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Archivist retiring after long career

By Stuart Mann

Canon Mary-Anne Nicholls, the diocese’s first full-time Archivist, is retiring on March 31 after 35 ½ years of service.

“It’s been great,” she says, looking back on her long career. “I’m so grateful – for the people I’ve worked with and the support I’ve received along the way. People tell me I’ve got the best job, and in many ways it’s true.”

Canon Mary-Anne Nicholls is retiring after 35 1/2 years in the diocesan Archives. Photo by Michael Hudson.

When Canon Nicholls started in 1983, the diocese’s Archives were housed next to the Diocesan Centre’s boiler. The work area was the ACW’s old “baling room,” where shipments of clothing were prepared for Canada’s north.

Since then, the Archives have grown, both in size and scope. The department now has a modern office space, a specialized storage area and a dedicated staff of two full-time employees and volunteers who offer a multitude of services to parishes, the diocese and the public.   

Much of the growth has been due to Canon Nicholls’ hard work and leadership, although she is quick to give credit to others who have helped her over the years. These include David Ptolemy, ODT, who was the diocese’s secretary-treasurer from 1976 to 1994. Mr. Ptolemy hired Canon Nicholls and gave her the support to modernize the Archives; he has been a volunteer in the Archives since his retirement. Canon Nicholls also credits long-time volunteer Dorothy Kealey, ODT, and the past chairs of the former Archives Committee for making the Archives what they are today.

Another reason for the department’s growth is Canon Nicholls’ passion for keeping archives. She believes they are essential for any organization, large or small. “It’s everything – their life, their presence, their history,” she says. “You just couldn’t operate without that essential record.”

The diocese’s Archives are the official repository for the records of the diocese’s Synod and its officials, clergy, parishes and organizations. They provide safe storage for non-current parish records such as baptism, marriage and burial records, vestry minutes, financial and property records, architectural drawings and photographs. About 90 per cent of the diocese’s parishes keep their former records here – a valuable resource to draw on when they need to refer to previous decisions and commitments.

Archives also collects and maintains the diocese’s current and former files. These include everything from the minutes of the 2017 Synod to the letters patent for the diocese in 1839 – a vast trove of correspondence, decisions, lists, contracts, appointments, agreements, budgets, manuscripts and notes that touch on every aspect of the diocese’s life since its earliest days.

In addition to collecting and storing records, Canon Nicholls and her staff help parishes, diocesan departments, committees and the public find information, whether it’s a marriage record to help a widow or widower who is seeking spousal benefits or a church that needs architectural drawings to undertake a renovation.

“You never know what you’re going to do on any given day,” she says. “There can be a lot of time spent doing the research to find that info, but I personally love that.”

Canon Nicholls visits parishes to help them with their own archives, and parishes contact the Archives regularly about depositing records. She says meeting and working with parish archivists and volunteers is one of the highlights of her job. “Almost every parish has someone who is interested in records and collecting and looking out for things, and it’s great to see the results of their work. I’m very grateful for the faithful and dedicated parish volunteers who know, love and maintain the records of their story.”

In addition to being the diocese’s Archivist, Canon Nicholls is the diocese’s Privacy Officer, a role that was created in 2002 in response to government legislation. As the Privacy Officer, she developed a policy that outlines how the diocese handles personal information, how long it will keep it, how much can be shared with the public and other matters. The policy has become an important document in the life of the diocese.

Throughout her career, Canon Nicholls has served on church and secular archivist groups and boards. In 1990, she coordinated a project that published a guide to the holdings of the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario. To honour her achievements, the diocese awarded her a Certificate of Merit at Synod in 1995. In 2013, Archbishop Colin Johnson made her a canon of St. James Cathedral – a rare honour for a lay person.

Bishop Andrew Asbil praised Canon Nicholls for her work over the past three decades. “The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years to gain their memory to step into the Promised Land, and Mary-Anne has helped us find our way for 35 years. That has been such a treasure and a gift.”

He added: “We often underestimate the importance of keeping records, memories and information. These things help us every day, not just to weave together the stories of our parishes but to help the diocese conduct its ministry.”

As she approaches retirement, Canon Nicholls admits she has no definite plans for the next stage of her life. “I just want to catch my breath and see what else is out there,” she says.

In the meantime, she is grateful for a long and fruitful career. “I’m most grateful for having a job that I loved, that had variety, that was important, and had the support of a wide circle of clergy, parish staff and volunteers, and diocesan staff,” she says.