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Deacon Jeffrey Burns, gatherer of church documentary riches, retires

January 30, 2015
Rick DelVecchio

Jeffrey Burns was a young history scholar researching his doctoral dissertation among the historical records of the Los Angeles archdiocese when the local archivist, Msgr. Francis Weber, then dean of the field in California, asked him a question.

Would he like to become the archivist for the Archdiocese of San Francisco? Archbishop John R. Quinn had set up the archives in 1978 and the project needed a leader.

The scholar raised in Orange as one of seven children in a Catholic family went on to earn his Ph.D. from Notre Dame, was ordained a permanent deacon in the San Francisco archdiocese, developed his lifelong academic focus on U.S. church history and made the San Francisco archives into more than a repository for bureaucratic records.

Set on creating an institution that would serve the church regionally in California and reflect San Francisco’s status until the 1920s as the dominant church in the West, Deacon Burns went to work with his eye for narrative and his ability to ferret out revealing collections of lasting interest to scholars.

For more than three decades the hunting, gathering and storytelling carved trails through institutional and personal histories and power and cultural shifts – think of Vatican II and, four decades before that, the then-shocking decision of Rome to give a cardinal’s hat to the prelate of burgeoning Los Angeles instead of pioneering San Francisco.

The trail ended this month when Deacon Burns retired to focus on his new job as director of the Francis G. Harpst Center of Catholic Thought and Culture at the University of San Diego.

“We’ve always taken the approach that the archives is not just the archives for the chancery but also the archives for Bay Area Catholics,” Deacon Burns told Catholic San Francisco.

Deacon Burns’ diverse finds, to name only a few, include the papers of Bishop Mark Hurley, who as an archdiocesan priest attended sessions of the Second Vatican Council; the group of farmworker ministry priests called the “Spanish mission band”; the archdiocesan priests’ council and priests’ senate; civil rights activist Father Eugene Boyle; Immaculate Heart Sister Corita Kent, with her inside view of changes to one religious congregation during the turmoil of Vatican II; AIDS ministry priests in San Francisco during the height of the crisis; and Parents for Orthodoxy in Catholic Education, a movement by Catholic school parents concerned the postconciliar church was falling down on the job in teaching the faith.

The archives also holds a number of collections from the Oakland diocese, including the papers of Father Bill O’Donnell, longtime pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Berkeley.

“If we had not taken Bill O’Donnell’s papers they might not have gone anywhere,” Deacon Burns said. “We will press for records we think need to be preserved if they are not going to be preserved by other agencies.”

Some former workers’ rooms at the Holy Cross Cemetery mausoleum in Colma made do for the archives’ first home, when Deacon Burns’ started in 1983. In 1990-91 the archives moved to the big prayer hall on the first floor of St. Patrick’s Seminary. A decade later a building retrofit forced a move to the seminary basement, where the collections grew to occupy four rooms.

Deacon Burns, who continues as director of the Academy of American Franciscan history and teaches U.S. Catholic history at the Franciscan School of Theology at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, was not trained as an archivist and wryly notes that his numerical classification system started with 00-1.

“The next archivist, we’re looking at someone who’s much more technically expert,” he said. “I was very good at outreach, building collections, building up a reputation and clientele.”

The clientele includes a mailing list of more than 300 people who support the archives.

Asked what historical mysteries he leaves unsolved, he mentioned the gap in the record left by the lack of the papers of Archbishop John Mitty, who died in 1961. Archbishop Mitty’s correspondence was preserved, however.

“The oral tradition is that he wanted them destroyed, didn’t want people focusing on them,” he said. “Very tough, very good businessman, kind of a no-nonsense kind of guy.”

He also would have liked more on famed labor priest Father Peter Yorke.

For years, one collection above all eluded Deacon Burns: the records of the Junipero Serra Bookshop, long a landmark on Maiden Lane in San Francisco and known for its focus on contemporary Catholic art.

But, as the Spirit moved, just a week before his retirement he received an email from someone who had found two boxes of records from the store in the attic of the recently deceased proprietor, Ethel Souza. The finder, a UC Berkeley student, had read an article Deacon Burns had written on the bookshop in 2005 and contacted him.

“It came the last week I’m here. And there it is,” Deacon Burns said. “It was unbelievable when I got the email.”

To contact the archives email aasf@stpatricksseminary.org.

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