Where extant, church records can be an enormous boon to genealogical research. Catholic records in particular are some of the best in the world for three reasons: first, because of the level of family detail they tend to include; second, because of their far reach into the past—sometimes as distant as the late 1500s; and third, for their generally high level of accessibility to researchers today. We at Legacy Tree Genealogists have traced Catholic ancestors for our clients in places like Latin America, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Eastern Europe, but Catholicism is also found worldwide in other far-flung places like Vietnam, the Philippines, Caribbean nations, and the Middle East.
The Roman Catholic Church is and has historically been the largest Christian denomination in the world, and even today remains the official state church of numerous countries. Catholics believe in (among others) the sacraments of infant baptism, marriage, and burial, administered by priestly rites. Because such rites are considered necessary for salvation in their faith, it has long been important for evidence of them to be recorded and preserved. The importance of the recording practice was cemented by the Council of Trent in the 1560s—an ecumenical council which mandated that parish priests from then on worldwide not only keep detailed books on their local members but make copies and share them with their bishops so there would be duplicates. With Catholicism then spread throughout the world via colonialism in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, these recordkeeping values were transported to new places as well.
The usefulness of Catholic records versus many Evangelical and other Protestant records in genealogy has to do with several key differences in belief and practice between those groups. First, Catholics are a centralized church, with a strict hierarchy that extends all the way up to the Pope as the highest mortal authority. This means that (at least in theory), the practices of the Catholic church (including the priesthood and the sacraments given) are the same throughout the world. This is not so for groups like Baptists, Methodists, and other Evangelical Protestant denominations which tend to have more localized structures. Furthermore, many Protestant groups do not share similar beliefs about infant baptism or the inherently salvific nature of other rites such as marriage or Christian burial. As a result, detailed church records for every member were not meticulously recorded and therefore are not typically available in heavily Evangelical Protestant areas such as the American South (Louisiana being the exception, as it was settled in the 1700s by French Catholic refugees).
There are several different types of Catholic records, with baptismal registers being the most commonly used by researchers. While the amount of detail in a baptismal entry can vary by priest, the average document (regardless of country) contains at least the following facts:
- Name of the baby
- Date and place of baptism (often date of birth as well)
- Names of parents, including the maiden name of the mother
- Names of godparents/witnesses—often family members
Many baptismal records will also contain the names of both sets of grandparents, and some will even contain racial designations. For example, this is often the case in colonial Mexico where Spanish settlers intermarried with local indigenous populations. Keep an eye out for handwritten marginal notes in baptismal records, too! Many priests would return to the entry years later and make note of the baptized individual’s later death or marriage. These clues can lead to other records.
Marriage records usually consist of two types: marriage information packets, and the marriage records themselves. Marriage information packets, or pre-marriage investigations, can be several pages long and contain detailed data on the bride and groom and their families. This was done in order to prove that there were no impediments to the marriage such as bigamy or consanguinity. If the latter was suspected, the investigation files may contain several generations of ancestry as proof that the couple were not too closely related. Witnesses such as family or close friends were also interviewed and invited to testify to the good character and truthfulness of the couple’s claims.
Marriage registers are simpler and usually contain only a record of the event having taken place. They will list the names of the bride and groom, the date and place of the marriage, and the names of the parents and/or grandparents of both parties. As with baptismal records, witnesses to the marriage will also be included. If the bride or groom was widowed, the marriage book may contain that designation and the name of the deceased spouse. It may also mention the occupation of the groom. This is especially useful in places like England and Ireland where differentiation needs to be made between several local men with the same name.
Burial records tend to be the least detailed of all, often containing only the name of the deceased and date of burial. In some cases, age or address might be listed, a relative (the parent of a deceased child or husband of a deceased wife, for instance), and in much rarer cases cause of death. The burial records will almost never, however, include such important information as names of both parents or birthplace or birthdate of the deceased.
How to Access
Access to Catholic records can vary from place to place. Millions of Catholic books were microfilmed and have now been digitized on various genealogy sites (MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, or FindmyPast.com). Many have been indexed and are searchable by name. Each of these sites contains a catalog which can be searched for the records in question.
Otherwise, Catholic documents may still be held in their original form at the parish church or the local diocesan archive. Legacy Tree has found this a common situation in recent projects in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Poland. In such cases, the most reliable method of accessing the records is to send a researcher onsite to visit the repository. Legacy Tree has experienced contacts in numerous countries who retrieve such documents on a regular basis. Letters sent with a fee to the parish or archive can be useful as well, but there is no guarantee that it will be received or responded to—especially if it is written in a language other than the one the priest speaks natively. Furthermore, it should be remembered that as private religious documents, churches are under no legal obligation to share their holdings with the public, and some individual parishes feel strongly about the privacy of their parishioners — even those long dead — and especially in regard to researchers from foreign countries like the United States.
Alternatively, sometimes the local churches are willing to accommodate, but maintain extremely limited hours. Also, books seldom have indexes, so unless you or the researcher knows the exact date of an event (or a very narrow window), searching the books can be quite time-intensive. Finding out more about the availability of the documents in advance is wise, as is contracting with a researcher who is already familiar with the repository and/or priest.
A Few Other Considerations:
- Parish registers are most likely to be written in the language of the area, but may also be written (or contain key words) in Latin.
- In some cultures, many couples had children prior to marriage and lived together in cohabiting unmarried partnerships. Their marriage later would “legitimize” their children in the eyes of the church. Exercise caution when finding a couple’s marriage record and make sure to search the parish baptismal record books for children born both before and after that event—just because a couple was not married yet does not mean they waited until that time to start their family.
- In most Catholic countries, babies were baptized as soon after birth as possible—sometimes the same day or week, but usually within the first few months of life. In most cases, this means that estimating the birth window of a child is convenient, even if the record does not give the exact date. However, this strategy does not work well in geographically isolated places without regular access to a parish priest, as the parents would have to wait and then baptized numerous children at the same time. If you observe this in a parish book—two or more children from the same parents being baptized on or near the same day—be aware that it doesn’t necessarily mean those children are twins—it may mean they didn’t have regular access to a church. This can often be the case in colonial areas which were sparsely settled; parts of Louisiana (USA), Mexico, and South America especially.
- In situations of illegitimacy, whether the biological father was named in the baptismal record seems to have been up to the individual priest and/or local culture and legal system. In Ireland, for example, birth fathers were typically listed where known, but this was not as commonly done in records within the Spanish sphere of emphasis.
- Foundlings (children who were left abandoned) were often adopted and named by the church, and the names they were given are frequently clues as to their mysterious origins. Some churches in Italy in particular made it easier for struggling mothers to anonymously give up their infants, depositing them in a “foundling wheel,” or ruota dei proietti. For more about this topic, check out this Legacy Tree post on the subject: Finding Foundlings: Searching for Abandoned Children in Italy.
Legacy Tree Genealogists has extensive experience in tracing clients’ ancestors in Catholic records worldwide. We would love to help you find yours. Contact us today for a free quote.
Anthony Gonzales says
My grandmother was a Lipan Apache native American born in 1891. She was adopted by a Hispanic family after her father and mother were killed. I don’t know if they were killed by indian raids at the time or by by a skirmish with the U. S. Army Cavalry.
She became Catholic when she was adopted and later married in the Catholic Church. What information can I get from the Catholic Church about her and her parents (my great grand parents) and siblings if she had any for my genealogical research?
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
The Catholic church will probably only have information about her biological family if they were Catholics. If they were not, the convert herself might have mentioned their names in her marriage record, but if she was adopted, that seems unlikely (probably would have listed her adoptive parents instead).
I have found some records at a Catholic church near where I live..but when I asked to view the original record ( the researcher in me) I was told that they do not allow the public to view records in their books..But would not explain why. Can you tell me why I’ve come across this a few times.
Cathy Racicot says
Write a letter to the overseeing bishop of the diocese. You are only interested in very old records, not recent. Use white & or vinyl gloves to touch items. No xeroxing, photo with your phone.
They are not governmental records, and therefore the church or diocese has every right to determine who has access, especially to the originals. There might also have been privacy issues involved, depending on the age of the records.
christine domingue says
When my father and I looked up his and my late mother’s marriage at the church (R.C.). My uncle and aunt were married there too. Since this was not the original register, several names had been changed by inattentive scribes. For example, my aunt was listed as being christened days before she was born.
Bringing this to the attention to the church secretary, she was hesitant about showing it at a subsequent visit. Good luck in your research, Lara.
George Ostapchenko says
II am trying to get a confirmation for a DAR application that Saints names were substituted on persons whose given names were not names of Saints names. Do you know of any documentation that supports this Roman Catholic practice?
Thanks in advance,
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
Hi George, it was a Roman Catholic practice to give a child a Saint’s name as one of their given names, which they may or may not use during their lifetime depending on other factors.
christine domingue says
This tradition is still followed-if only for the middle name. One priest sermonized that one child was baptized Tiffany. Then, the priest mused as to when parents will request Rolex as their son’s name.
George Ostapchenko says
Was it common in the 1850’s for a priest to change the name of the mother or father in the baptismal records if they were not a saint’s names? My wife’s great grandmother’s name was changed from Minnie to Wilhemina .
Jeff Powers says
Based on my ancestors, Minnie is a “nickname” for the more formal Wilhemina. Several Wilheminas in my tree went by just Minnie.
Elaine Richard Funk says
Searching for my great grandfather, John Baptiste Richard, born in the Quebec area in the early 1860’s. I have some information that he was baptized in June of 1864. Would like to know his parents names.
Ando buscando el certificado de bautismo de mi Bisabuela nacida en La Paz-Bolivia, existe la posibilidad que puedan ayudarme en la busqueda, cuento con mucha informacion
Beth Harrison says
Hola Fernando, gracias por contactarnos sobre el certificado de bautismo de su bisabuela nacida en Bolivia. Podemos ayudarlo a dar los siguientes pasos para aprender más sobre su familia. Comuníquese con nuestro equipo de Soluciones al cliente completando el formulario en nuestra página Póngase en contacto. Podemos darle un presupuesto gratuito si se necesita investigación.
Joseph Fidaleo Sr. says
How were Italian godparents chosen? In the baptismal records, I
find couples who were godparents to many children, more than
6 sometimes. Were they relatives, friends or were they paid?
Beth Harrison says
Hi Joseph, thank you for your comment. You may be able to get the answers you seek from one of our researchers who specializes in genealogy in Italy. Please visit our Get in Touch page and fill out the form and a member of our Client Solutions Specialist team will reach out to you.
My Great,Grandfather and Great GrandMother were married in Wolverhampton, England in 1865, Patrick Cawley was 27, marrying Margaret Kenahan. Patrick’s Father his father as noted on the Wedding certificate was a Farm Labourer born Ireland. I am wanting to know what area of Ireland Patrick was born. I have always been told it was Cork!!! I am wanting to confirm this, just not sure how?
Would appreciate any information of help, I am hoping to visit Ireland in September this year, I don’t want to visir the wrong places.
Beth Harrison says
We would love to help you find out more about your family history, but we would need some additional information. Please contact us by filling out the form on our Get in Touch page. We can point you in the right direction and give you a free estimate if research is needed. In addition, we specialize in Heritage Tours – so make sure you ask our Client Solutions Specialists about that, too!
Angela Roberts says
What does ‘feach’ mean in the Irish Parish Register?
Heather - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
‘Feach’ is a Gaelic verb that means see or look – it may be recommending you look at another reference in that record.
S Sharp says
I would like to obtain a copy of the birth certificate for my grandmother born in Catalonia, Barcelona Spain. I don’t have her exact birth date, only the year. I have the names of her mother and father. Would I be able to get the exact birth date through church records where she was born and baptized?
Jessica - Legacy Tree Genealogists President says
Hi S! Thank you for your comment. You may be able to get the answers you seek from one of our researchers who specializes Spain. Please visit our Get in Touch page and fill out the form and a member of our Client Solutions Specialist team will reach out to you.