As people returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many found few of their old possessions and a city that was barely recognizable. But Ann Boltin, senior archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, wanted to make sure one link to their past was saved — sacramental records from Catholic churches in the area.
About 1,200 of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ 2,400 buildings were damaged, Boltin said. Historical records dating to the 1700s were kept in three buildings in New Orleans and were quickly brought to the Catholic Life Center in Baton Rouge without much trouble. However, sacramental records made since about 1930 were largely left behind at individual churches and had to be located and rescued.
Boltin spoke on the efforts to salvage the records during a meeting Saturday of the Baton Rouge Genealogical and Historical Society at the Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library.
She said it was important to restore the records.
“They’re a wealth of information, and they can stand in place of civil records because they give such information as birth dates, marriage dates, parents’ names, death dates,” Boltin said.
“In the time frame immediately following the storm, the records of baptism were very vital, especially to parents of children who had evacuated — people that didn’t know when they would go home,” she said. “A lot of parents were enrolling their children in Catholic schools in our area, and they needed that documentation and they didn’t have it with them.”
While some priests filled their car trunks with records as they left town, Boltin said, the majority of the records were left behind and sat in contaminated water and humid buildings for weeks. Some books swelled and fused together, requiring chisels to get them out of bookshelves and safes.
Water-damaged and moldy record books covered in sludge arrived by the trash bag at the Catholic Life Center in the six months following Katrina.
Boltin and volunteers removed the books’ covers and washed the interior pages in water, then put them in a deep freezer at Hill Memorial Library at LSU to stop the mold from growing.
Next, the books were thawed out, and volunteers placed unprinted sheets of newspaper between all the pages to absorb water. The entire process took nine months and saved the records of 11 church parishes.
Boltin and her staff still call them the “stinky books,” and she predicts their moldy odor will never fully dissipate. The books remain at the archives in Baton Rouge and were not returned to the parishes.
Meanwhile, the dioceses of Baton Rouge and New Orleans have made policy changes to protect records in the future.
New paper documents are not something most institutions have to deal with in the computer age, Boltin said, but written records of baptisms, confirmations, marriages and deaths are still kept as mandated by Catholic canon law.
Now they must be written in indelible ink, and potentially damaging paper clips, staples and white-out are banned. And if a mandatory evacuation is called, vital church records must be taken out of town.
It takes extra effort, but “we have the worst-case scenario to show them as an example now,” Boltin said.