Church Records: Getting What You Wrote For

Did I get you all depressed about failed church records requests last time?

Actually, I meant to end with a call to action, to be motivational and perky, but frankly the post got just too long. That’s bad form when I was lecturing about the need to be concise and focused. So here’s the second part:

How to make sure a records request has the best chance of being answered?

Legwork, legwork, legwork. Ideally, a long-distance letter to a church is a last stop, not a first — an attempt to confirm something for which you already have strong, detailed evidence. In a truly ideal world, you would present the staff with an exact date. What does the family tradition say? What do the census results look like? Look at city directories and vintage maps. What churches were present near your ancestors’ homes? Look at military records. I found birth and marriage dates listed in a Civil War pension file.

Newspapers are your friend. In big cities like New York they can be incredibly helpful in narrowing your search for a date and a place. Obviously, look at obituaries and death notices,  but don’t neglect community news. You would not believe how often the Brooklyn Eagle wrote about Holy Name Society activities, church suppers and Altar-Rosary Society benefits. Newspapers also did writeups of  big events like an anniversary of a church’s dedication. Often, these articles are supplemented with mind-numbingly long lists of the names of the church members who participated. If your surnames keep turning up in doings at a given parish, that’s a good sign. Please, please don’t assume your ancestors weren’t newsworthy enough to write about. You’d be surprised, as I certainly have been, time and again. If the search engine has a keyword feature (like Ancestry’s newspaper search engine), try using your surnames as keywords. I got a lot of leads that way, including an 1857 marriage date!

Be nice. Assume nothing. When writing the actual letter, keep in mind not a vision of neat file cabinets, but a box full of random pages like the one I described in my last post. Give the most accurate, focused date you have. Ask whether the records go back that far. Acknowledge that you’re asking something extra of an already busy person. You get the picture.

If at all possible, collect the record in person. Or get somebody to stop by for you. I’m convinced that I have shaken some records loose simply because I mentioned in my letter that I’d be visiting the area on such-and-such a date, and would be taking a picture of the church, and if they found anything I would love to stop by their office. Maybe that got my letter out of the “To Do — Someday” pile. If travel to the area is impossible, organizations such as RAOGK can pair you with a local volunteer who might be able to stop by the church for you. Or maybe a fellow member of a genealogy listserve might agree to be your good angel.

A donation is a nice idea. To be honest, I doubt that most donations come close to covering the cost of the time involved, but the point is the gesture of appreciation. (P.S. I assume you already know to put in a stamped, self-addressed envelope if you’re requesting that they send you a copy of the record. But in case you didn’t … yes, put that in.)


Why The Dog Ate My Church Records Request

OK, in my last post on church records I might have been too fuzzily philosophical. Now it’s time to consider the nitty-gritty as embodied in a message that’s a perennial on Rootsweb listserves. Here is my paraphrase:

Why is it that I never get a response when I write to a church asking for a sacramental record, even if I enclose a donation? No matter how nicely I phrase it, my letter goes unanswered.

I have to say I haven’t had this experience. Maybe I’m really lucky, but I’ve always gotten a record, or at least a response from a real person saying they couldn’t help me. This was also the experience noted by a number of seasoned researchers on my list.

Still: Why do some letters just keep going to the Great Request Bin in the sky? A few possibilities:

The query was too broad. Even a search within a single given calendar year can be a big task in an old, fragile  and barely readable ledger for a big city parish. Assuming someone does have the time to settle in with the Anno 1898 volume and cautiously page through it, they will confront crabbed, archaic script and spotty recordkeeping. They may well miss something. “Pray for this guy,” said a staffer showing me a particularly sloppy page, about the pastor who compiled it. “He clearly needed help.”

The query was too detailed. Keep it concise and focused on the records you believe the church holds and the people to whom these specific records pertain. Resist the temptation to include the minutiae of tangential family connections, relationship theories or detailed summaries of your research to date. They don’t need to know why you need the record. They might, in fact, move on to a query that gets straight to the point.

It’s the wrong church. This happens even (especially?) if you know a lot about a certain area, and are sure the evidence points to Church X. Except it’s really Church Y. I once assumed that since the three youngest children had been buried in ripe old age at Church X in the town of their birth, it followed that that was the parish where the family baptized everybody. Wrongo. These three children and their five brothers and sisters were all baptized clear across town at Church Y. What saved me was that the archivist who oversees the records for both these churches (and four more besides) has started digitizing the records, and found my family with a surname search. Otherwise, the answer might have been: “Sorry, we can’t help you.”

It’s the right church but it’s closed. Or it’s consolidated. This trend has accelerated in urban neighborhoods. My recent research in the Capital District involved two parishes in the process of being merged with several other parishes. Are the records gone? Of course not, but it took some poking around to figure out whom to contact. In the case of Roman Catholic parishes, start by asking the diocesan archivist, who should have up-to-date information on where records from closed parishes have been transferred. (You might still end up going on a scavenger hunt, but it’s a start.)

The record is there, but too time-consuming/difficult to access. I visited one church where the ledgers had literally fallen apart. At one point the oldest pages were reposing, if you could call it that, in no particular order in piles. The staff had gotten as far as slipping each page into an archival sleeve and sorting them into acid-free boxes by (I believe) five-year increments. The church secretary showed me the box where the record I sought had been filed. She then opened up a desk drawer and pointed to a section of folders that took up a third of the space. “These are all my genealogy requests,” she said. She is administrative assistant for a newly formed parish that used to be three separate parishes. She just can’t get to them.

So what can you do to brighten your chances?

Stay tuned.


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