for professional ministry in the years before women could be ordained. I am a graduate of St. Margaret's and although I was something of a rebel while a student, my subsequent work in a church that was largely ignorant, even suspicious, of women church workers gradually won my respect for my teachers. It is important for me to recover their story for the Church's collective memory.
When the school closed in 1966, its records were sent to Austin. Much of it, of course, consists of what would be considered dry, impersonal materials, but it is always satisfying to realize how informative these sources can be. Things like commencement bulletins, for instance, quite apart from providing a chronology of how graduation was observed, also offered insight into the character of the school at different points in its history. The coziness of the intimate gatherings in early years gave way in the 30s to more formality and I learned, to my surprise, that the school merged its commencements with those of the Pacific School of Religion, an interdenominational seminary one block away. This alerted me to look for other signs of a relationship, and I discovered that during that decade St. Margaret's was closer to PSR than to the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. The reasons for this I am still unraveling, and they are very instructive regarding gender relations in the Episcopal Church at that time. And the organization of the materials allowed me to follow that thread without tedious pouring through piles of documents looking, to change the metaphor, for the thimble in a haystack.
School catalogues, dry as these can be, were also gold mines of information. How else could I have learned that ecclesiastical embroidery was required in the earliest years? And for many years, the catalogues listed the graduates and tracked them through various assignments, an invaluable aid for learning how these women served the church. Most intriguing, however, was a perennial feature in all the catalogues -- there was always a paragraph about the crucial importance of residence at the school, which was a cooperative living situation. The willingness to do domestic labor, to work as part of a team, to nurture a ministering community was an essential prerequisite to student training from 1909, when the school opened, until 1966, when it closed. In my research into Episcopal theological education, I never came across anything like that for seminarians.
From time to time, I would find a cross-reference to other sources not in the collection -- reports on working conditions for women church workers, or mention of General Convention legislation affecting deaconesses; or one or two letters from the national church headquarters in the files would raise questions that might be answered by recourse to the correspondence files from the relevant department of Mission House, then "281", then "815". One of the conveniences of working at the Archives, of course, is having immediate access to those sources. There is no other place, I suspect, where such comprehensive sources in Episcopal church history are available. And it saved me from the frustration of having to look elsewhere for the material and wait for them to be made available. I could follow up quickly on an issue in the midst of pursuing a line of research.
Another advantage is that the Archives' staff got to know what I'm interested in. More than once, suggestions were made for me to look outside the St. Margaret's collection to other relevant sources. I particularly remember being told about another collection of photographs gathered over a period of years by the national Women's Auxiliary and the General Division of Women's Work, photos of the two training schools supported by the national church for their own publicity purposes. The folders in which these photos appeared were valuable, too, showing how women were recruited for ministry, how the work was presented, and what was valued about it.
Finally, although I had to bring my work in Austin to an end, grudgingly, to be sure, I was followed home by two boxes of papers that had been meticulously duplicated and organized for me. There was not one error. Moreover, I can still rely on the staff to look up something for me, to duplicate additional papers, and to suggest other lines of investigation. All of this for the cost of travel and housing and a very, very small fee for duplications.
Now, that's a bargain!
Alda Marsh Morgan
22 August 2001