New England Catholic Church Records
By Jeanne Scaduto Belmonte
Researching your Catholic roots may seem baffling at first as you strive to comprehend the content and availability of records. These records can provide a wealth of information for life events and be a substitute when civil records cannot be located.
Catholic churches are required by ecumenical law to keep sacramental records and have been doing so since the first Catholic church was established in New England. The earlier records may not contain much information, but over time records were standardized to contain more extensive and consistent information.
Parish records were written in Latin until the middle of the 20th century. Many contain a hybrid of Latin and English. How much English was used depended on the one who was writing the documents. Once you are familiar with the standardized language, Latin records can be easily understood.
Of the seven sacraments a Catholic may receive, each will generate a record. The two records which are considered the most important to genealogists and contain the most information are baptism and matrimony. Other parish records are useful to decipher age or area of residence.
Baptism- Baptisms can take place within days after birth but usually within the first year. Information contained in the records includes the name and date of baptism, date of birth, names of parents (occasionally the maiden name of the mother), and names of sponsors/godparents and the priest. Occasionally the marriage of the child baptized may be noted on the baptism record.
Reconciliation- Usually received just before First Holy Communion. A list of children may have been made, or it could be noted in the communion records.
Eucharist/First Holy Communion- A child received first communion at about age 7 or 8, or in the second grade. Records for a first communion were not kept as regularly as others and may include only the date and the name of the child.
Confirmation- Confirmation takes place between the ages of 12-16. Confirmation records are kept by a parish and will include at least date and name. Some will also include the name of the sponsor.
Matrimony- Marriages are usually recorded by date and groom’s surname. Records include names of those being married, names of witnesses, and the signature of the priest. Traditionally, marriages took place in the bride’s parish. Some marriage records may contain the baptism date and parish if one or both were being married outside their own parish. Occasionally a short form or letter would be filed with the marriage record to indicate a baptism or confirmation date.
Extreme Unction/Last Rites- Sick-call records usually include date of visit, name, whether Last Rites were received and possibly the location of the visit or home address. Other information may include the date of death and cause.
Holy Orders/Ordinations- Records for men and women entering religious life are not part of parish sacramental records. Records for a priest are located in the archdiocese where he was ordained or the diocesan office which covers the town where the church he served is located. Records for men who were part of a specific order of priests and brothers may be found with the provincial or national houses of the order. Women entering religious life would have joined a specific order. To determine which one, look to where she served. Schools, hospitals and other care facilities are often associated with one particular order. Records would be located in the mother house of the order. Diocesan offices are helpful in locating where your religious ancestor served. The book The Official Catholic Directory contains the names and contact information of religious orders for men and women throughout the United States.
Other Records (non-sacramental)
Cemetery/Burial Records- Most parishes do not keep burial records, unless the cemetery is owned and operated by the parish church. Most cemetery records are kept in the administration office of the cemetery. Many diocesan offices have centralized the administration of their cemeteries and all genealogy requests must go through that office. Diocesan websites will have information on cemeteries in their jurisdiction and contact information. The records usually contain name, date of death, and date of burial, and plot number is commonly found. Cemetery records may also contain plot ownership, family information, and the names of others who were buried there.
Diocesan Newspapers- Early diocesan newspapers regularly printed obituaries, marriage banns, and reports of events from the parishes. Contact the diocesan office for location of archived copies and access.
Schools- Records for local Catholic elementary or high schools usually remain with the school. It is best to contact them to learn what records survive and how to access them. If the school has since closed or merged, contact the parish which was attached to the school to learn where records were sent. Catholic colleges, universities, and seminaries have alumni offices that offer assistance.
Catholic Societies and Fraternal Organizations- Knights of Columbus, Sons of Italy, Catholic Association of Foresters, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are four of many fraternal organizations. Devotional organizations include the Holy Name Society. Contact the local chapter to determine what records are available.
Catholic Charitable Organizations- Orphanages, homes for unwed mothers, immigrant services, and other charitable works were undertaken by various organizations. The records may be scattered in several locations. Contact the organization directly, if known and still in existence.
Finding and Accessing Records
Most sacramental records are kept at the parish level. It is best to begin by contacting the parish, if known. If the parish is not known, consider:
- Location - Most Catholics attended a church close to where they were living. If your ancestors's address is known, begin by searching for parishes in that area.
- Ethnicity - Ethnic groups often started their own parish to service the needs of a growing immigrant community. New immigrants may have attended a church where their native language was spoken and customs were familiar.
Click here for a list of New England Dioceses, including contact information and basic information on their holdings.
Local genealogical societies, historical societies, and libraries may also have published Catholic Church records.
Requesting Records from the Parish
Many parishes do not allow access to the parish records to researchers. Requests for records are usually handled by the parish staff. Many parishes prefer a record request be made in writing by either regular mail or email. If writing by regular mail, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. When contacting by email ask about fees and postage.
Provide as much information as possible. For baptism records, include full name of child, date of birth and the names of the parents, for marriage records, include names of both bride and groom and the date of marriage (if known) or your best guess.
Resources at NEHGS
In early 2017 NEHGS and the Archdiocese of Boston announced a multi-year collaboration to create an online searchable database of millions of sacramental records from over 100 parishes across greater Boston. The project spans parish records from 1789 to 1900, a period of significant growth for the Catholic Church in Boston and surrounding towns, beginning with the founding of Boston’s first Catholic parish—the Cathedral of the Holy Cross—in 1788. The digitized records document several sacraments of the Catholic Church, including baptism, confirmation, holy communion, marriage, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick. While the project will take several years to complete, images of the oldest records from the earliest parishes are available to browse and some already searchable. You can find more information at catholicrecords.americanancestors.org or start browsing records.
"Catholic Church Records: A Genealogical and Historical Resource" by James M. O'Toole
The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 132 (1978)
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference F1 .N56 v.132; full article available to members (link above)
The American-Canadian Genealogical Society Index of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1840-2000
Online database at AmericanAncestors.org
The Official Catholic Directory by P.J. Kenedy & Sons
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference BX845. C5
U.S. Catholic sources: a diocesan research guide compiled by Virginia Humling
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference CD3065 .H86 1995
The newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston
NEHGS, 4th Floor Microfilm Collection F73.1 .P55
The Catholic Church in Maine by William Leo Lucey
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks BX1415.M2 L8 1957
FamilySearch.org- Some Catholic records have been microfilmed. Please search the catalog to learn what is available.
ParishesOnline.com- Searchable database for parishes in the United States and Canada.
Tools for Understanding Latin
A Dictionary of Latin Words and Phrases by James Morwood
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference PA2365.E5 M67 1998
Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid, from University of Notre Dame
Latin Versions of Given Names, from FamilySearch.org
Latin Genealogical Word List, from FamilySearch.org.
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