CATHOLIC PARISHES AS SOURCES OF GENEALOGICAL INFORMATION
Father Dennis Hughes 9 Aug 2001
Webpage by Cliff Lamere 13 Aug 2001
Roman Catholic parishes keep five kinds of official records: Baptism, First
Communion, Confirmation, Marriage and Death. All of these are usually only
[Here is how many of those books are indexed: There is a section with a page or more for entries beginning with each letter. For instance, if you want to enter a baptismal record for John Smith, you go to the first blank space in the record book (usually right below the last baptism that was done in the parish) and enter the information, then you go to the index pages and on the "S" page, you list the name, "Smith, John," and the page and number of the entry. Thus the book has a page of all names beginning with S, but in chronological rather than alphabetical order. Further, when the parish is very old, they may have a large number of these books, with each book covering a certain span of time. If one has the exact name and the date of baptism, for instance, one could easily locate the correct book and with a few minutes of effort, hopefully, find the right entry. If, however, the name is unknown or uncertain or if the date is unknown or uncertain, the search can take much longer, as the archivist might have to go through several volumes.]
BAPTISM records in a Catholic church typically include the name of the one baptized, the names of the parents and godparents, the date of birth, the date of baptism and the priest or deacon who performed the baptism. Newer records normally contain the information about where and when the person was married and to whom, if that marriage took place in a Catholic church. Older records include this info only occasionally. Children are/were normally baptized soon after birth.
CONFIRMATION records typically include the name of the one confirmed, the church of baptism, the parents' names, the sponsor's name the date of confirmation and the bishop or priest who conferred the sacrament. Years ago, Confirmation was normally received by children 10-14 years of age.
FIRST COMMUNION records typically include the name of the person receiving Communion, the church of baptism, the parents' names and the date of First Communion. Before about 1910, First Communion was usually received after the age of 14.
MARRIAGE records typically include the names of both people, the date of marriage, the parents' names (or the father's name alone), the name of the priest or deacon who received their vows and the witnesses' names.
DEATH records often include the name of the decedent, the date of death, date of funeral, place of interment and living next of kin.
Modern record books have columns and lines to specify what information is needed and to keep all of the information in nice neat rows and columns. Old books sometimes had horizontal lines and sometimes, not even those. Consequently, old records might have consisted of a single line of information or instead might have consisted of little stories that went on for a paragraph or more. The quality of the records depended upon the priest and/or the person who made the entries, if that was a different person.
Complicating this is the fact that for a period of time in the 19th century, the records were made in Latin. This meant that the names had to be translated (often poorly) into Latin. Translating them back is sometimes puzzling. For instance, is the "Anna" in the book really Anna or was it Ann--is the "Maria" really Maria or was it Mary, etc.
Something else to be alert to: sometimes the Baptism records give a saint's name as the first name when it was a middle name or not even part of the legal name. Also, I have seen the same name of a parent spelled a variety of ways when I compared the Baptism records of all of their children.
In addition to the official records, some parishes have parish census records going back many years, but these are usually not indexed. There might be donation records, particularly for the building of a church or school, but again, these would not be indexed. There might be records of sick calls and the administration of the Sacraments to the sick, but again, these would not be indexed. If the church has its own cemetery, there will likely be records of who bought which cemetery plot. The caretaker of the cemetery often has a set of records.
Some churches have very few genealogical queries and are happy to look up information. Other churches (particularly those which have been there for more than a century) are inundated with requests and are less pleased to look up info because they do not have staff employed for that purpose. Some churches ask for or expect a donation to cover the cost of their staff doing such research. Ask if there is a specific charge.
Parishes are supposed to be very protective of their
records. The parish is charged with the responsibility of preserving the confidentiality of those
whose information is in these records. The parish must evaluate what information can be shared with a
researcher. The parish is also charged with the responsibility of preserving the records
themselves. The pages of old books often become brittle and fragile.
Repeated handling can destroy these records. Consequently, parishes usually will
not allow researchers to handle their books.
If you have difficulty getting info from a given parish, have patience. At least you can know that the parish is fulfilling its mandate to protect the records, so the information will be preserved for the future. Someday, researchers will benefit from that.
In most cases, an inside person or parishioner of that church can be very helpful in negotiating with a church.
In any case, I would suggest not inundating a parish with requests. Try to ask for a specific record or records rather than ask that they look through all of their records for a certain name. I don't think it matters whether you call or write. If you are in the area and can drop in, that might be more productive.
Sometimes, parishes are closed because of shifts in population. In those instances, the records are transferred somewhere else. The best place to inquire as to the location of the records of closed parishes is at the office of the local diocese or archdiocese.
When a small town has a mission church with a non-resident priest coming on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, records might be kept at the mission or at the church where the priest resides. Again, the local (arch)diocese can give you information about where to find these records.
Many parishes had schools. Some of the school records can be very helpful. Contact the school for this information.
Albany & Eastern New York Genealogy (Home)
14 Aug 2001