History at Your Fingertips: A Look Inside the Archives of St. John’s University

Tags: Currents Crux, Inspiration, Media, World News

Alyse Hennig has one of the most interesting jobs on Saint John’s University campus – combing through hundreds of years of history.

Ancient prayer books, diaries, letters – history you can hold in your bare hands.  Hennig has an eye for detail and continuity.

“You can see what was going on not just in the university but in New York City and the world at the time through the lens of Saint John’s,” she said.

A lens that also focuses on the rise of the church in Brooklyn and Queens. The diocese’s first bishop looked to the Vincentians for vision and inspiration and SJU was born.

They have the original groundbreaking shovel from 1868. It would have been used by Bishop John Loughlin, the first Bishop of Brooklyn, to break ground at the original louis avenue campus.

The shovel has additional markings to commemorate other ground breakings like St. Thomas More Church, now at the heart of the campus.

And that’s just the start. They have the original Sunday announcement books, going back to 1907.

Artifacts preserved, thanks in part to the Vincentians who were great record keepers. A perfect example is the ledger they call “St. John’s Diary” that documented their Catholic mission with impeccable penmanship and thorough reporting.

“The Vincentian fathers kept this diary of the events going on. It talks about the groundbreaking and the first day of school in 1870 and it goes on through the 1890s,” said Hennig.

We also got a glimpse of some very special artifacts like a remarkable text from the rare books collection of Saint Augustine’s sermons and the imitations of Christ, dating back to 1486.

We saw photos of the first woman ever to graduate from SJU, Sister Lumena Price in 1913, and rare images from the Spanish flu of 1918.

“I found the names of at least 14 students, faculty and alumni who did die because of the pandemic,” Hennig said.

But World War I had an even greater effect on the university.

“These are the students in the training core. And the other students were involved in other activities to help raise funds for the war. And to cheer on their fellow students who went off to fight. The university was really transformed at that time,” Hennig says.

A transformation that continues today as St. John’s University remains faithful to the mission.

It was amazing to see these precious relics up close – all you needed was a little good hand hygiene, something we’re all used to these days.

And because the pandemic has limited on-campus attendance, Hennig says they’ve added even more content on their website so people can still enjoy all the archive has to offer.

Just head to stjohns.edu/libraries to check out this amazing collection.