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.


2 Comments on “Why The Dog Ate My Church Records Request”

  1. Linda Bonavita says:

    I like your phrase, “the oldest pages were reposing”. That’s “in keeping with the situation” (as stated in the 50’s version of a Christmas Carol).

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