Church records are an important supplement to vital records. In many areas
they are the only records available. They can fill in the blanks where vital
records were not kept or were lost due to fire, flood, or the ravages of time.
While they can be difficult to access, the mountain of information available
there is well worth the effort.
When thinking of church records, many individuals focus solely on the
sacramental registers dealing with baptisms, marriages, and burials. There are,
however, a number of other records both sacramental and non-sacramental that
will provide excellent information for genealogists.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments: baptism, first
communion, reconciliation (also known as penance), confirmation, matrimony, holy
orders, and anointing of the sick (formerly extreme unction). Many of these
practices were continued by other denominations as they broke away from
Catholicism and developed their own rites and rituals.
In Christian religions baptism marks a spiritual rebirth (according to the
doctrine of the particular denomination) most often involving the symbolic
application of water. In denominations that practice infant baptism, records of
this sacrament can be used to approximate a date of birth. They are often used
as a substitute when no civil or other record of birth exists. It is very
important when using compiled sources to use the proper abbreviation in your
notations. Baptism is abbreviated as bp. or bap. and should never be shortened
to b. The lower-case b. is an abbreviation for born. Respecting these practices
will alleviate potential problems.
It is also important to be aware that not all denominations practiced infant
baptism. Some, such as the Baptists, practiced adult baptism. It would be a huge
mistake to use baptismal records of such faiths to determine a date of birth or
age. In many denominations it was common for a man or woman to be baptized at
the time of their acceptance into a particular congregation. Even the Catholic
Church practices adult baptism for those who convert to the faith later in
The sacrament of reconciliation is also known as penance or confession.
Children are introduced to this sacrament in preparation for their first
communion. Individuals are supposed to practice this sacrament frequently but at
a minimum at least once per year during Lent (known as "Easter Duty"). Records
of this sacrament were not usually kept and it is therefore not genealogically
First communion marks the start of full life in the church. More formal
religious education is commenced, and children are allowed to participate fully
in services and to take the Host at communion time. In the Catholic Church
children are usually given their first communion around the ages of seven or
eight. Records of first communion are not usually kept, but if found can help to
approximate a year of birth.
Confirmation is the rite by which individuals affirm their belief and
adherence to the doctrines of their faith and their move into full adult
participation in the church. In the Catholic Church one is usually confirmed
around the ages of twelve to fourteen. Many parishes maintained lists of those
confirmed, and these records can also be used to approximate ages and/or dates
of birth. Some parishes even recorded the age of the child at the time of
The next sacrament that one would participate in is matrimony. Records of
marriage form one of the largest categories of church records. While many
denominations did not track (or possibly practice) baptism or last rites, most
religious groups performed marriages. The detail in these records varies from
including just the names of the bride and groom and date of marriage to
extensive lists of parents' names, occupations, witnesses, etc.
Unfortunately, in many denominations, records of marriages (and occasionally
other records) were considered the property of the ministers. When the ministers
left for another parish, they took their record books with them. This can make
it difficult to locate records for a particular church, as the minister could
have ended up halfway across the country in a remote town completely
unassociated with your ancestors' hometown.
One record group that is under-utilized is that of the sacrament of holy
orders. When researching ancestors it is very common to find children who seem
to vanish. There are no marriage records for them, and they cannot be located in
death/burial records. It is entirely possible that they may have entered
religious life. While many denominations allow ministers to be married, there
are some that do not. Prior to women being allowed into ministry many who felt
the calling to religious life entered convents.
Records of men entering the priesthood can be located on a diocesan level.
Records of men and women entering religious orders are often found at the home
of the order. It is important to note that the home of the order may not even be
located in Canada, but in the United States or Europe! Books such as the
Canadian Catholic Church Directory (REF BX1421.2/A66/1995) or the
Official Catholic Directory (REF BX845/C5) can be helpful in locating
these institutions. They may also have records of what houses or parishes the
individual was assigned to, as well as information on their date and place of
death or burial.
Finally, the last sacrament one receives is Anointing of the Sick, formerly
called Extreme Unction or Last Rites. Those who are experiencing grave illness
and are not expected to recover are given a final opportunity to express remorse
for any sins they may have committed in life, and are absolved of those sins
before passing on. Records of this sacrament are not usually kept, but when they
are it is a good indication of a death occurring not too far in the future.
Sacramental registers are not the only records kept by churches. The records
of many Protestant denominations include records of admission and dismission.
Records of dismission from the church can be a harbinger of the family migrating
elsewhere. Similarly, records of admission can signify a family's arrival in a
Many women are baptized into a community shortly before the baptism of their
children. It is not uncommon in records to see the words "baptized and received
into full communion" indicating an adult baptism and immediate participation in
the congregation. Records of baptism for children are often found shortly
thereafter, many times as soon as the following week.
Many parishes also kept records of burials in the church cemetery. It is not
uncommon for even the smallest of towns and villages to have several cemeteries.
There may be a Catholic cemetery, one for Methodists, and one for Presbyterians
as well as a non-denominational civil cemetery in the town. Civil cemeteries can
often contain separate sections for people of different faiths. Church
cemeteries are not always physically located next to the church.
Many churches have had their records abstracted and published. This is most
common in Québec, where both Catholic and non-Catholic parishes have had records
published for years. The most common records to be published were those of
marriages. It is important to note, however, that these transcriptions do not
always contain all of the information in the original record. Additional
information on residences, occupation, parents' names, etc. can be found by
examining the original records.
Many parishes have had their records microfilmed. The individual provincial
archives have many reels of these records. In some instances you may be able to
borrow these reels through inter-library loan. Contact the appropriate archives
for more details on this procedure. See my
previous article on governmental agencies for information on how to contact
the various archives.
Another important source of these records is the Family History Library.
Search the Family History
Library Catalog under the name of the town your researching in. When the
results categories are returned, look for the "church records" heading. For
example, a search of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, turned up the records of the
parishes of Saint George and Saint Patrick, including baptisms, marriages,
burials, and lists of communicants.
Church records give a wealth of information to the family historian. Make
sure you do not limit yourself to the sacramental registers, but look for all
information available in the records. Besides the records found here you can
find information on the purchase of pews, the ordination of deacons and other
church elders, and a myriad of other information to help you in your