Category Archives: Church Records

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!


Ten Kinds of Information Found in Church Records

Church Records Are An Under-Used Resource!

Yes, you read that correctly. I believe church records are a very under-used resource in genealogy research.

I will say right upfront that some church records are difficult, if not almost impossible to access. It is rare to find, say, Roman Catholic church records accessible online, with the exception of burial records in an affiliated cemetery.

Some churches lost their membership, closed the doors and records they kept were probably tossed in the trash over time.

And, yes, like wooden county courthouses, early churches also caught fire. If their records were housed in the church building, they went up in flames, too.

For the many church records that can be easily accessed, there is often no accompanying index, which puts off some researchers.

However, that doesn’t mean that all church records are inaccessible or long gone. Reading page-by-page often provides an in-depth point of view about our ancestors’ religious lives.

In fact, in addition to vital record events such as baptisms, marriages and burials, there are a variety of church records that can provide a researcher with daily life details not available elsewhere.

Here are ten types of information that can be found in various church records:

1. Membership List – A list creates an instant FAN club for a family! Who were their family members, associates and neighbors?
2. Wedding Attendees – Quaker meeting minutes often list the names of all the members who witnessed a marriage
3. Home Address – Even small villages where some of my ancestors lived have house numbers (they are one-road villages) that begin with #1 at the bottom of the hill, continue up the hill to the church location and then continue again down the hill back to the starting point.
4. Mother’s maiden name – By the early 1800s, many baptismal records include the maiden name of the mother.
5. Exact date of birth – Many Catholic baptismal records note both the date of birth and the date of baptism
6. Arrival and departure from a town – Dated membership lists may note the addition of a new family to the congregation or the removal of a family to a new location. Sometimes, the previous and new residences are even included!
7. Family/Neighbor Disagreements – Members such as elders might have had responsibility for mediating disagreements between two or more church members. In fact, the early Puritan church in Massachusetts kept tight control over the lives of its members.
8. Immigrant’s Town of Origin – Many churches, particularly Catholic ones in my experience, often record the European village of origin of immigrant parents when a child is baptized or married. Lutheran churches also recorded previous residences of German and Scandinavian members in their records.
9. Minister’s or Priest’s Observations (Notes) – European churches often noted births out of wedlock and mentioned person/families that left the parish. In the later 1800s, most of the people left for the United States.
10. Job Titles and Social Status – Church records often note details about the lives of its ministers, deacons, elders, etc. and occasionally, in vital records, note citizenship status of those marrying and dying. Slovak church records in the 1800s note citizens, renters and those living in the village on a temporary basis. Other categories include servants, the church cantor and the village miller.

BONUS – History of the Church Itself – Last, but not least, the history of an individual church building can provide social and religious context to your family and the development of a community.

A word of advice from someone who has spent many hours poring through microfilmed and digitized church records. You will be amazed by the amount of information that can be gleaned. Making the extra effort to obtain records directly from churches or reading a hundred pages of un-indexed church history will bring many benefits. I guarantee your time will be well spent.