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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Religious Records by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
More often nowadays the records will have been transferred to an archives for safekeeping. Sometimes the records will have been placed in a local public archives, so that the church itself can continue to have access to them. In that case, working with them will be quite simple; contact the archives in question for their hours and rules.
More often the records will be sent to a central denominational archives. You are quite fortunate if this is so. It means that the nature of the records (exactly what there is) will be carefully recorded, and access will be clearly stated. Since the boom in genealogy which began in 1976, denominational archives have seen a steady increase in the number of genealogists as users. This met with some resistance at first, as it did in the general archival and genealogical world, but now they have accepted that we are a major component of their user-base, and have reacted by preparing their services accordingly.
If you are unsure where the church’s records are stored, the denominational archives is a good place to start your query. If they have the records, they can give you details. If they do not, they probably know where they are, from surveys they have done previously.
To obtain the postal address, telephone number and website address of a denominational archives, you can consult a directory of archives or a church directory. The Association of Canadian Archivists’ website has links to other archival sites. Once again, the archival or church directories may be available at your local public library or through a local church of the same denomination.
When you determine that the archives has the records you want, ask for their introductory material. Much of this may be available at a website. If you intend a personal visit, see if an appointment is necessary. If you need research done for you, ask for their facilities in that area. They may have their own research service or may refer you to professional genealogists who work with their records. (They will supply you with a list.)
Ask about the timeline for their research service. You may find that they have a serious backlog, and that using the services of a professional genealogist, although more costly, will bring the information to you more quickly.
The running of a large archive today is done to high standards set down by professional organizations. The rules which the denominational archives has are in place to ensure the safe use of the documents in their care and the smooth running of the institution. They may seem narrow-minded to some users, but we have no choice but to accept them. Protesting to the desk archivist is probably not useful. Be familiar with the rules of the place before you go there (either through the website or a brochure) and abide by them.
Some denominations have accepted the responsibilities of maintaining their archives with great seriousness, and have laid down rules which include a clear definition of the ownership of the registers. Often the church involved is not allowed to place their registers anywhere but at the denominational archives. There have been cases where a church has done so and the archivists or an archival committee of the organization has reacted very negatively. Also, church books which long ago passed into private hands and which now come up for sale or are offered to institutions other than the denominational archives as gifts also cause the same negative feeling. It is better not to become involved with these questions, and if you find church records in unusual locales (including private hands or faraway archives), be discreet about them when you visit the denominational archives.
Some denominations have published catalogues of their collections. Be aware that archives are constantly adding to their holdings, and so any published catalogue is automatically out of date, but it can still be used as a guide. The catalogue may be in the form of a book, microfilm or on-line. Obviously the last is the most current, and so most up-to-date. The advantage to finding a catalogue that can be used at home is that you can explore it thoroughly, not only looking for the obvious geographical entry for the place which interests you, but also for subsidiary entries for circuit riders’ records or other materials which could be useful but are obscure. It is important to be creative in searching catalogs, because things so often lurk in unexpected places in archival collections.
Records in Private Hands
Sometimes you will hear about church registers which are in private hands. Perhaps the family had a long association with a congregation which is now disappeared; perhaps the books were found abandoned in the attic of a house, or perhaps they were simply acquired through auction.
Usually these records are only accessible in a limited way. The persons who own them do not see themselves as an archives and anyway have their own lives to live.
You will probably hear about these records from an archivist or historical society official who know about them. Make a tactful approach to the person who holds them and see if you can have a look. It is unlikely that these records will be available for photocopying (being in a private house).
After you have seen the records you need, urge the owner to place the records in an archives, for their own safety.
Records Which Have Disappeared
The most common category of records which have disappeared are those which were ‘lost in a fire.’ There have been a great many church fires, with resulting lost registers, but if you hear this as a matter of hearsay, obtain confirmation before abandoning your search.
The records of St. George’s Church in Newcastle, Ontario were said to have been lost in a fire, and so a search was abandoned. A decade later the records were found happily located in the diocesan archives in Toronto and extending back to 1849. A lot of time was wasted which might have resulted in beneficial research.
It is always wise to discuss the subject of ‘disappeared’ records with the church archivist who knows most about them. This may be someone at the denominational archives or it may be someone at the church itself. Get the details about the disappearance and ask if there might be copies or alternatives elsewhere.
It is also good to remember that church records, even very old ones, resurface occasionally. They have usually been in private hands and some researcher turns them up and then arranges for them to go to an archives or to be copied.
Here are two examples. The records of Boyd’s Presbyterian Church in Crosshill, Ontario were not known to exist. The building where Boyd’s had been located had various owners since then, and was now occupied by a Mennonite meeting house. Enquiries showed that the thrifty Mennonite congregation had found the Boyd’s register in the church, noticed it was only partially filled, and begun to use it themselves. They allowed the local genealogical society to copy the Boyd’s pages, which were then published in transcription.
Memory of the short lived German Presbyterian church in New Hamburg, Ontario, in the 1870s had virtually died away when a local historian discovered its record book in private hands. The blank pages were being used for scrap paper. He arranged for the borrowing and copying of the remaining pages, which were transcribed and translated into English for the local library.
Church Records in Public Archives
In earlier times there were fewer archives than there are now, and the larger public institutions (the national archives in Ottawa and the various provincial archives) accepted church records if they were offered. Now, these church records would probably be directed to some more specialized place, but the records which were placed in the public institutions earlier may still be there. Archives in the smaller provinces may continue to accept church records. Ask at the archives concerned to determine their policy about church records, and whether they have documents placed there years ago.
The Library and Archives Canada has published a listing of the church records in their care; many of these date from the 1850s, when the government of the United Canadas made an abortive attempt to begin civil registration through reports of clergymen, made annually through the department of agriculture. They can be found in Patricia Birkett’s Checklist of Parish Registers 1986 (4th edition, 1986).
Listings for the provinces can sometimes be found in the genealogical handbook for that area, as with Terrence Punch’s Genealogical Research in Nova Scotia (4th edition, 1998), which includes twelve pages of church records held at the Nova Scotia Archives, and lists place, denomination and years covered.
The collections of the provincial archives for Newfoundland and Labrador give a great deal of space to church records; it might be said they are one of their most important holdings.
Printed Books of Church Records
The overwhelming example of printed church records are those from Québec, where the répertoires were first indexed, organized or printed in various forms, most notably by Cyprien Tanguay, and latterly have become the foremost activity of the genealogical and historical societies in the province. These books are a great boon to researchers with French Canadian ancestors.
However, there are other examples, often random in origin and sometimes difficult to find. Their very existence can be obscure. Take for example Acadian church records 1679-1757, translated and compiled by Winston de Ville (1964). This is quite far-reaching, as the subtitle for Volume 1 states: “being a compilation of miscellaneous baptismal, marriage and funeral records from Beaubassin, Riviere St. Jean, Mines, missions in New Brunswick and the parish churches of Ste. Famille de Pabok, Baie des Chaleurs, Grande Riviere, and other places in Acadia and the Gaspe Peninsula.” It was published in Mobile, Alabama, and probably had a very limited circulation, making it both a great find for genealogists who locate it and a great loss for those who are unlucky and do not.
The répertoires are widely circulated and easily found in library catalogues. The more obscure books are located by thorough searching and, often, through consultation with librarians in your area of interest, who know these orphan books well through constant use.
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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Religious Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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