Religion & Neighborhoods: Finding Church Records

Religion has been a very important part of our ancestors’ lives. Today, however, it seems to have a less prominent role in people’s lives, which, in turn, might provide a less clear cut path to locating those all-important church registers, minutes and other religious resources.

As we look for our family members in church records, it’s important to think outside the box. My dad’s side of the family tree is Slovak and Nana said “everyone” was of the Greek Catholic faith, more commonly called Byzantine Catholic today.

While that is true for Nana’s side of the family (the only church anywhere near the village was Greek Catholic), it isn’t true for Nana’s husband – my paternal grandfather’s family. Yes, my grandfather was raised in the Greek Catholic church. However, looking at the family tree, his father was Greek Catholic, but his mother Maria was baptized as Roman Catholic. Maria’s father was Roman Catholic, but her mother Anna was Greek Catholic. The same pattern repeated itself with Anna’s parents, as her father was Greek Catholic and her mother, Roman Catholic.

Source: Google Maps

The two family villages, Vysna Sebastova and Ruska Nova Ves, are only six miles apart and just close enough together to recall the old adage that young men went courting young ladies within about a five mile radius because that was as far as they could easily travel in one day.

It just so happens that Vysna Sebastova has a Greek Catholic church, but there is a Roman Catholic church in Ruska Nova Ves. It is easy to see how young people met each other from neighboring villages. They might have even met half way with wagons on a commerce day.

Why is this important? Because church records are not maintained in any single repository, like a town, county or state government agency. That is true not only for American church records, but for church records in many other countries. Those important baptisms, marriages and burials are housed at the local church level.

It was not an unusual occurrence to have a Roman Catholic marry a Greek Catholic in that part of Slovakia. In fact, from c1840, the priest wrote in GC (Greek Catholic)/ RC or LC (Roman or Latin Catholic) after the bride’s and groom’s names in the church registers. That’s how I realized I needed to toss the genealogical net further out than the Greek Catholic church, in spite of Nana’s statement.

Although my Slovak ancestors are the example here, think about your ancestors both in Europe and the United States. Protestant religions are numerous. In my own tree, I have identified Puritans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans and the list goes on. As the years approach modern times, it because much more common for a bride and groom to not only be members of different church parishes, but also from families with different religious beliefs.

While Roman Catholicism is but one religion, ethnicity mattered. too. If one of the wedding couple was Italian and the other Irish, or Polish, or Slovak, you probably have two different parishes to search for those vital events.

The most common pattern I’ve found is that marriages took place in the bride’s church, but baptisms and burials happened in the groom’s parish if the newlyweds settled down near his family.

Keep in mind, though, that it is not impossible that a bride married at her husband’s church or that the newlyweds remained in the bride’s neighborhood.

The lesson to be learned here is to read ALL the little details on each church record you find. Perhaps you’ll be lucky, like I was, and the priest or minister will note religions of the participants.

However, if you find a marriage record in one church register, but can’t find other family records even though you know they lived nearby, throw out your own genealogical net to catch records hiding in the registers of a nearby church.

Happy hunting!


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