St. Augustine Catholic Subscribe
home about columns blog advertising diocese of saint augustine contact us

>> culture

Family tree tips – rooted in faith
Catholic Church records are a solid source for learning more about who came before

    Besides the family members you grew up with and those you’ve heard tales of around the dinner table, who else might be considered your relations? Is there a Beethoven on your family tree, or a buccaneer? Royalty or rascals?
    With the advent of the Internet, there’s never been a better time to find out. A world of genealogy resources is available out there 24/7/365, and you don’t even have to leave your home to access it.

    How do you begin your search? The first step starts with you: ask yourself what you know to be true. Write down the names, birth dates, and places of birth for everyone in your original family, as well as the date and location of your parents’ wedding and any deaths that may have occurred in that small circle.
    Next, involve the previous generation in your work. Ask them about their siblings and their parents and the important dates and places associated with each. Use a tape recorder, if they don’t mind, so you can catch every detail of the anecdotes that inevitably arise from these discussions.
    A handy way to keep all this information neat and orderly is to use family group sheets. You can download and print them for free from genealogy Web sites such as Or, if you prefer to keep everything electronic, you can find the sheets built into any genealogy software package. A list of several popular ones is available at right.
    You may find at this point that you’re starting to see some discrepancies between, say your mother’s memory of her uncle’s place of birth and your grandmother’s. Now is the time to move on to the third step in your research process: consulting public records for verification.
    County courthouses are a good source for secular records noting births, marriages, and deaths. A complementary system of public records that are sacramental in nature – for baptism, matrimony, and funeral events   may be found in the files of your ancestors’ local Catholic parish. In many cases, confirmation and first communion records may be available, too.

Why do Catholic parishes keep records?
    Sacramental records have been kept by Catholic parishes since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when the gathered bishops decreed that Catholics must be baptized before they could be married. Even accounting for fires and floods, many European parishes still maintain records dating back to this council directive.
    As bishops established Catholic parishes in the New World, they insisted upon keeping good records here, too. Thanks to them, many American families can trace their roots through more than four centuries of Church history.

How can these records be accessed?
    Once you’ve identified the parish associated with your ancestor, drop its office a note and let them know what records you are seeking. Definitely write first, if you’d like to visit the parish in person. Some churches are understaffed, and may need the advance warning to locate and copy the materials you request.
    Casting the net a bit broader, you might also try contacting the local Catholic cemetery as well. If you are able to travel to see it, bring a camera to visually record your relatives’ gravestones and note the location on a map.

What’s available at the diocesan level?
    Diocesan records are another source of primary information you might consider searching. For specific information on the diocese that interests you, skim through U. S. Catholic Sources: A Diocesan Research Guide, Salt Lake City, Ancestry, 1995. This book, by Virginia Humling, contains a state-by state description of diocesan sources for genealogical researchers.
    Whether you stop at the parish level or continue on to do diocesan research, please note that it is customary when dealing with these offices to make a donation to cover staff time and copy and/or mailing costs. Some offices may even have set fees.

Are there other sources for church records?
    Some Catholic church records may also be found at the Family History Library, associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
    Founded in 1894 to help LDS members trace their family trees, the library broadened its mission in the 20th century and now contains the largest collection of genealogical records   both secular and sacramental   in the world.
    The collection may be accessed at the main library in Salt Lake City, Utah, or at any of its 3,400 branches, called Family History Centers. In the Lansing diocese, centers are located in Adrian, Ann Arbor, Flint, Grand Blanc, Howell, Jackson, Lansing, and Owosso.

5 Popular Books:
1  Unpuzzling Your Past: A Basic Guide to Genealogy. By Emily Anne Croom, F&W Publications, 1995
2  To Our Children’s Children: Journal of Family Memories, By Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford, Doubleday & Company, 1998
3  Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian, By Elizabeth Shown Mills, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997
4  The Everything Family Tree Book: Finding, Charting, and Preserving Your Family History, By William G. Hartley and Barry Littman, Adams Media, 1998
5  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy, By Christine Rose and Kay G. Ingalls, Hungry Minds, 1997

5 Popular Web Sites:

5 Popular Software Packages:
1  Ancestral Quest (Incline Software)
2  Family Tree (Sierra Generations)
3  Family Tree Maker (The Learning Company)
4  Ultimate Family Tree (Mindscape)
5  Personal Ancestral File (LDS)

Note: These packages are PC-based. If you own a Macintosh, look into the genealogy package called Reunion, developed by Leister Productions.

By Patricia Majher | Illustration by Janet Wooley

© 2009 St. Augustine Catholic | 11625 Old St. Augustine Road, Jacksonville, FL 32258 | 904-262-3200 | | CMS