For someone with a long and distinguished career in the law, the opportunity to take over as the diocesan archivist held tremendous appeal.
“It’s a family historian’s dream job, especially a Catholic family historian,” said Susan Kirk Ryan, who took over the position in July following the retirement of longtime archivist Donn Devine. “The ability to help people find family records and see the sacraments that they and their families were a part of is really a moving and wonderful experience.”
Kirk Ryan, 61, said her interest in genealogy took root when she took some classes in the subject beginning about six years ago. Her parents, particularly her father, were interested in the topic long before she was.
“I began to ask more about my own ancestors. Sometime after my father died I began trying to help my mother find her family history. Her ancestors were Irish and mainly settled in New York and Connecticut,” she said.
Last summer she traveled to Ireland and stood at the altar where her great-great-grandparents married.
“I can’t even describe what a moving experience it is” to do that, she said.
Since 2015, she has been the president of the Delaware Genealogical Society and for the last year has provided assistance to patrons at both the Wilmington Family History Center and the Delaware Historical Society. She also is an instructor at the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning, teaching genealogy and moderating the weekly genealogy interest group.
In addition to maintaining the archives, the archivist “provides consultation on records management, focusing on historic and administrative documents, and documents and records pertaining to the bishop,” said Robert Krebs, diocesan chancellor and director of communications. The archivist assists the chancellor with gathering, arranging and safeguarding these items as required by Canon Law.
Kirk Ryan praised Devine for his work as archivist, including building a database of many of the records.
“Donn Devine has done a fabulous job at the archives. He has been doing this work for a long time,” she said.
Kirk Ryan said one of her goals is to bring diocesan records into the digital era. She also wants to find ways to keep the oldest records well-preserved and accessible. Parishes keep their own records, but every 10 years, the diocese puts them on microfilm, she said.
She hopes to find a few volunteers who can help with some of the work.
Genealogy is not her first career. Kirk Ryan has a law degree from Villanova and spent 25 years in that profession. She was a deputy attorney general for the state of Delaware from 1980-90, including five years as chief of the Human Services Unit, where she supervised 21 other attorneys. From 1998-2013, she worked with the state as a hearing officer, covering numerous topics. She served on the Delaware Supreme Court Board on Professional Responsibility.
Robert Krebs, the diocesan chancellor, was a member of the panel who interviewed Kirk Ryan and six other applicants. He said there was a lot of interest in the position. Kirk Ryan, he said, stood out for a number of reasons.
“Her distinguished career as a member of the bar, her attention to detail, organization skills, and her love of history and genealogy, make her uniquely qualified for the job,” Krebs said.
He also noted that she is a lifelong resident of Wilmington – she graduated from Ursuline Academy – and knows the diocese well.
Krebs called Devine “an institution” in the Diocese of Wilmington. “We are looking forward to utilizing Donn’s expertise as the diocese plans its sesquicentennial celebration that will begin in March 2018.”
Kirk Ryan and her husband, Dialog editor Joseph Ryan, are members of St. Joseph on the Brandywine Parish in Greenville. They attended St. Mary Magdalen Parish with their daughter, Emily, for many years, where Susan was on the parish finance council and the Christian Formation Committee and was a Eucharistic minister. She received the St. Thomas More Society Award in 2012, with her brothers William and Richard, for their family’s commitment to the law.
The archives are at St. Joseph on the Brandywine. Individuals who would like to visit are asked to set up an appointment with Kirk Ryan by contacting her at email@example.com or (302) 655-0597.