For the Record (Or Not)

Some of the keepers of information we seek had us in mind from the very beginning — the hardy souls who tromped through backwoods cemeteries and compiled tombstone inscriptions, for example. Others, however, did not necessarily set out with the idea that they were helping us.

For instance, churches.

It’s interesting to think about why churches keep records. Some likely reasons: (A) to verify and facilitate religious rituals; (B) as a faith-based imperative, as with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; (C) when the church was a socially dominant entity whose records played a role tantamount to civil registration – like Congregationalist records in New England, Quaker meeting notes in southern New Jersey, Church of England registers, etc. (In some countries, churches were required by the state to keep family records.)

But in other contexts, it’s sort of odd that sacramental records exist beyond a person’s actual lifetime. One day I got to thinking: As a Roman Catholic, when did I need to have my personal sacramental records around? How long would it be necessary to preserve them – from a purely religious standpoint?

Let’s see: When I married, it was in a parish several states away from my hometown, so I had to produce a baptismal certificate to formally register there. And when my oldest daughter began religious instruction in New Jersey in preparation for her First Communion, I had to produce her Illinois baptismal certificate, to show she had completed that prerequisite.

At present, my baptismal and marriage certificates are nice to have, but it’s unlikely I’ll need them for any more church procedures. And when I’m gone altogether, and certainly after my children’s lifetimes, it’s hard to see how they’d be needed – for church purposes. (I do remember my mother retrieving her parents’ Catholic marriage record after both of them had passed on, but that was for a legal procedure.)

So it’s interesting to me that some church records endure as long as they do. This fall I traveled to the Capital District of New York State and was rewarded with a copy of my gg-grandparents’ 1857 church marriage record and baptismal entries for their eight children, born between 1859 and 1874. These records don’t serve a sacramental imperative. But they serve a human imperative to remember the past, and one that works to my benefit as a family researcher.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that requesting a church record takes place in a completely different context from requesting a vitals certificate from a government entity. It’s always a pleasant surprise when an old church record turns up, and it’s humbling  to know that generations of (often) amateur archivists have been keeping it safe.


Going to Church(es), While I Can

St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church, Watervliet, NY.

I’m slowly working my way through a number of posts about a trip I took recently to Albany and Rensselaer counties in New York. With Sunday just around the corner, how about a picture of a church?

I always feel vaguely subversive, hanging around other people’s parishes in the middle of the week in broad daylight. Without a choir rehearsal to attend or a child to pick up from CCD, I’m a bit of a miscreant. I’m just snapping pictures and wandering around curiously, all because some people related to me worshipped here once, a long time ago.

But curiosity pays off in the form of a picture of St. Brigid’s Church in Watervliet, N.Y., the parish where my great-great grandparents Martin and Mary (Mahon) Haigney raised their family. They would have called it “St. Bridget’s” in their day. All of their eight children were baptized there, the first in 1859 and the last in 1874.

St. Bridget’s was pretty new in Martin’s and Mary’s time. Both of them Irish immigrants, they joined an early parish community that also included many refugees from the 1848 revolutions in Germany and France. According to a parish history, the church itself was only completed in 1851. Its first full-time pastor arrived in 1854, after a couple of years during which Masses were said by visiting Jesuit priests from South Troy, a boat ride away across the Hudson River. I regretted I wasn’t able to enter the building to see the stained glass windows, which looked impressive even from the outside. Especially because, for all its history, St. Brigid’s faces an uncertain future.

St. Brigid's in about 1906, with its original steeple that was destroyed by lightning in 1948. From "St. Brigid's Parish: A History of Its People And Their Accomplishments."

With the Diocese of Albany in consolidation mode, the parish has merged with neighboring Immaculate Heart of Mary. Masses are still being said at St. Brigid’s, for now, while a parish planning committee ponders what’s next. The most recent church bulletin says there is no final decision yet on the fate of either St. Brigid’s or St. Patrick’s, another parish also consolidated with IHM.

It’s sad to see these difficult choices playing out. Long ago, every neighborhood had its own parish in towns like Watervliet; it was just the way things were. Today, the diocese says the population isn’t there to support all the church buildings, and some must close. For a genealogist, it means wondering where the records are going to be. For the community, it means a part of history is going away, and it seems it can’t be helped.