Archivist invites archdiocese to share in the local church’s 213 years of history

Archdiocese of Louisville archivist Tim Tomes examines a container holding a relic of St. James the Greater — one of 436 relics in the archives. (Record Photo by Glenn Rutherford)

Tim Tomes spends every day at a job he loves, surrounded by the works, words and wonders that chronicle the story of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

As the archivist for the archdiocese, he’s responsible for keeping track, recording, photographing, organizing and cataloguing the 213 years of local church history.

Visit the archives office in a fairly spacious corner of the Maloney Center at Shelby and Oak streets, take a peek into the building’s basement, or stop by the Archdiocese of Louisville History Center on Fifth St., and you’ll get some measure of the work the archivist faces.

It looks to be a daunting job, but for Tomes the task is glorious.

The path that led him to his current position wasn’t so much meandering as perhaps providential. Tomes grew up in Lanesville, Ind., where he was a member of St. Mary’s Church. While attending Indiana University Southeast, he happened upon a course in Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

“It was around the time of the crack in the wall of the Cathedral,” he recalled last week.

The Cathedral of the Assumption was undergoing a major renovation process when, on June 28 of 1993, the foundation settled as a result of some excavation and a lengthy crack formed at the top of the Assumption window on the Cathedral’s rear wall.

Another crack formed on the north wall.

They both drew Tomes’ attention.

“While I was in college I was working at UPS,” he said. “I was on my way to work and I heard about the crack so, given my interest in architecture, I stopped by to take a look.”

While there he visited the old Inspirations Gift Shop and saw in a newsletter an ad calling for volunteers.

“It said they were starting a tour program and I knew I needed to improve my public speaking skills,” Tomes said. “So I thought maybe being a docent would help.”

He eventually asked the Cathedral Heritage Foundation if they needed an intern, became a member of the Cathedral parish, and in time was hired by the foundation.

“That’s when I became involved with the archdiocese,” he said.

Archdiocese of Louisville archivist Tim Tomes holds a five-foot-long brass telescope that belonged to Msgr. Michael Bouchet. The telescope is just one of the thousands of items in the archdiocese archives. (Record Photo by Glenn Rutherford)

At the time, Father Clyde Crews and later Father Dale Cieslik, the archdiocesan historian, began efforts to record artifacts and quantify historical items.

“Over our 200-plus years, we’ve accumulated not just objects, but a lot of history,” Tomes noted. “And the truth is our diocese — as one of the original four in the United States — has played a pivotal role in the formation of American Catholicism.”

At the archives, that history can be seen in everything from Msgr. Michael Bouchet’s heavy, five-foot-long brass telescope, to a fragment of bone from the body of St. James the Greater. And books? There are hundreds of them.

“We have accumulated over the years thousands and thousands of articles and items, perhaps tens of thousands,” Tomes said.

And it is his charge to catalogue it all. So how long might that take?

“Check back in a few years and perhaps I’ll have a handle on that question,” he said with a chuckle.

Tomes is also pursuing another goal in his role as archivist — he wants to “share the archives” with the rest of the archdiocese. In fact, when he became archivist on July 1, 2019, that was one of the jobs he was handed.

“It’s an effort to let the people of the archdiocese know that we’re not only collecting their history, but we want to share it with them and make it available to them,” he explained.

For instance, recently the people of St. Thomas More Church needed an altar for their House of Hope Chapel, and they turned to the archivist for help. Turns out he was able to find among the archdiocese’s treasure trove an altar to share with them.

Immaculate Conception Church in La Grange, Ky., came to Tomes when the parish needed a statue of St. Joseph, he said. “It’s not like we have a dozen statues of St. Joseph, but we did have one that was appropriate for them.”

Like other items from the past, the statue had its share of nicks and chips, but the parish was able to repair and use it for a lot less than the cost of a new statue.

Also among the archives are 436 relics that are being catalogued by Deacon Dustin Hungerford, a seminarian who has come to the assistance of Tomes on the project. “He’s really hit it out of the park with his work on this,” Tomes said.

Deacon Hungerford has created a spreadsheet listing each relic, its history, its provenance and its status as a first, second or third-class relic. It was one of the 436 relics — a bone from the body of St. James — that Tomes loaned recently to a father and his sons. They carried the relic as they walked a part of The Way of St. James in Spain.

To list the items, the information and the tasks facing Tomes in his new position would take a book, not a newspaper article. But Tomes is as excited as the job is considerable.

“I love my job, period,” he said. “I’m over the moon to be in this role. To have been on the perimeter for 25 years and to now be at the heart of it, I’m in heaven.”

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