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.)


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