Father William Krekelberg might like to say there was some great planning and consideration that led to him becoming the first archivist for the Diocese of Orange, but the truth is far more random. Or serendipitous. Or, as Fr. Bill says jokingly, “God’s sense of humor.”
He was a pastor, who had recently been appointed to Holy Family parish in Orange, when the Diocese of Orange was established by Pope Paul VI in 1976.
“The Bishop (William Johnson) had just moved into our house,” Fr. Bill recalled.
As the rendition goes, some members of the clergy were dining with the bishop when Johnson said off-handedly that the archivist at the Archdiocese of L.A. had mentioned the young pastor might be a good person for the job at the new Diocese.”
Fr. Bill said the bishop asked him.
“‘Would you like to do that?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, that would be great.’ It was as informal as that.”
Whether it was pure luck, or part of God’s plan, the choice of Fr. Krekelberg to be Director of Archives and de facto historian of the Diocese of Orange, couldn’t have been a better or more natural fit.
Fr. Bill’s younger brother, retired Los Angeles Monsignor Richard Krekelberg, who well knew his brother’s love of history, said the choice was inspired.
“That it suits my brother is a great understatement,” he said. “He was formed in the womb to love history.”
Fr. Bill remained in the position until his retirement in 2015. To this day, he maintains the title of Archivist Emeritus.
The archivist has several missions. As a matter of Catholic canon law, a diocese is required to archive its history and culture, as well as records of its priests, deacons and other personnel.
Another is to collect all manner of documents and articles that help tell the story of the Church through the years and put it in context.
Father Chris Heath, who succeeded Fr. Bill as the full-time Archivist, puts it this way.
“I collect and maintain the story of the Church of Orange,” he said. “It’s something we need to keep. Every family should have its history and the Diocese is a very big family. Despite that the Diocese isn’t that old we have to hold onto that story.”
The major documents and items of the archives are currently stored in the bell tower of the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, which was ample in the early years of the Diocese.
MAPS AND HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS COMPRISE A LARGE PORTION OF THE ARCHIVE. PHOTO: DREW KELLEY
Since then, the archives have outgrown the space and many of the records that would be there are scattered throughout the Diocese.
Plans are in the works to move the archives to the top floor of the Christ Cathedral Cultural Center in the space formerly used by Rev. Robert Schuller for his offices, library, museum and boardroom.
“It’s very nice,” Fr. Chris said of the proposed site. “I would say it’s prime real estate.”
However, Fr. Chris said there is no timetable for the move and the upgrades and costs to convert the space have yet to be completed.
A TREATISE ON NATIVE AMERICANS FROM 1754, WITH THE SIGNATURE OF SAINT JUNIPERO SERRA, BELONGING TO THE DIOCESE ARCHIVE. PHOTO: DREW KELLEY
AT PLAY IN THE FIELD OF THE WORD
Despite the Diocese’s relatively callow youth, the archives are a trove of unique documents and historical items and artifacts. Much of this is thanks to Fr. Bill’s nose for historical objects. He is like the Church’s version of one of television’s “American Pickers” — a Catholic Picker, if you will.
“My idea of a fun off-day is to go to a rare books convention or store,” he said. “Especially those with early history collections.”
Maybe the most interesting and surely most valuable document retrieved by Fr. Bill for the Diocese Archives is a decree signed by Pres. Abraham Lincoln in 1865 shortly before his death, declaring land around the Mission at San Juan Capistrano as property of the Catholic church.
Fr. Bill said he learned the document was in a safe in the offices of Cardinal Timothy Manning when he was Archbishop of Los Angeles.
So, one day at a dinner, Fr. Bill said, “I asked Cardinal Manning if we could have that for our Diocese. He took it out of his safe and handed it to me and I brought it back to the Mission.”
Simple as that.
“It was like a major thing at the time,” he said.
THE MISSION SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO WAS THE FOCAL LANDMARK FOR THE CATHOLIC CHURCH’S FOUNDING IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. PHOTO: DREW KELLEY
It also required Mechelle Lawrence Adams, Executive Director at Mission San Juan Capistrano, to invest in a new safe for the archives.
Fr. Bill has made other stunning finds, such as early recordings of early confirmations at the Mission personally written by Saint Junipero Serra, Mission annual reports from that period signed by the early presidents of the Mission, as well as
books from the era owned by the Friars.
Through the year’s Fr. Bill says, “I have put together a complete history of Orange County, including rare books that are not in libraries.”
Fr. Bill says the collection is at least a couple hundred volumes and includes what he believes is the first book ever the history of Orange County, written shortly after it was established in 1889.
The archives also contain:
– a first-class relic of Saint Serra
– a letter from Saint John Paul II to Bishop Norman MacFarland
– a Bishop’s cane or crosier presented to Bishop Johnson and traced back to Archbishop Joseph Cantwell
– keys to cities presented to Diocesan Bishops
– framed original documents in ornate calligraphy from the Vatican
– gifts from the Vietnamese community and other cultural items
To Fr. Bill, the items and documents are all important parts of the unfolding story of the church.
“It’s important to have contexts for all things,” Fr. Bill said. “If you don’t know the context, you don’t fully know the reasons for the decisions being made.”
And it remains equally important in real time.
“This is our time. We are part of a larger history,” he said.
THE DIOCESE ARCHIVE INCLUDES BOOKS, LETTERS, PHOTOGRAPHS, MAPS AND MORE. PHOTO: DREW KELLEY
LIFELONG LOVE OF HISTORY
Fr. Bill traces his love of history to his early youth growing up in rural Minnesota. Young Bill would watch a neighbor searching for native American artifacts, from arrow heads to tomahawk heads which he kept stored in a shed.
“One day I went up and knocked on his door and said I wanted to see them,” Fr. Bill said.
Apparently even his introverted personality couldn’t get in the way of his search for history.
The man was gracious and allowed the boy to examine his artifacts.
After that, the hook was set. The boy read books about frontiersmen like Davy Crocket and said he would often pester his parents to take him to Fort Snelling, a historical monument, park and cemetery.
The Fort was also controversial as it is on land that was claimed as the sacred point of origin of the Dakota people and played a pivotal role in the conquest and resettlement of the area. Context, as Fr. Bill would say.
In 1955, the family moved to Southern California and settled in Buena Park.
It was there that Fr. Krekelberg discovered Knott’s Berry Farm, which at the time was an Old West themed tourist destination with all manner of historical representations, real or imagined. And it was free.
Fr. Krekelberg said he visited the park twice a week and sometimes daily to feed his historical fantasies.
Fr. Bill later befriended Walter Knott, who oversaw the creation of the amusement park.
Fr. Bill said he “chased history,” often as it was unfolding. He went to see President Lyndon B. Johnson dedicate UC Irvine, and saw Bobby Kennedy campaign in California. He would see Richard Nixon at an event hosted by Knott.
He’s met or been in rooms with both Presidents Bush, President Gerald Ford and ex-president Jimmy Carter at a Habitat for Humanity event. Ronald Regan when he was Governor.
“I’ve gawked at historic figures,” he joked. “That was my witnessing.”
Maybe the only thing that equaled or surpassed his love of history was his love of the Church.
Like all five Krekelberg boys, Fr. Bill was an altar boy and attended Catholic schools through his educational career.
After the eighth grade, Fr. Krekelberg entered the seminary, becoming what was known at the time as a “lifer” in the Church. He was ordained in 1970.
After Msgr. Richard was ordained, the two brothers spent their first vacation as priests visiting all 21 Spanish missions in California from San Diego to San Francisco Solano.
According to Msgr. Richard, “Bill says when he was four years old he knew two things that would never change: he wanted to be a priest and he liked beer.”
Sure enough, both held.
SET OF ROSARIES BELONGING TO THE DIOCESE ARCHIVE. PHOTO: DREW KELLEY
A CHRONICLER OF HISTORY
In addition to his reading and collecting, Fr. Bill has also written extensively about the Diocese and local history. He began by creating a directory of the new Diocese after taking over the office of Archivist.
Coincidentally, Fr. Bill’s photographer for the project was Bonnie Heath, the mother of Christopher Heath, an altar boy at Holy Trinity.
Despite the early exposure to archiving, Fr. Chris had no idea he was seeing the future.
Fr. Bill has written two books about Orange County’s landmark 1776 mission: Mission San Juan Capistrano: The Fall and Rise of a California Mission, the definitive volume on the historic landmark and its place in local history, and The Grand Retablo. Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano.
He also collaborated with former Chancellor for the Diocese, Shirl Giacomi, on two histories of the Diocese to celebrate the 30th and 40th anniversaries.
“They weren’t New York Times bestsellers, but they were important to local history buffs,” Fr. Bill said.
One of the most important and attentive readers was Bishop Kevin W. Vann.
“He told me he didn’t know anything about Orange County except that Disneyland was there,” Fr. Bill recalled. “He said ‘That helped me a lot.’ That made me feel really good that all this stuff I had found was useful.”
He has also helped a number of local parish histories.
Looking back on his career, Fr. Bill
says he’s incredibly grateful “to assist the Church by using my personal interests and talents to help in the overall mission of the Church. I will continue to do that as long as I’m able to.”