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Roman Catholic Church records are among the most important records for genealogical research in Brazil. This is because the vast majority of Brazilians were Catholic and were registered in the records of the local parish, which records are called registros paroquiais (parish registers). These records include entries for baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials. Often two and sometimes three generations are indicated in the registers, with personal information on the family. In addition, church records may include church censuses, account books, confirmations, and other church-related records.
Church records are very helpful because civil authorities did not begin registering vital statistics until after 1850. After this date one should search in both church and civil records, since there may be information in one that does not appear in the other. For instance, the church records may only list the godparents, while the civil records may list the grandparents.
For civil vital records of births, marriages, and deaths, see the "Civil Registration" section of this outline.
General Historical Background
The arrival of six Jesuits in 1549 marked the beginning of organized religious activity in the colony. Catholic clergy have documented the history of Brazil in their church records from the very start of the exploration of Brazil. The earliest church records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths in Brazil that have been microfilmed are the Catholic Church records in Rio de Janeiro from 1616.
Separate church record books were maintained for baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and deaths or burials, and the format was standardized as the Council of Trent had outlined. The Catholic Church was the primary record keeper for Brazil until civil registration started. A large percentage of the population is listed in these registration records.
Only in the late 19th century did other religious groups begin to establish themselves in Brazil. For more information about the various churches in Brazil, see the "Church History," "Minorities," and "History" sections of this outline.
Some church records have been lost or have deteriorated because of natural effects like humidity and insects and more dramatic events like fires, floods, and earthquakes. Civil and political strife have also caused the destruction of parish books. Some records were destroyed or damaged because of poor storage. However, many records have simply been misplaced or misidentified.
Information Recorded in Church Registers
The type and amount of information and detail recorded in church books varied over time. The later records generally give more complete information than the earlier ones. The most important church records for genealogical research are baptism, marriage, and burial registers. Occasionally other helpful church records were kept, including confirmations and church censuses. Most records were recorded in Portuguese. A few Catholic records were kept in Latin.
Children were generally baptized within a few days of birth. Baptismal records usually list the infant’s place and date of baptism, parents, status of legitimacy, godparents, and sometimes grandparents. You may also find the child’s age and the family’s place of residence. If the child died within a few days of baptism, death information has sometimes been added as a note. At times a note added to the margin will state who the child later married.
Marriage registers give the date and place of a marriage and names of the bride and groom. They may also indicate whether the couple were single or widowed before this marriage. If they were widowed sometimes it will give the names of the deceased spouses and how long they had been deceased. If the bride or groom was a minor, a note often appears to indicate whether a parent or other party gave permission for the marriage. The record will list the witnesses, usually two to four men who could verify that there were no reasons why the couple should not be married. Often the registers include other information about the bride and groom, such as their ages, residences, parents, and sometimes birthplaces.
Marriage registers may also give the dates on which the marriage was announced or the banns were published, which had to take place on three separate occasions so anyone knowing reasons why the couple should not be married could come forward. Couples were generally married in the home parish of the bride. Typically, girls married between 14 and 20, and men married in their 20s.
Burials were recorded in the church record of the parish where the person died. Death or burial registers give the name of the deceased and the date and place of burial and/or death. Often the deceased’s age, residence, marital status, cause of death, and survivors are given.
At times the priest will note if the deceased person recorded a will. Often the date and place of birth and parents’ names are given if the deceased was a minor. However, early death registers failed to record much of this information and are not as complete as later death records. Some death records recorded a woman by her maiden name, giving the name of her surviving spouse or stating that she was a widow and thus naming the deceased spouse.
Confirmation Registers [confirmações]
Confirmation records were not consistently recorded. In larger parishes a separate book was usually maintained, and in smaller parishes the confirmation entries may be intermingled with baptisms. Confirmations were normally performed by the bishop or his authorized representative when they visited the parish. In some parishes confirmations were performed every year, but in the smaller parishes, where it was difficult for the bishop or his representative to visit, the confirmations took place once every few years. You may find that several members of the family were confirmed at the same time.
Confirmation entries normally list the parish, the individual being confirmed, his or her godparents, and sometimes his or her parents. The value of the confirmation record is primarily to verify the information found in other vital records.
Other Ecclesiastical Records
The Catholic Church kept many other records that are valuable for genealogical research. These might include census and population lists, wills, account books, property grants to the church, lawsuits, priesthood ordination records, and fraternal groups that assisted in parish activities. These types of records may be available on a local level or in Brazilian archives, but they have not usually been filmed by the Family History Library.
Locating Church Records
Church records are kept at different levels in the Catholic Church. The highest level of government is the archdiocese (arquidiocese). By 1900 there were two archdioceses, 15 dioceses, and several thousand parishes or vicarages in Brazil. The parishes (paróquias) are under the jurisdiction of the dioceses. Parishes are local congregations that may include many smaller villages within their boundaries. A large city would have several parishes. All parish jurisdictions have their own records.
In searching for your ancestor you must know the town he or she lived in. You must also determine the parish he or she belonged to. If your ancestor came from a large city that has several parishes, you will need to know what section of the town he or she lived in to determine the parish. However, in a large city such as Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo you may find that even if you know the home parish, there were times when the ancestor’s family would go to the cathedral for the baptism of a child or to the parish of a relative in the same city. If you do not find the complete family in the home parish, search the surrounding parishes of the city. If your family lived in a very small village or ranch that did not have an established parish, check a map to determine which nearby town had a parish.
Parish boundary maps, if they exist, can be extremely helpful when determining what specific parish records to search. They can help you identify neighboring parishes if you need to search through the various parishes in a given region.
As the parish books were filled, many times they were sent to the diocese or archdiocese that had jurisdiction over the parish. Therefore, if records are no longer available at the local parish you may find the records in the diocesan or archdiocesan archives.
The Archdiocese Archives in Rio de Janeiro contains parish registers, marriage processes (processos de casamento), marriage bonds, banns, dispensations, and some inquisition records showing pedigrees of those brought to trial.
The Archdiocese Archives of São Paulo has marriage records since 1632, baptism records since 1640, and death records since 1731. Most of the parish records are for older parishes in the state of São Paulo when it was all under one diocese. The archive also has several indexes to church records:
- Index to baptisms, 1880–1900
- Index to dispensations of banns (dispensos de matrimônio e casamentos), 1730–1917
- Index to corrections of baptism and marriage records
- Index to non-Catholics who accepted the Catholic faith and rejected their former religion
Most indexes are in alphabetical order by the first or given name rather than by the surname.
The archive also has a book called Autos de Genere (Pedigree Records), which lists in alphabetical order each child’s name, parents, grandparents, and sometimes relatives of earlier generations. It also contains some illegitimate births, with the birth date and the date the father recognized the child as his own.
Other records at this archive include confirmation records, a few local censuses, chaplaincy records, ordinations to various orders of the priesthood, wills, ecclesiastical court matters, and other records usually found in a diocese archives.
For addresses to the archdiocese archives, see the "Archives and Libraries" section of this outline.
Church Record Inventories
An inventory is a listing of available church records, what years they cover, and their location. Sometimes they indicate which parishes served particular towns at different times. Church record inventories in Brazil have not been obtained by the Family History Library. For more information, see the "Church Directories" section of this outline.
Church Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has many Brazilian church records on microfilm. Many church records have been filmed for the states of Alagoas, Bahia, Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Santa Catarina. Church records have also been filmed in the states of Maranhão, Espírito Santo, Paraíba, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Ceará, Pará, Paraná, and Pernambuco.
Some of the records from the state of Pará are listed in the catalog under a centralized parish rather than each individual parish. For example, the central church of Curuçá in Pará includes church records from 1837 to 1935, including the church records from several other parishes and chapels.
The specific holdings are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. You can determine whether the library has records for the locality your ancestor came from by checking the "Locality Search" section of the Family History Library Catalog. If the Family History Library does not have a copy of the records you seek, you will have to write to the parish for information.
Church records are cataloged first by the name of the denomination (usually Igreja Católica, Catholic Church), followed by the saint name of the parish (for example, Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, Our Lady of Help), and then by the town and state where it is located (for example, Ilha do Governador, Rio de Janeiro). In the Family History Library Catalog, look under the name of the town where the parish was located, not necessarily the town where your ancestor lived. If the city has more than one parish it will list all parishes by name. Look in the Family History Library Catalog under the town as follows:
BRAZIL, [STATE], [TOWN]- CHURCH RECORDS
Records Not at the Family History Library
Baptism, marriage, and death records may be searched by contacting or visiting local parish or diocese archives in Brazil. Brazil has no single repository of church records. Write your request in Portuguese whenever possible.
Information about how to write for genealogical information to local parishes in Brazil is given in Letter-Writing Guide: Portuguese(36341).
When requesting information, send the following:
- Money for the search fee, usually $10.00, and an international reply coupon (IRC)
- Full name and the sex of the ancestor sought
- Names of the ancestor’s parents, if known
- Approximate date and place of the event
- Your relationship to the ancestor
- Reason for the request (family history, medical, and so on)
- Request for a photocopy of the complete original record
If your request is unsuccessful, search for duplicate records that may have been filed in other archives or civil registration offices.
Effective use of church records includes the following strategies, used in this order:
Search only for the ancestor you select. When you find his or her baptismal record, search for the baptisms of his or her brothers and sisters.
Search for the marriage of the person’s parents prior to the birth of their first legitimate child. The marriage record will often lead to the parents’ baptismal records.
You can estimate the parents’ ages or try to find their ages from a death record and then search for their baptismal records.
Repeat the process for both the father and the mother.
If earlier generations are not in the record, search neighboring parishes.
Search the death registers for all family members.
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