The Three R's of Researching Roman Catholic Church Records

by Lisa Alzo | May 14, 2013

Roman Catholic records offer a wealth of information for genealogists. They are particularly useful when official civil records of key life events (birth, marriage or death) are unattainable or unavailable. Tracing these records for your Catholic ancestors can sometimes be challenging, but worth the work. Follow these three "R's" for research success.

[Note:  This article focuses on researching Roman Catholic Church records in the United States. When contacting Catholic churches in other countries, you may find that accessibility, availability, and procedures may vary. See the References and Additional Resources for more information.]

1. Registers

Sacramental records are the first types of documents you should look for when researching your Catholic ancestors. Find these records first in local churches, where they are usually kept chronologically in parish registries. The two most valuable are records of the sacraments of baptism and marriage.

Baptismal records include the date of baptism, child's full name, parents' names (and mother's maiden name), names of godparents (sponsors), and signature of the priest. Other notations or information may be included depending on where the church is located.

Marriage or matrimony records list date of marriage, names of the bride (including maiden name) and groom, and names of two witnesses and the priest. Other details on the registry may include: place and date of birth, occupations, parent's names (including mother's maiden name), parents' residences, and fathers' occupations. If you know the name of the church the bride's family attended, try looking there first for a marriage record, since marriages are traditionally held at the parish of the bride.

For example, my father's home parish was Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Duquesne, Pennsylvania (shown in the postcard at right), but since my mother's family attended SS. Peter & Paul Byzantine Catholic Church, they were married there.

holy-trinity.jpg

While each parish typically kept its own records (and most still do), keep in mind that many early churches didn't have a priest-in-residence, and sometimes their record books traveled with them, or were held locally. So you may need to check other parishes.

If the church closed and the area was no longer served, the records probably went to the diocesan [regional] archives. In a bigger city, when a parish closed, the people might go to a neighboring church, and the record books may have been transferred. It's also not out of the realm of possibility for Catholic Church records to be found in the collections of civil archives, universities or historical societies. Furthermore, if your ancestor lived in a town without a Roman Catholic Church, it's possible their records may be housed at a local church of another denomination. 

2. Rites and Rights

When researching any record group, it helps to learn any laws that govern access and availability. Studying the history of the Roman Catholic Church will give you benchmark dates to understand how the records are kept and why certain procedures are followed. 

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Besides baptism and marriage, there are five other sacraments in the Catholic Church:  First Communion (typically received around the age of seven in the Latin Rite), Confirmation (usually received several years after First Communion), Reconciliation (not always recorded), Holy Orders (received only by priests and deacons), and Anointing of the Sick (formerly known as Extreme Unction or Last Rites). While these records offer less genealogical value than baptismal or marriage registers, it's always worth viewing them to place your ancestor at a particular location or residence on a particular date, or gain clues such as the name of a sponsor for Confirmation (usually a family member or close friend) and in the case of Holy Orders, perhaps the baptismal date of the man receiving the sacrament. Learn more about the sacraments at American Catholic.org.

Finally, remember Church records are private records--they don't have to let you look at them.

[Above right: John Alzo, First Holy Communion photograph, 1933.]

3. Requests

If you know the name and location of your ancestor's parish and it still exists, send a friendly and precise written request for baptism, marriage, or funeral records to the church office. Include details about your ancestor, such as: name, birthdate, marriage date, etc. (If dates are unknown, do your best to give a close estimate.) Be sure to ask for a copy of the actual page of interest within the official parish register and not just a typed or handwritten abstract of the information. A transcribed record may contain errors, and abstracts or church-issued certificates may not include the margin notes.

If you don't have the name of the parish church, find where your ancestors lived. Consult a map of the area and identify the possible places of worship in the area. Resources such as Catholic-Hierarchy, Parishes Online, or USA Church can help you look up churches worldwide. You can also use Google to find the diocesan website or contact information. Keep in mind that access to records outside of America may require different procedures. Also remember that some Catholic churches had strong ethnic ties. There could be several churches close by, with different ethnic groups attending "their own church."

In most instances parish priests and their staff are helpful, but they are also very busy. Their first priority is serving their current congregation, not researching your genealogy. Understand that your request may be delayed, denied, or even go unanswered. It's also possible that a secretary or other staff member may not be familiar with the early records or have to go searching for them, especially if the records are not indexed by surname or are misfiled. Therefore, try not to request more than one to two records at a time and be very specific. Although most parishes will not typically charge for records, you should be prepared to pay a fee, if necessary. At the very least, it's always helpful to send a donation to cover any research time and copy costs. (In addition, I usually send a self-addressed stamped envelope). 

When contacting a diocesan chancery or archive, be sure to mention in which parish the sacrament was (or may have been) administered.

Other Records

Deaths, Burials and Cemetery Records. Parishes may have detailed records of deaths and/or burials (in particular if the church has its own cemetery). Such records can include the name of the deceased (including maiden names), age at death, date and place of death or burial, the name of the informant, and whether the sacrament of Extreme Unction was received. The birthplace of the deceased may also be listed (if the deceased was an immigrant, perhaps even his or her town or village of origin).

Marriage Banns, Dispensations and Validations. Marriage banns were announcements of upcoming to help aid in uncovering any information that might indicate the couple was not eligible for marriage. Such announcements were made in the parishes of the bride and groom for three consecutive Sundays before the marriage was to take place. Bans only stated an intention to marry, but the marriage itself may never have actually taken place, so always check for the sacramental registry. In some cases, special dispensations from marriage banns were permitted. For example, if the bride was pregnant, if the couple included a widow or widower, or a recent convert, or if one individual was not Catholic (also referred to as mixed religions or disparate cults. Another reason for a special dispensation might be consanguinity or affinity (when a person intended to marry a close-blood relative of their own, or one of their deceased spouse). Check notes in sacramental registries, or for a letter in the diocesan archive. Marriage validations (also called blessings or rehabilitations) may exist in the event of the discovery of a close-blood relationship between the two spouses where there was no previous ecclesiastical dispensation, or for other various reasons. Find them at the church or diocesan level.

Status of the Souls (Status animarum). Beginning in the middle 18th century, many Catholic Churches created parish family books (similar to a census). These registers listed dates of marriage, birth of each child, and death or migration of family members. Such lists are usually available only at churches or archives and not typically microfilmed.

Home and Family Sources. Look through any inherited family items for bibles, certificates, photographs, pins, jewelry, invitations, First Communion books, and other ephemera. If you don't have any, ask all of your living relatives. You never know who will be in possession of such family treasures.

Church Histories, Booklets and Newspapers. Also, don't overlook church and local histories, donation lists, committee meeting minutes, anniversary booklets, and Catholic newspapers--all can be excellent sources of information.

Religious Order Records. If one of your male ancestors was a brother, deacon, or priest, or if a female ancestor entered the convent, you may be able to find information in religious order records. Contact the headquarters of their particular order for specific documentation.

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My aunt Sister Mary Camilla, shown at right, was a nun with the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. She kept a scrapbook from the time she entered the convent, as well as booklets and newspaper articles celebrating the various milestones of her service. You can read more about her on my post, "My Auntie: Christ's Career Woman and Our Family Historian," on The Catholic Gene Blog.

Conclusion

Researching your Roman Catholic ancestors may seem daunting at first, but don't be intimidated. Follow the three R's above, and perhaps you'll get a bit of divine intervention to help you along the way!

References and Additional Resources


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