Denis the Archivist, hidden away like his historical gems
If you set out to find Archdiocesan Archivist Denis Connor, you’d have your work cut out for you.
Even if you knew he worked at St Christopher’s Pastoral Centre in Manuka, you probably couldn’t find him without help. He’s not on the second floor, not on the first floor, and not on the ground floor.
Perhaps fittingly, the discoverer of the hidden, the unearther of the lost, the raider of the lost archives, is hidden away himself. Down in the basement of the building, alongside the car park in a room down the end of an unmarked and unremarkable corridor, exists the Archdiocesan Archives and inside it, one of the Archdiocese’s greatest gems, Denis Connor.
Denis has been the archivist for seven years. For the last two years of that, since the construction of the new Pastoral Centre, he has been blessed with a brand new, state of the art facility, purpose designed for the storage of archival material of which he is immensely proud.
“Probably half of the diocese have something similar in terms of climate-controlled storage. Ours is probably one of the better ones,” Denis said.
“It’s certainly one of the newer ones. It was designed to a standard and for a purpose. Archbishop Coleridge had said that when this building was built, there would be a specifically designed archival storage facility within it and Archbishop Prowse supported that because they’re both very interested in our cultural heritage.
The Archives is a bit like Doctor Who’s Tardis… it seems bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. It’s a surprisingly large and elaborate facility, but even if the sight of it doesn’t stop you in your tracks, the temperature will.
“The big room has its own temperature and humidity control that are set for optimal conditions for storing paper,” Denis explains.
“My office is set at more human levels. But it’s a bit cooler in the repository, and because of its lower humidity levels, that also accentuates the coolness of the temperature.”
Out of the way as it is, the archivist’s day to day existence could be a lonely one but Denis makes a point of popping his head out and joining his Chancery colleagues throughout the day.
“I don’t consume any beverages or food downstairs,” Denis explained.
“I want to make sure I keep any crumbs or of the crawly little things out so there’s no open food down there. So if I want to have a snack or a cup of tea I come up stairs, which not only preserves the integrity of the storage but also means I get to know and mix with the other staff as well.”
While historical research and archivism is a passion for Denis, he is also keenly aware that it fulfills a business requirement for the Archdiocese.
“First and foremost, we keep the archives because they support the business of the Archdiocese. That’s the main reason we keep the records,” Denis explained.
“At the end of the day the Archdiocese is a business and if it didn’t have its records organised in a way that they’re accessible when they needed them, it would be suffering as a business.
So that’s why we keep them and for me it’s important that the people in their everyday jobs who need to know that the archives are there, know that they’re there. So if someone needs a file on such and such I can access it and get it to them.
Denis enjoys pretty much every aspect of his job, but one of the particular joys is discovering an elusive nugget of information.
“This happens quite a bit,” he said.
“The most recent one is we recently located the records of what was called the ACT Catholic School’s Office. It ran through the 1950s and 60s and was headed up by one of our priests who was basically there to provide that support for trying to establish Catholic Schools in Canberra, and importantly seeking government funding for them.
“Archbishop Eris O’Brien had forged a deal with Prime Minister Menzies regarding funding, and his contact with Menzies was regular and important. So we found the file labelled “Menzies Correspondence,” and it includes letters from Menzies and submissions from the Archdiocese. It’s a real treasure.
“We have a researcher working on a PhD study of Archbishop Eris and one of the theme’s she’s going to pursue is Eris’ role in education so she is going to find that really helpful when she comes to write that chapter of her thesis.”
Though seldom in the spotlight, Denis’ job is an important one. And even if history may seem a dry old topic to some people, it’s anything but to Denis. While it may be hard to find him some times, you’ll almost never find him without a smile on his face.