Finding Canadian Church Records (National Institute)
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 ($).
Finding the Records
The records of the church you are looking for may be in one or more of several places. They may still be at the church, they may be in the denominational archives, or a local archives. They may have been photocopied or microfilmed and these copies may be found in libraries or archives. They may have been printed.
Libraries and Archives
The quickest way to discover whether they have been printed or copied is to consult the local public library. The librarian there will know the answer, as the library probably owns a copy of the records which is used all the time. If you find the records exist in this form, you can either visit to see them, or determine if they are available on interlibrary loan to use where you live.
Perhaps at this point it would be worthwhile to mention the possibility that the records have been filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and are available at a FamilySearch Center near you (that is, a branch of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the genealogical arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). It is a good idea to consult the FHL catalogue, doing a location search for anything like church records from your area. Be creative in the places you search under, remembering that the FHL may have listings for small villages, counties or districts as well as commonly recognized towns.
That being said, the Canadian collection at the FHL, especially for private records of this kind, is quite small in relation to everything that is available. Look, but don’t be disappointed if you do not find much there.
Most records are not yet widely available as microfilms or photocopies, however. You will need to consult the originals (or film of the originals in the archives which has custody of them).
Church Addresses and Phone Numbers
If the church which interests you still exists, ask there first. The quickest way to do this is to telephone. You can ask your question briefly, and get a short answer. If you write, be sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope as churches are charitable institutions and many have little money to spare.
Most denominations also have national directories and if you have trouble finding the church you want, call a local church (i.e., near where you live) of the same denomination and ask for their help. They often have an office copy of the national directory. Your local public library might also have access to a book or website which will help.
It is inadvisable to guess at the church’s address and simply send a letter off with something very vague on the envelope such as “St. Thomas’ Church, Fredericton, New Brunswick.” The post office is quite unforgiving of this kind of thing and you will not receive an answer, but won’t know if the church has not replied or if your letter has ended up in the dead letter office. There are many resources which will help you find the correct address.
Whether you telephone the church or write a letter, it is important to remember that your query is not part of the normal work of the church. You should be brief and to the point, and above all, courteous.
Here is all you need to say at this point:
- You are looking for information about a family which belonged to the church in the past.
- Are the records at the church or elsewhere?
- If they are at the church, what access is available?
- If there is access, either by personal searching or by the authorities searching for you, state your problem succinctly. Do not tell your family history or anything extra.
- Your letter should not be more than one page in length.
From this you can see that telephoning is advisable, because you can quickly determine if the records are there to be consulted. If you find the church has its records there, and they are willing to do searches for you, then you should send a letter with the details so that everything they will need to work with is written down. (Often nowadays you will be able to send these letters via email.)
You should ask about charges right away, and be prepared to pay. Church officials cannot be expected to do research for free. Also, it may take some time for a reply as research must be done around their regular duties.
If you determine that you can go personally to look at the records, make an appointment before going. If you do not, the church or the records may not be available when you show up. Be prepared for whatever rules or circumstances you find. You may have to work supervised by an official, wear cotton gloves when handling old registers, or sit at an uncomfortable desk.
As someone who has sat on a very cold stone chair in an unheated church balancing two hundred year old registers on my knee while I wrote, I can say that whatever the setting, you are grateful for the chance to obtain such fine information.
Of the possibilities above, seeing the records yourself is certainly the best. If someone else looks at the records for you and makes a transcription, you cannot be sure of its accuracy. If you look at it yourself, you can be sure you have made an accurate copy of the information in the original, and also you can see if there is anything unusual about the record.
Form of the Record
One of the secrets which experience imparts to genealogists is the realization that the simple information available in any record does not represent everything that is there. Researchers also know that they must look at the form of the record and whether it is telling us something ‘between the lines.’
If the record is holograph (hand-written) and written freely, then it is probably straightforward. Does the clergyman use a formula (the same words in every entry)? If so, are the words the same in the entry which interests you, or are there some differences? What do these differences mean?
If the record is a printed form, either loose or in a book, is it filled in as we would expect, judging by other entries in the book, or are some of the places on the form blank? If they are blank, we must ask ourselves why. At times, the blanks in a form tell us something as surely as the spaces which have been filled in. Experienced researchers know that every blot, every speck in a record should be examined as it may have a message, however obscure.
Always, the best idea is to obtain a photocopy of the record. With microfilmed records, this is usually easily done using the printers available in the library or archives. Records held at a church, or originals in an archives, may be problematic.
Almost certainly you will not be allowed to photocopy original records in an archives. One of responsibilities of every archivist is to preserve the documents in their possession for future generations, and photocopying is very hard on registers. You must accept this archival practice.
At a church, the clergy or secretary with whom you are dealing will have a rule about their own practice, and you must accept this also. If they allow photocopying, you should take advantage of it , once the records have been transferred to an archives they will not be available in this way. An alternative to obtain copies of unfilmed records which may not be photocopied is to photograph them. Photographing the document allows you to have a digital copy that can be viewed and shared from your computer or mobile device .
Once you have the copy, either photocopy or photograph, you will be able to consult it more than once. It is always possible that, with experience, you will see something in the record that you did not at the first time of reading.
If the custodians insist on looking at the records for you (as many do), ask if you may also see the individual record which interests you when they find it. The purpose of the secretary or clergy examining the records for you is usually to protect the privacy of others whose records are contained in the same book. In order that you can see the document you need, they might cover the surrounding records with sheets of paper, allowing you to inspect your record while ensuring the anonymity of others.
From these strictures, you will see the disadvantage of published transcriptions of records, especially those that are done in the form of computer tables which do not reproduce the record exactly. These are very useful for quickly determining if the record you want is in a particular register, but you should always attempt to view the original to ensure that nothing is missing. Probably the most common elements of a church record omitted from transcriptions are the names of witnesses at church weddings and godparents at christenings. Since these are often close relations whose names can be very useful in research, they should not be missed.
Reading “Between the Lines”
It may be difficult to understand what is meant by seeing something ‘between the lines’ in a document. Here are some examples which should illustrate what I mean:
In a marriage record of 1890, the groom was asked to state his parents’ names. The record was privately held, and so someone at the archives looked at the original and said, “His parents’ names were William and Alice Harrison.” A number of years later, the record became publicly available, and a genealogist was able to look at it personally. In fact, the record says, “Father: William Harrison; Mother: Alice Harrison.” A look at the bride’s entry in the same record shows that she said, “Father: Richard Cooper; Mother: Louisa Matthews.”
Do you see the difference? In fact, this record gives the mother’s maiden name, while the archivist’s reply omits it. The unusual situation, that the mother’s maiden and married names were the same, caused this, but the archivist’s response was still misleading. When anyone states what is given in any record, they should give it exactly as written, so that the person reading what they say can make their own judgement about the information.
The church record for the marriage of this same William Harrison and Alice Harrison in 1865 also presents a difficulty. The archives were not allowed to supply a photocopy but provided the information given, including the news that Alice’s father’s name was William Harrison.
An inspection of the original some time later revealed that the document said nothing of the sort. Here is an example of a time when the archivist actually interpreted an ambiguous entry without explaining that it has been done, which is a great danger when someone else is reading a record for you.
In the place of the bride’s father’s name was written, “William Strick,” but the writing had been blotted immediately after writing, to remove it. It was still visible. The name of the principal witness to the wedding was William Strickland. He was, in fact, the bride’s father, but in the conventions of the time, could not be named so in the wedding document because Alice was born out of wedlock. Viewing this record in the original, with its ‘between the lines’ information, provided the first clue to Alice’s parentage, which was confirmed in her second marriage’s record where William Strickland’s name appears in the ‘bride’s father’ column.
If you are making a transcription of a record because you cannot obtain a photocopy or photograph, write carefully to ensure that you copy it exactly, each word, each abbreviation as it is given in the original. If there are any unusual spaces, blots or additions, state them clearly.
If you are visiting a church to use their registers, you should be careful to observe some basic good manners:
- Telephone or write ahead for an appointment; if you ensure the office will be open when you call, you won’t be disappointed by a locked door and no one there.
- Accept and follow any rules the church may have about access to its records. This will include access to photocopies, closing over the lunch hour (or having food and drink near the records), fees for access.
- Do not tell the attendant your family history or the story of your trip. They are busy with other things.
- When you have finished, offer a contribution to church funds. Virtually every church needs money nowadays, and they have provided you a service outside their regular duties. If you think it is suitable, this can be sent later as part of a ‘thank you’ message. If they have fees for access to the records, this contribution is not necessary.
- Remain courteous and good-tempered throughout. Many a church has stopped providing access to genealogists because they are tired of dealing with researchers who make unreasonable demands or behave in an uncivilized way. Researchers have no innate right to look at the records of private institutions, which churches are.
Some churches are reluctant to provide any access at all to their records. As one bishop wrote, “We regard the content of these archives as private and personal.” Some clergy and church secretaries merely find genealogists to be pests. There is little that can be done about this, since they have decision-making control over the documents. The consolation is that genealogy is a long-term affair, and eventually clergy are moved to another parish, secretaries retire and even bishops depart the scene. The new incumbents may be friendlier, so be patient.
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 email@example.com
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.