Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Using Church Records: A Cautionary Tale

I have long been confused by the fact my great-grandfather's youngest sister, Mary O'Hara, was missing from the 1910 census and missing from the baptismal register at the church where she should have been baptized. I eventually found a birth record for her, but these omissions still troubled me. It's one thing for a child here or there to be misnamed, misrecorded, or passed over, whether by the census taker, the parish priest, or the family legend, but for the same child to be missed in every case made me wonder.

I had contacted the Catholic Church nearest the O'Hara family home to try to find the family's sacramental records, and was rewarded with only one: Mary's older sister Malinda was baptized in April 1905. They couldn't find any of the others.

I contacted the same Catholic Church, on a different occasion, to request sacramental records for my Quinn family, who also lived nearby, and was told that, despite a search, there were no sacramental records for any of them. "Must have attended a different parish," I thought. "They don't call Brooklyn the 'Borough of Churches' for nothing." But during a recent visit to my great-uncle's home, he was able to show me a copy of the baptismal certificate of my great-grandmother, Molly Quinn. She was baptized March 28, 1897 at that very church.

Molly Quinn, Anna Mary Quinn, Brooklyn, Gillen, Quinn
Baptismal Certificate
Anna Mary Quinn
28 March 1897
The certificate that I saw was dated 1923, so it's not a question of the baptism never having been recorded. (This certificate was acquired in preparation for her wedding.) But Molly was baptized not Mary Quinn but Anna Mary Quinn, so the person searching the records must have missed it. It's not unreasonable that a parish secretary, whose job has nothing to do with genealogy, doesn't check each record for middle names and mothers' maiden names, but looks for Mary Quinn when asked to look for Mary Quinn.

Using second-hand church records that are closed to the public is a dicey proposition, but I think we have to do it anyway. There are other avenues for some of the information on some of the records (parents' names are on birth certificates, but in NYC births were only unreliably registered prior to about 1900), but others - like godparents - are exclusively available from baptismal records. What is essential to understand - and what I didn't realize before - is that they can be positive evidence when they're found (Malinda O'Hara's godmother was Malinda McGlone, as recorded on her baptismal certificate), but never negative evidence when they're not (The lack of a baptismal record for Mary O'Hara suggests that the O'Haras moved or changed parishes between 1905 and 1908).

What is your experience with contacting churches for records not available for public use?

1 comment:

Claudia said...

Since almost all of my Catholic ancestors were in the Diocese of Pittsburgh it was relatively easy. The Diocese is staffed by volunteer staff who do the research, I volunteered for about two years until they moved the archives and getting there is now a problem.

A lot of records have been burned or destroyed in a flood (quite common in a town with three rivers.) For the most part the Irish did not keep good records; I read that the way the records were kept in the old country continued in the USA. Irish did not keep good records because of the British presence.

The Germans and Polish kept excellent records and I was able to find the town of origin and parents names in most of them. The Italians kept good records but most of the time the child would be one or two by the time they were Baptized.

They also had Mission churches, where an outlying church would be a mission of a larger church. A lot of records you would look for would be at the "mother"church. I don't know if all the Catholic Diocese had the same set up, but I suspect they do not.