Today, the Catholic University of America celebrates Founders Day. One hundred thirty years ago, on April 10, 1887, Pope Leo XIII (right, courtesy Catholic University Archives) sent a letter to Cardinal James Gibbons giving his formal approval for the founding of the university. It was a momentous event, and that letter was a historic document of great magnitude for the new school.
When I was writing my photographic history of The Catholic University of America, I wanted to include a picture of that letter. I had been working closely with the folks at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives throughout the course of researching the book, and asked them about obtaining a photo or scan of the letter. I guessed some special permission might be needed in order to handle a document of such significance. To my surprise, the archivists could not locate it. There were printed reproductions of the letter available, but not the original, handwritten letter in Latin, signed by Pope Leo XIII.
I have to admit, I was confounded. So was Robin Pike, the Audio Visual Archivist, with whom I worked most closely. She queried the other archivists, plowed through dozens of finding aids and followed numerous leads, all to no avail. If that letter wasn’t at the university, where else might it be? Pope Leo addressed it to Cardinal James Gibbons, the Archibishop of Baltimore. Perhaps it was in their archives. I called Baltimore, and after another diligent search, their archivists also found only printed reproductions, not the original document.