Sacramental registers, some more than 150 years old, rest in the vault at the Archdiocese of Portland offices. Canon law requires that such records be kept. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Sacramental registers, some more than 150 years old, rest in the vault at the Archdiocese of Portland offices. Canon law requires that such records be kept. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

Joseph Schiwek Jr. leans in to spin a black combination dial, shoves a century-old lever that makes a satisfying clunk, then heaves open two refrigerator-sized metal doors. Beyond lies the vault at the offices of the Archdiocese of Portland.

The 250-square-foot fireproof room, with a sturdy Victorian scent of paper and glue, contains carefully arranged and preserved boxes of letters and decrees, massive tomes going back to the 1850s, and the chalices of archbishops. On the meticulously kept shelves are books containing the names and parentage of Catholics baptized, married or buried in western Oregon over the past 175 years. Near the back are files from the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Daughters of the Americas and other venerable lay groups.

The history shows endurance, deep faith and wisdom. It might even reveal a few saints, said Schiwek. But records also unveil foibles.

“You find that people made mistakes,” said Schiwek, 73. “You see the trial and error. The Catholic Church is a human institution, but founded by Christ. When you look through the history, you are grateful Christ stays with it, or else we would not be around.”

Schiwek knows every inch of the old vault, having first worked in its narrow aisles almost five decades ago. Far in the back, a beefy bookshelf is jammed with certificates of dispensation — when a bishop OK’d a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, for example. Schiwek’s own parents are listed there.

A lifelong member of St. Charles Parish in Northeast Portland, he attended St. Charles School and Central Catholic High School then studied at Mount Angel Seminary for two years. After discernment led him onward, he transferred to the University of Portland, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in history in 1969 and a master’s in history in 1971.

As a young man, he served as a valued aide to several Oregon Catholic historians, including Holy Cross Father Barry Hagan and Bishop Francis Leipzig, a western Oregon priest who became Bishop of Baker.

For Bishop Leipzig, Schiwek helped create an index of sorts for the Catholic Sentinel, the main historical source for the church of western Oregon since 1870. Schiwek scoured the Oregon Historical Society archives for items of interest to the state’s Catholics. He also went through the archdiocese’s vault to make a list of what lie therein. In 1975, Schiwek earned a master’s in library science from the University of Oregon. Not long after, he was asked to serve on the Archdiocesan Historical Commission.

In an early job, he was records man for an architectural firm housed in the Northwest Portland mansion that had been the home of Archbishop Edward Howard. Schiwek’s workspace happened to be the archbishop’s old library. The significance was not lost on the young man.

Schiwek later was librarian for a Portland business college and then was chief of the parts room for a furnace and air conditioning shop. In 2013, he was hired as archivist for the archdiocese, the job of his dreams. Tasked with getting the archives down to fighting weight, he culled a stack of 80 boxes down to eight.

“I have spent my life organizing things,” said Schiwek, 73.

Joe Schiwek, archivist of the Archdiocese of Portland since 2013, has been safeguarding the local church’s history for more than five decades. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

A stickler for accuracy, tidiness and the value of the past, Schiwek keeps on his desk a stapler from the mid-20th century and a small shopkeeper’s bell from perhaps an even earlier era. Visitors can ring him in case he is occupied back in the stacks of his office, which sits a floor above the vault.

Canon law requires dioceses to keep archives of sacraments. In 1968, Archbishop Robert Dwyer asked parishes to send in all their old sacramental registries for safekeeping. In the vault, for example, are records from the parish in Oregon City going back to 1852. Many pages were transferred to microfilm. So far, little other than the Catholic Sentinel has been digitized. Scanning is a major expense.

The most important holdings in the archives, in Schiwek’s view, are the papers of Archbishop Francis Norbert Blanchet, the French Canadian priest who arrived in the Oregon Country in 1838, established the church here and became archbishop in 1846 when the Vatican declared an archdiocese on the frontier. The letters show an energetic man who went to great lengths to secure funds and workers for his holy enterprise. The earliest letters and notes are French, then slowly turn to English.

Some archbishops left little for the archives. Archbishop Alexander Christie, who served 1899-1925, ordered his papers burned. Others preserved volumes. Schiwek has boxes of cards on which Archbishop Edward Howard made notes for homilies.

The most common request Schiwek receives is for a baptismal record needed to be married in the church. Not everyone knows where they were baptized, so Schiwek must play detective at times, asking people where they grew up and went to school. It takes time, but he usually can locate the prize.

Schiwek is not keeper of the archdiocese’s secret archives, which contain sensitive files, including personnel records of priests who were sexual abusers. Also in the secret archives are emotional letters from clergy who wished to leave the priesthood.

Not in any archives are the stories Schiwek simply remembers and cherishes. Those tales include the one about his former pastor at St. Charles, Father John Laidlaw, who served as the archdiocese’s archivist in the 1940s and 50s.

A consummate gentleman but a shaky driver, Father Laidlaw would transport Archbishop Howard about since the archbishop never learned the skill. The archbishop would say of the priest: “Ah, my dear Father Laidlaw: He doesn’t park a car, he abandons it.”

Franciscan Sister Veronica Scheler, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland, oversees the historical records. She said archives are important for keeping the local church in touch with its founding charisms and culture.

“While Joe would be the first to tell you that technology is not his strong suit, he possesses a quality that is much more important, a sense of the history and origin of things in the church, what I believe historians and archivists call ‘provenance,’” Sister Veronica said. “He knows everything that is in the archives and where it is. He knows what to keep and what to disregard. And there is no sacramental record that he has not been able to track down for the anxious bride or the family student of genealogy.”

Mary Jo Tully, former chancellor of the archdiocese, hired Schiwek and knew him well before that.

“Joe is a special person,” said Tully. “I always knew that Joe is highly organized and loves the church. What I learned as time went on is that his work in the archives is exceptional. If Joe doesn't know where something is, I doubt that it's in the archives. His care for the people who call is no surprise. He is always willing to help. Most important to me is that he is clearly someone I would never want to lose touch with.”