(Catholic) Family Trees — Unlocking Church History via Genealogy

The Archdiocese of New York is digitizing 8 million sacramental records.

Above, Worshippers exit St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Easter 1910. Below, a 1914-15 baptismal registry is among those being newly archived.
Above, Worshippers exit St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Easter 1910. Below, a 1914-15 baptismal registry is among those being newly archived. (photo: Courtesy of Find My Past)

The handwriting is cramped, the entry in barely-legible Latin on the yellowing pages of a sacrament register for the year 1814:

“15th Baptisavi Miriam filial Roberti Bankhead et Catherinae Magee natum Maii. Sponsa Elizabeth Lyons. P.F. McNulty.”

That is: On May 15 in 1814, Mary, the child of Robert Bankhead and Catherine Magee, born on the 4th, was baptized by Father McNulty at St. Paul’s in Philadelphia, with Elizabeth Lyons as the godmother. No godfather is listed.

Opening one of these parish registers — large, sometimes fragile volumes filled margin-to-margin with names and dates — is a journey into the past. The work used to require time, travel and vast stores of patience.

While the thrill of hunting through dusty archives has been lost, the computer age has provided rich rewards in its place.

Records once hard to locate and scattered across continents are found now on services like Ancestry and Find My Past, where they can be retrieved through the internet with a simple search.

The Catholic Church is one of the richest repositories of genealogical data in the world. Sacraments mark rites of passage in baptism, first Holy Communion, confirmation and marriage, often recording events and people invisible to civil records.

The records help researchers find people in specific locations at particular times in history, along with their connections to other people.

Now, the Archdiocese of New York is following the lead of Philadelphia and partnering with U.K.-based genealogy site Find My Past (FindMyPast.com) to bring its data online.


Two Centuries of History

The region that currently makes up the Archdiocese of New York initially fell under the jurisdiction of America’s first bishop, John Carroll. It began keeping records of baptisms and marriage in 1785, almost 30 years before it became a diocese with its own bishop. Although it now encompasses Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and some surrounding counties, in the early years, its borders stretched to all of New York state and northern New Jersey. This places the records for a large portion of early U.S. Catholics in its archives. Making that data available to the public, while still protecting the privacy of individuals, is the challenge facing the archbishop and archdiocesan archivist with this new project.

The diocesan records are currently found on microfilm, in databases and in the hard copies at parishes and the main archives. All told, the indexes being made public contain 8 million sacramental records, ranging from 1785 to 1918. New records will be available each year, while maintaining a 100-year gap in order to respect the privacy of individuals who may still be living.

As Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, observed in a statement: “It is vitally important to us that we balance this openness with a respect for the privacy of those whose lives are reflected in these records. That is why we have instituted a 100-year privacy rule on all the records we are releasing.”

The data tells the story of 130 years of Catholic history in the New York region, encompassing records from more than 230 parishes. The project will be done in three phases, with phase one, an electronic database of all the pertinent records, already complete based on microfilms created in 1980 for preservation purposes.

This index is now up and running on Find My Past, searchable by names, dates, sacraments and parishes.

Find My Past is the largest repository of genealogical records for England and Ireland; it contains 8.5 billion family history records, including the largest collection of British parish records, electoral registers, 24 million pages of British and Irish newspapers, and many Catholic parish records from the U.K. and U.S. that are exclusive to the site.

“The Catholic Church holds some of the oldest and best-preserved genealogical records in existence,” says Find My Past researcher Alex Cox. “Since the early 19th century, New York City has been the largest port of entry for immigration into the United States. The millions of Irish, Italians, Germans, Polish and many others who settled in or passed through the state are captured in these documents. However, as many of these documents memorialize important religious sacraments, their privacy has long been protected, and access to original copies has, until now, been hard to come by.”

In 2017, Find My Past partnered with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to bring its records online. Cait Kokolus, director of the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Records Center, found the company easy to work with and recommended it to other dioceses. The genealogy company digitized the microfilm and picked up the costs for shipping and photographing records that had been left out during the original microfilming process.

“One contractual stipulation we made,” she observed, “was that the information could not be shared with any Mormon organization. This was in keeping with a ruling from the USCCB several years ago when many dioceses were approached by the Mormons wanting to digitize for free baptismal records. After we announced the database, I did receive a few phone calls from people worried about this.”

In 2008, the Vatican Congregation for Clergy directed episcopal conferences to instruct bishops to prevent genealogy services affiliated with the Church of Latter-day Saints (such as Ancestry.com) from digitizing information contained in Catholic sacramental registers. This was due to grave concerns over the practice of people posthumously baptizing their ancestors into the Mormon faith, which is in violation of Church teaching and is one of the main engines driving Mormon interest in genealogy.


Preservation and Privacy

For the New York process, stage two involves adding original images to the index.

All of the registers for each parish are brought to the archives and photographed again in color. Forty years have passed since they were last imaged for microfilm, and technology now allows for much higher image quality. In addition to recapturing the images, the archivists will also examine annotations found in the records. “In the Catholic Church, your baptismal parish is considered to be your parish of record and, ideally, the repository of information about all other sacraments you receive throughout the course of your life,” explained Kate Feighery, director of the archives of the Archdiocese of New York.

“All this information is sent to your baptismal parish and then included in the register. So even though one is only baptized into the Church once, the baptismal record may continue to be edited throughout the course of a person’s life. Since these records are not static, it is important to go back every once in a while and reimage to update with any notation edits that might have been made.”

During the imaging process, the archivists will also do preservation work on older registers. The final phase will be the digitization of the complete run of the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.

Sacramental records hold a wealth of data for the genealogist. Not all Church marriages are recorded in civil records, and information such as the names of godparents or witnesses might open new lines of inquiry.

There are unique challenges in working with the records.

“The data are mostly in Latin,” said Cox, “or in the language of the immigrant community (German, Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, etc.) which can cause difficulty in legibility (some scripts are very difficult to read) and interpretation.” Another challenge has to do with New York state law, which seals data related to adoption records forever. This means all baptismal records must be carefully examined to ensure they do not mention any adoption. This is part of the reason more photographs are not already online.

“Outside of the value for individual family historians,” said Feighery, “these records really paint a larger story about the immigrant experience in New York over time.

“The parishes that were opened to serve different immigrant communities, the languages in which the records were recorded, the names of the priests, and even the names of the parishioners themselves can really demonstrate the changing racial, linguistic and ethnic landscape of New York City; and can also help track these communities as they moved out of the city into the suburbs and upper counties of the state.”

Thomas L. McDonald, a Register blogger, writes about history.