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Preserving the vestry minute books of the first African American Episcopal Church

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    • African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas vestry minute book page 2 (for news)
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Since its founding in 1792, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, PA, has continued the humanitarian and community outreach work promoted by its founders, giving its clergy and parishioners key roles in historic events, including the abolitionist, Underground Railroad, and civil rights movements.  These roles are revealed in the church’s vestry minute books.

The St. Thomas vestry is made up of 12 lay members elected by the congregation to work with the church rector in managing financial affairs.  They have met monthly since the church’s founding, recording their meeting minutes in large ledger books.  While the books primarily discuss church business, they also reflect the lives of congregation members and the African American community in Philadelphia.  One book, for example, includes the minutes from the special meeting called when Octavius V. Catto, a leader in the movement for enfranchisement and civil rights for African Americans, was assassinated in Philadelphia in 1871.

The vestry minute book from 1894 to 1900 recently arrived at CCAHA for conservation and digitization.  “This particular volume is of interest because you get a good picture of what was happening in the African American community at the turn of the century,” said Mary Sewell Smith of St. Thomas’s Historical Society.  The minute book frequently mentions names known in history.  Tucked inside its pages, for instance, is a letter written to the vestry by artist Meta Warrick Fuller while she was in Paris studying with sculptor Auguste Rodin.  In the letter, Warrick Fuller expresses grief at hearing of the recent death of the minister’s warden and describes the church services she attends in Paris, noting that she sometimes finds herself thinking of St. Thomas in the middle of them.

CCAHA produced a full-color facsimile of Warrick Fuller’s letter.  As for the book, Conservation Technician Keith Jameson disbound the volume and surface cleaned the pages, which were moldy and soiled, using aspiration and rubber sponges (first image, above).  He mended tears and guarded the spine folds before scanning the volume and printing black-and-white facsimiles.  The print-outs were encapsulated in polyester sleeves and post-bound into a cloth cover (last images, above).  Jameson then re-sewed the original volume, lined the spine, and re-cased the textblock into a new cloth case.

Sewell Smith says that the original book will be stored with the other minute books in St. Thomas’s new state-of-the-art archival facility.  The originals are removed only on special occasions; however, the facsimiles—or “use copy” books—will be made available to the public.  “St. Thomas vestry minutes are a rich resource for students and researchers seeking information from the past regarding the lives and activities of the African American population of Philadelphia,” Sewell Smith said.  The facsimiles may also appear in occasional exhibitions.

Thanks to a grant from the Barra Foundation, St. Thomas will soon treat at least eight more minute books.  “We feel that, through the years, people have recognized this information as important and have maintained it,” said Sewell Smith.  Now, she says, “it’s our mission to restore it to the best of our ability.  It’s been a blessing to us that we connected with CCAHA.”