Virginia Nelle Bellamy, b. 1922 d. 2009

Virginia Nelle Bellamy

Virginia Nelle Bellamy died on December 23, 2009 peacefully in her sleep at the age of 87 in Johnson City, Tennessee. Dr. Bellamy, who was known as Nelle to her friends and family, was Archivist of The Episcopal Church for over 35 years.

She was born September 19, 1922, in Knoxville, the daughter of the late Reverend Thomas M. Bellamy and Minnie Deakins Bellamy. Her father served as an ordained minister for 40 years in the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and in the Methodist Church.

Dr. Bellamy graduated from East Tennessee State College in 1945 and enrolled in the seminary of Duke University, Durham, N.C., in 1946. She studied in the seminary for two years before enrolling in the Department of Religion, where she earned a Master’s Degree and was the first woman PhD graduate from the Department of Religion in Duke University. It was during her studies at Duke that she became an Episcopalian.

From 1953-1959 she taught in Bishop Moody’s Diocesan Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky, but in 1959 she moved to Austin, Texas to take the position of Church Archivist with what was then the Church Historical Society and to serve as Adjunct Professor at the new Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest.

Nelle Bellamy took a conscientious and progressive approach to her assignment, moving the archives from the antiquarian collection model to an active documentation program that looked at Church structure, leadership and movements. She was the first custodian of the archives to bring modern management practices to the historical holdings. Nelle enlisted the aid of the influential and noted archivist Theodore Schellenberg in creating an organizational framework for the Archives and began the first systematic acquisition of the General Convention’s records since the late nineteenth century.

Being aware that the Archives’ isolation from Church structures affected its finances and accountability, Nelle worked with Bishop Allin to return the Archives to the authority of the General Convention in 1985. From this vantage point, Nelle had an impact on the preservation of the records beyond Episcopal Church with our ecumenical partners, the Anglican Communion office, and other provinces of the Communion.

Virginia Nelle Bellamy

Historiographer, Dr. J. Robert Wright, remembered Dr. Bellamy’s contributions: “She did much to convince the Episcopal Church of the paramount importance of taking good care of its archival heritage, and I was pleased to work together with her. She will be remembered for her diligence, determination, and many initiatives.”

Director of Archives Mark Duffy, who succeeded her at the Episcopal Church Archives, knew Nelle professionally for many years and remembers her unflappable strength. "Nelle could be feared or admired for her clarity and judgment. Admiration allowed one to enjoy her insights and conversational gifts. She had the wisdom to understand – in work, in Church life, and in personal relationships – that the truths and the practicalities of life often collide. She was a proponent of steadiness in all matters in order to create balance between what we can do now to create meaning in our lives, and what we must patiently await in the face of uncertainty. She lived out a much considered Anglican way of encountering everyday life."

Together with key figures of the Lutheran and Baptist traditions, Nelle founded the section on Religious Archives of the Society of American Archivists. She wrote seminal articles about the value of religious archives in the landscape of cultural history. She was made a distinguished Fellow of the Society of American Archivists. She was also granted an honorary doctorate by General Theological Seminary in 1990.

Nelle enjoyed the adulation of her students and the give and take of faculty relationships. Colleague William Adams reminisced that, “For many of her years at the Seminary, Nelle was the only woman on the faculty, a fact that she both enjoyed and used to her advantage, whenever possible. Her academic credentials, a Ph.D. in history from Duke, were better than many of her male colleagues and her wide spread Anglican connections made her a much more well known personality than anyone else on the faculty.”

She faithfully practiced the disciplines of the Benedictines; as an oblate of the community of St. Mary's Abbey, West Malling, England, where she often said she could feed her soul and rekindled her affection for all things deeply Anglican. Even in retirement, she actively served her congregation, serving on the Vestry and participating in the life of John's Episcopal Church in Johnson City.

Nelle was survived by her dear friend and sister, Mrs. Sam Neeley (Betty) of Johnson City, Tennessee, whom we join in giving thanks to God for her presence among us. We celebrate also her faithful service to the Church community and the preservation of its cultural patrimony.