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Catholic Parish Records in the United States

(Allen County Public Library by Sara Allen 6-1-2015)
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Church records can provide crucial details about our ancestors, especially when other records such as civil birth, marriage and death records are scarce or non-existent. Catholic and Lutheran churches in the United States and abroad are known for keeping excellent records, full of vital information about our ancestors. Many immigrants attended church at least in the first generation, and affiliated with those of their denomination and nationality in the new country. So even if one’s family does not currently attend religious services, it can be worthwhile to check to see if immigrant ancestors did attend, and left behind valuable records.

Catholic records can include baptisms, first communions, confirmations, marriages and burials within the parish, and are often genealogically rich in data. An examination of the baptismal records of the Immaculate Conception Church in Ege, Noble County, Indiana (Microfilm, Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese records, Reel #5) shows that each record gives the name of the person being baptized (normally an infant, but also adult converts), date of birth, date of baptism, names of parents, the place where parents were from, and names of godparents. This particular church in Ege was an immigrant parish with at least 50 percent of the families being from foreign countries, the majority Polish, but also of German, Irish and Canadian backgrounds. This means that many towns of origin listed for the parents were located in Europe or Canada, providing great clues for those trying to find home villages in the “old country.”

One caveat is that the early Catholic records are usually in Latin, or, less frequently, in the immigrant language. But because these records follow a usual set format or template, once the template is learned, one can decipher most of the fields in the record, regardless of the original language of the record. Librarians here at The Genealogy Center can advise and help you translate church records. We also have several books about how to read foreign genealogical records, including those in Latin, such as: “Latin for Local and Family Historians: a Beginner’s Guide” (GC 478.2 ST91LA). There are also Latin tutorials available on the internet, such as this one on FamilySearch’s Wiki: https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Latin_Genealogical_Word_List.

Finding Catholic Church Records:
• Print: Some parish records have been extracted, indexed or photocopied in book format and placed on the shelves of this library or other libraries. For instance, The Genealogy Center has 22 volumes of the “Diocese of Baton Rouge [LA], Catholic Church records” from 1707 to 1900 (GC 976.3 C28D). Check the library catalog for our other holdings, and WorldCat.org for holdings in other libraries.

• Microfilm: Many historical parish records from all over the world have been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Check the Family History Library catalog at https://familysearch.org/catalog-search, and if you find an item of interest, those can be borrowed for a small fee and viewed here at ACPL or at your local FamilySearch Center in a Mormon Church or affiliate library. In our permanent collection, we have the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese parish records, most dating prior to 1925, on microfilm. Check our Microtext Catalog for these and other holdings.

• Online: The FamilySearch.org website also has digitized parish records for some locations posted online, some of which have been indexed. For instance, the Chicago Catholic Diocese parish records, 1833-1925, have been scanned, digitized, and placed online. About 100,000 names from those records have been indexed, but the indexing is far from complete. The non-indexed items are able to be browsed page by page. To access the browse-only items on the website, click on the title of the database, select the parish, type of record, and time period, and then begin reading the book online. See if the volume has a table of contents or an index (usually in the front), or skip forward and backward in the book chronologically, to try to find the correct record.

• Church or diocese archives: If the church is still in existence, often the parish records can be examined by making an appointment with the church office or priest. If the church has closed, the records may have been transferred to the Diocesan Archives. See the book, “U.S. Catholic Sources: a Diocesan Research Guide,” (GC 973 H88U).

Those who do not know the name of the parish their ancestors attended can find guidance and assistance about current and former churches from a local library’s genealogy department in the town or county where the family lived, from a local genealogical or historical society, or by contacting the Diocesan Archives for that geographical area.

Church records are filled with very rewarding genealogical finds. Start looking for your family’s church records today.

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