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.


Links, 1.03.11

Happy New Year! Lots of resolutions being posted. Here are some to inspire you:

Amy Coffin, she of We Tree, 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy and the all-new 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy & History, talks about Blogging Buddies and Genealogy Resolutions, in conjunction with Denise at Family Curator. You can’t get more focused than their three-point system for 2011 goals.

Bill West at West in New England has a plan. Several plans. Detailed ones. This post is an excellent example of how to tighten your focus from aspirations to actions.

Kimberly Powell is going to get some more education in 2011.

Donna at What’s Past is Prologue considers how she fared in 2010, and sets goals for 2011. So does Greta Koehl at Greta’s Genealogy Bog.

Deborah at Help! The Faerie Folk Hid My Ancestors opts for thanking the people and places that helped her out in 2010, compiling a very useful list of resource links in the process.

Finally, if you haven’t already read Megan Smolenyak’s Helping Unclaimed Persons post at Huffington Post, check it out. Helping to link names and families to the nameless and alone is certainly a worthy New Year’s goal.

In Other News

Irish update: The Irish Times offers a Monday morning overview of the state of Irish archival research. When considering Irish records, it’s inevitable that the destructive year of 1922 springs to mind, but as reporter Steven Smyrl points out, historians, genealogists and archivists “have become adept at squeezing every last bit of information from the surviving records.”

Late but good: The extensive holdings of the archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston are profiled in this article out of Braintree, Mass. Read all about what’s there and what’s not.

Good idea: This letter to the editor is an interesting variation on the genealogy query technique. Of course, there’s no telling whether a newspaper editor would choose to run a genealogy query, but some would, and who knows, it might ring a bell somewhere.

A striking view: This is a bit OT, but I loved Faith Elizabeth Hough’s post on The Genealogy of Story. How interesting to think of (then read) who inspired your favorite authors, and who inspired them, and who inspired them…. and on into time.