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Although the Italian government recognizes other religions, the Roman Catholic Church is traditionally recognized as the state church because most Italians are Roman Catholic. All references to church records in Italy, unless otherwise specified, refer to Catholic records. For more information about other churches in Italy, see the "Church History" section of this outline.
Church records [registri ecclesiastici] are excellent sources for accurate information on names; dates; and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Nearly every person who lived in Italy was recorded in a church record during the last 200 to 300 years.
Records of births, marriages, and deaths are commonly called vital records. Church records are vital records kept by priests and are often called parish registers or church books. They include records of christenings (baptisms), marriages, and deaths (burials). In addition, church records may include confirmations, first communions, and church census records.
Church records are crucial for research before the civil government started keeping vital records, which began about 1809 to 1820. After that, church records continued to be kept but often contain less information.
For more information about government vital records, see the "Civil Registration" section of this outline.
General Historical Background
In general the church began keeping records in 1563 because of reforms proclaimed at the Council of Trent. Not all parishes conformed until much later. Most parishes, however, have kept registers from about 1595 to the present. A few parishes kept records as early as the 1300s. The church records of Palermo, for example, start about 1350, and the baptistry in Firenze has records from the early 1400s. A few examples of important dates are:
1563 The Council of Trent required priests to begin keeping records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths.
1595 Papal proclamation reinforced record-keeping practices.
Early 1800s Printed forms started to be used in the Trento area.
1900s Duplicate copies were made to be kept by the diocesan archives [curia vescovile].
Unfortunately some Italian church records were destroyed in the various wars throughout Italy’s history. Other records were destroyed when parish churches burned down. Some were lost, and still others have been badly worn and destroyed by insects, vermin, and moisture.
Duplicate Church Records
If the original church records that you need have been lost or destroyed or are illegible, you may be able to find a duplicate church record. Unfortunately it was not standard practice to keep duplicate records until the 1900s. But some dioceses, such as that of Torino, started making duplicates as early as 1820.
Duplicates, when they exist, are normally located at the curia vescovile (diocesan archives).
Information Recorded in Church Registers
The information recorded in church books varied over time. Later records generally have more complete information than the earlier ones.
The most important church records for genealogical research are baptism, marriage, and burial registers. These registers were usually written in freehand with about three to eight entries per page. Sometimes you will find an alphabetical index arranged by Latinized given name at the beginning or end of the volume. Frequently the name of the principle person or persons identified in the record will be noted in the left hand margin. Another helpful church record is the stato delle anime or status animarum (church census).
Catholic records were written in Latin into the twentieth century, but some have been written in Italian. Protestant church records were generally kept in Italian. In both Catholic and Protestant records from areas near the country’s borders, you will find records written in French, German, and other languages. Local dialects may have affected the spelling of some names and words in the church records.
In most areas, printed forms were not used until the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Printed forms were used as early as 1820 in the Trentino-Alto Adige region.
Children were generally baptized within a few days of birth. Baptismal registers usually give the names of the infant and parent, status of legitimacy, names of witnesses or godparents, and the baptism date. You may also find the child’s birth date, father’s occupation, and the family’s place of residence. Death or marriage information has sometimes been added as a note in the margin. The street name or family’s address may also be given for larger cities.
Earlier registers typically give less information. They may give only the names of the child and father and the baptism date. They may not contain the mother’s name, or they may contain only her given name. Early records only record the baptism date; later records may include the birth date.
Couples were generally married in the home parish of the bride. Typically, girls married between ages 18 and 25. Men married in their twenties.
Marriage registers give the date of the marriage and the names of the bride and groom. They also indicate whether the betrothed were single or widowed and give the names of witnesses. They usually also include other information about the bride and groom such as their ages, residences, occupations, names of parents, and birthplaces. For second and later marriages, the records may name previous spouses and their death dates. A note is sometimes made whether a parent or other party gave permission for the marriage.
In addition to the marriage date, marriage registers sometimes give the dates on which the marriage intentions (banns) were announced.
A wedding was generally was announced for three consecutive Sunday masses prior to the wedding. These announcements, called banns, gave opportunity for anyone to come forward who knew of any reasons why the couple should not be married.
In addition to or instead of the actual marriage registers, some Italian churches kept separate books to record marriage banns.
Burials and deaths were recorded in the church record of the parish where the person died or was buried. The burial usually took place within a day or two of the death in the parish where the person died.
Burial registers give the name of the deceased and the date and place of death or burial. They usually also include the person’s age, place of residence, and cause of death and the names of spouses and if they are living or deceased. The registers, especially early registers, may also give the date and place of birth and even the parents’ names of the deceased. The birth date and birthplace on a burial record may not be accurate since the informant may not have had complete information.
Burial records may also exist for individuals who were born before the earliest birth records and marriage records, and they may start later than the baptismal and marriage records of the same parish.
Stillbirths were sometimes recorded in church baptismal or burial registers. In most cases, however, the birth is not recorded.
In Italy the parish priest was often required to collect taxes for the state from his parishioners. He would sometimes record information about his parishioners and the tax in a special set of volumes, which were called church censuses. In Italian the church census is called the stato delle anime. In Latin it is status animarum. Both terms mean "state of the souls."
Not all priests regularly kept church censuses. Where the censuses do exist, the registers list all family members living in a household and their ages or birth dates. Deceased children were not listed. Married children, if living in the same household, were recorded with the family but as a separate household. Familial relationships and addresses were also noted.
Finding Church Records
Church records were kept at the local parish church. The term parish refers to the jurisdiction of a church priest. Parishes are local congregations, usually in one town only, but sometimes they included other villages in their boundaries.
To find church records, you must know the town where your ancestor lived. You should also determine the parish that your ancestor’s town belonged to so that you will know which parish registers to search. Larger towns frequently have more than one parish.
The headquarters of the parish is the town where the church building is located. Although most church buildings were usually named for a saint, the Family History Library Catalog may refer to a parish by the name of the town where the parish church was located. In large cities that have many parishes, the catalog usually uses the parish church name (such as San Giovanni) to distinguish the records of different parishes.
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has records from many Italian parishes up to 1900 and some up to 1925. However, if a record has been destroyed, was never kept, has not been microfilmed, or is restricted from public access by the law, the Family History Library does not have a copy.
To find out if the Family History Library has the records you need, check the Family History Library Catalog under the name of the town where the parish was. (The parish may not be in the town where your ancestor lived.) Look in the Locality Search under:
ITALY, [PROVINCE], [TOWN] - CHURCH RECORDS
New records are continually added to the Family History Library collection from many sources. Do not give up if records are not available yet. Check the Family History Library Catalog again every year or two for the records you need.
Records Not at the Family History Library
Italy has no single repository for church records. If the baptism, marriage, and burial records have not been microfilmed, you will have to contact or visit the local parish or archive in Italy.
Virtually all church registers are still maintained by the local parish. Some duplicates, for limited time periods, may be housed at the central archives of the diocese. For example, duplicates exists for the Diocese of Torino from 1820 to about 1899.
Parishes will sometimes answer correspondence. You may send an inquiry to:
Il parroco di [name of parish, town, province] Italy
The Family History Library has microfilmed records at the diocesan archives in Caltanisseta, Torino, Trapani, and Parma. The library has planned microfilming projects at other Italian church archives. This is a major project that will continue for several years.
When you write to Italy for genealogical information, your letter should be written in Italian. Send the following:
- Check or money order for the search fee in local currency, when possible.
- Full name and sex of the person sought.
- Names of the parents, if known.
- Approximate date and place of the event.
- Your relationship to the person.
- Reason for the request (family history or medical).
- Request for a complete copy of the original record.
- International reply coupon, available from the post office (optional).
Effective use of church records includes the following strategies:
- When you find an ancestor’s birth or baptismal record, search for the births of siblings.
- Search for the parents’ marriage record. Typically, the marriage took place one or two years before the oldest child was born. You can also use information from the marriage record to find the parents’ birth records.
- Search for the parent’s birth records.
- If you do not find earlier generations in the parish registers, search neighboring parishes.
- Search the death registers for all family members.
Records of Non-Catholic Religions
Although the Roman Catholic Church is the dominant religion in Italy, other churches do exist and have kept records.
The Family History Library has some records for the following denominations:
- Waldensians [Valdesi]. These records follow the format of most church records but are written in French.
- Eastern Orthodox [Chiesa Ortodossa or Chiesa Greca]. Where they exist, these records are virtually identical to Roman Catholic Church records and are available at the local parishes.
- Jewish [Ebrei]. Jewish records are somewhat sparse. Two main record sources are available: the book of circumcisions and the marriage books. To identify where these records are today, contact an Israeli consulate. See also the "Jewish Records" section of this outline.