If you plan to research church records, you need to understand the benefits and problems that you will encounter. Always be sure to look at all available local resources for church records. For instance, if you can’t find the church death registers, you can look in the county probate records, instead. Look for witness names from baptisms and weddings as well. That’s a great way to discover or clarify relationships between family members. If you can’t find your ancestor’s birthplace listed, look for other members of his or her ethnic group who were in that area at that time. Chances are good that they may have all come from the same place.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the American frontier was a fairly isolated place. There may not have been enough people in some areas to support multiple churches. So, regardless of your ancestor’s denomination, he or she may have attended another denomination’s church at some point.
It’s also important to understand how each church worked. For example, some churches may have only performed baptisms on infants, some only on adults, and some on both. Knowing that information can help you to pinpoint a person’s age more accurately.
When you request information from a particular church, you need to be specific about what you want. They may have a standard response to generic inquiries. Many of them may only provide information about a person’s age, unless you ask for other information, such as the person’s birthplace.
Next, be aware that records may not be totally accurate. For instance, infant baptisms may occur quite a while after the child was born. That extra passage of time means that more errors could occur in the recording of the child’s birth date. So, always check more than one source to try to confirm information.
Typographical and translation errors can also be a problem. So, transcriptions may not be accurate word for word. For instance, names and occupations of sponsors from baptisms may not be included. Also, in cases where information is alphabetized, some important genealogical information may not be obvious, such as multiple children in the same family being baptized. It’s always better to examine an original record or a microfilmed copy, as opposed to a written transcription. Although the original records may be in a different language, a translator or foreign language dictionary may be able to help you get the information from them.
Original records can often be quite fragile. So, church officials may not want to let you examine them. Sometimes you can suggest that the records be placed on microfilm. Another option is that you can ask if the pastor will examine the records for you, possibly even with you present to watch. Luckily, there are many record microfilming programs in place across the country. So, more records are being safely copied on microfilm all the time. The Genealogical Society of Utah is particularly well known for microfilming various genealogical records, including church records.
Many times, Catholic records stay in each individual parish. However, when parishes close or records become quite old, the diocese may order those records to be moved to university archives or historical societies. Other records may be moved directly to the diocesan archives. If you know where your family member lived, even if their parish has long since closed, the local diocese may be able to tell you where the records from the closed parish can be found. If you are unsure which diocese or archdiocese to contact, you should refer to Virginia Humling, U.S. Catholic Sources: A Diocesan Research Guide (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1995). It contains an in-depth list of each diocese or archdiocese, their locations, phone numbers, and, in some cases, fees you can expect to pay for accessing their records.
Be prepared for the fact that you may not be able to talk to a parish priest directly. Instead, you may have your genealogical inquiry answered by a volunteer or a secretary for the parish. You may also be able to access copies of those same records at the Genealogical Society of Utah on microfilm. So, it’s worth spending some time to examine the Family History Library Catalog for any useful information.
Parish secretaries, volunteers, or pastors may not always be willing or able to help you conduct research that is as thorough as you need it to be. You may need to go to the church to inquire in person. Someone there may be able to connect you with a congregation member that knows a lot of area history or can assist you with your genealogical search. However, you can start by sending a written request to the church with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and at least $5 or $10 dollars. If you need someone to research more than one entry, you should include a higher amount. Depending on the church, you may or may not get that money back.