ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Sister Catherine Bitzer slowly opened a file box and carefully removed a brittle page, scarred by years of neglectful storage, mold and insects. At 415 years old, the marriage record written by a Roman Catholic priest is still readable and is one of the oldest known European records from the United States.
It's among thousands of artifacts detailing the lives of the Spanish soldiers, missionaries and merchants who settled St. Augustine, the nation's oldest permanent city. The church kept the only official records, a role that today is filled by government.
After being scattered from Florida and surviving destruction for centuries, they are now safe in a newly renovated waterproof, fireproof and climate-controlled building at the Diocese of St. Augustine, said Bitzer, the archivist of the diocese.
Michael Gannon, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida, calls the archives "a pocketful of miracles." He tracked down most of the documents, which had traveled to Cuba, back to St. Augustine and then Notre Dame, Ind.
The earliest documents detail the births, confirmations, marriages and deaths of the Spanish residents in St. Augustine from 1594 to 1763, when the British took over Florida.
Dated Jan. 24, 1594, and handwritten by Father Diego Escobar de Sambrana, the record held by Bitzer details the marriage of soldier Gabriel Hernandez to Catalina de Valdes in St. Augustine, some 26 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
There are also records of the diocese's nine bishops and the Spanish colonial government, and microfilm of records on explorations, the attacks of English and French corsairs, the development of slavery and reports on Indian customs and languages.
Missing from the collection are the documents from the first 29 years of Catholic life in St. Augustine. Gannon believes they may have been destroyed by Sir Francis Drake, the English privateer, who sacked the town in 1586.
Tracking down and consolidating the collection in the diocese archive has been a long project for Gannon and other archivists.
For about a third of their existence, the documents have been away from St. Augustine. When Spanish Florida became a British outpost in 1763, the 15-volume parish records were placed in a crypt of the cathedral in Havana, Cuba, remaining forgotten for 107 years.
The first bishop of St. Augustine, Augustin Verot, found 14 of the 15 volumes in 1871. The 15th volume was found in 1938. The documents were sent to the National Archives in 1939, where they were encapsulated in transparent cellulose-diacetate foil for protection.
By the early 1960s, when Gannon was working on his doctoral dissertation on Verot, he began looking for documents detailing the lives of early Catholics in St. Augustine. "There was no collection of documents in Florida that any colleague could identify," Gannon said.
In 1961, Gannon asked a maid in the cathedral rectory in St. Augustine if she knew of any collections of old papers in the building. She directed Gannon to a closet off the second-story hallway.
He found documents from the Vatican setting up St. Augustine as a diocese in 1871, Verot's diary and correspondence from five other bishops.
Later in 1961, Gannon traveled to the University of Notre Dame to do research in its library. The parish registers had been sent there during World War II in 1942 to protect them from German U-boat activity in the Atlantic Ocean. He found them in the library attic, which he considered a fire hazard.
When they first came back to Florida, they were kept in the vault at St. Augustine National Bank. Gannon later found them stacked in a hallway floor opposite the boiler room in the Cathedral parish rectory.
"I felt especially blessed, as though divine force was leading me one step ahead of the cleaning lady, one step ahead of the wrecking ball, one step ahead of a possible fire," Gannon said.
Now that they are safely stored, the next project is to digitize them, so they can be readily and safely used by researchers.
Dr. Timothy Matovina, professor of theology and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, University of Notre Dame, said the collection is an important resource for the history of Catholics in America.
"As Hispanic Catholics grow in number across the country, the legacy of colonial Catholicism becomes all the more important to research and remember," Matovina said.