25 June 2010


     I wish I could say that I am about to give you THE definitive guide to researching Roman Catholic records in the US today. Unfortunately, I can only hold your hand while passing on some pointers and guidelines. Obtaining US Catholic parish records can be confusing and time-consuming, and can vary greatly--even from parish to parish in the same city!
     The RC Church keeps certain records that are of important genealogical significance to many Irish American researchers whose ancestors were of the faith.  These records are particularly important for time periods before the states began to mandate the keeping of vital records. But many researchers are finding it increasingly hard to obtain Church records, due to several factors.
     The most recent roadblock is that of parish closings and mergers across parts of the US, particularly closings of old urban parishes founded by the Irish immigrants. These mergers and closings make it difficult to determine the current  location of records for closed parish, even if you know the name of your ancestor's parish. If you do not know the name of your ancestor's parish, you must find the current parishes that exist for the geographic area where he or she resided, then determine what older parishes were merged into it. The next step is determining if the "new" parish has the "old" records.
    First check the online site for the diocese---most have an online presence. Many dioceses have centralized the older parish records for certain time periods, making your research much easier. Some, like the Philadelphia Archdiocese, will not allow in-person research, but will perform research for a fee (by the way, the research done by the archivists of the Philadelphia Archdiocese is excellent and well worth the fee).  The Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, has placed its baptism and marriage records (predominately of  families of Irish ancestry)  through 1900 ONLINE, making many Irish family historians weep tears of joy.
     You are not out of luck if the diocese has not centralized its records, but you will have to do a bit more homework as to where the records for your ancestor are kept today. Most sacramental records (which will be the subjects of my next week's post) should be kept in two places: 1) the parish in which the sacrament was performed; and, 2) the last parish of your ancestor's residence. I have been told that, in most dioceses, a person's sacramental records follow that person when he or she joins a new parish. That said, I would personally recommend going first to the original parish where the sacrament was performed. I have not seen many successes with researchers dealing with the last known parish of residence.
     You are often in uncharted territory when dealing with individual parishes. The usual route is to place your request in writing and send it to the rectory in care of the "parish secretary." A donation should be included. I have often asked fellow researchers how much they donate. Fifteen to twenty-five dollars per record seems to be the average donation. Don't forget that your request does take time away from the church duties of the secretary and priests. Other personal touches, such as taking the time to look up the secretary's name or the parish's records policies, might help your request.
     Your request should be as specific as possible, especially regarding dates. Most of the sacramental registers are kept by date and are not indexed by name. Asking a priest to look for "Ann Kelly's baptism, somewhere around 1850" is difficult enough for an experienced genealogist. let alone a parish priest busy with funeral Masses and Sunday sermons.
     There is a human element as well. The success of your request often depends on timing and personnel. Catch a secretary or priest in a good mood on a slow day, and you might get your record. Bad day, no results. Take, for example, Parish X in the Philadelphia area. This parish was founded by Irish immigrants in the 1800's. I often hear from researchers about Parish X--and I oftne think these researchers are dealing with two completely different parishes! Just this past week one person gushed to me, "I got so much information from Parish X. The secretary was so helpful!" The next day, another researcher grumbled, "I got nowhere with Parish X. The secretary said they would NOT do look-ups!" (In fact, these two exchanges led me to write on this topic this week!).
      I have been told by church sources that the RC Church in the US regards sacramental records as records that are to be open to the public, or at least to family members. Do not quote me on that--I am not sure there IS an "official" Church policy in place, just a general attitude (keep reading, however, for recent changes to that attitude).  I know that many researchers feel that these records are public records, or that the records belong to them through their ancestors, and that the Church would be wrong to withhold access.  However, in Ireland, the records are regarded as under the control of the bishop in each diocese. At times, some Irish bishops have refused public access to paish records. So researchers should be aware that there are differences in attitudes within the Church regarding public access to ancestral sacramental records.
     Pope Benedict has spoken out about public access to Catholic parish records. In 2008, he issued a letter directing Catholic dioceses throughout the world not to provide information from church registers to Mormon (LDS) organizations.  According to the Papal directive, the Church is concerned with the LDS practice of baptizing deceased persons by proxy through the use of genealogical records. I have found that some Catholic priests take this directive broadly and restrict access public access to parish records. Other pastors have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when giving records information to researchers.This issue often goes undiscussed in genealogical circles because it can invoke intensive beliefs and emotions on all sides. I won't take sides in this blog on this controversial issue, but do want to point out that, depending on the views of the pastors and bishops, the issue may affect your request for family records.
The Pope's Directive
Basis of RC Church's Position re: Access to Records
Wilmington DE Online RC Records
Philadelphia Archdiocese Records Research


17 June 2010


     Sadly, I never knew my Irish grandfather. William Large died from appendicitis while waiting for his son, my Uncle Philip, to be released from a Stalag 3B, a POW camp in Germany, in World War II.  But I did have a few precious years to spend with my Polish grandfather. To honor him, and all our fathers and male ancestors, am reprinting an essay of mine that won second prize in the Southern California Genealogy Society 2009 Writing Contest. Happy Father's Day to all the fathers!

     My grandfather could not fly or leap over tall buildings with a single bound, but I would not be surprised if one day I heard a story told that he accomplished those feats and more. Watson Burdalski was a legend in the Polish Whitman Park section of Camden, New Jersey, in the 1950’s. Dza-dza (zhaa-zhaa) once swam across the treacherous Delaware River to Philadelphia. He was an acrobat who could pop his joints in and out at will. He was an enforcer not only for the mob, but also for a small Polish National Church congregation that was being bullied by loan sharks. Dza-dza did not belong to the church, but, like Superman, he came to the aid of anyone in the neighborhood that had need of his tough guy exterior and strong arm. The priest who told me the story, after almost thirty-five years had passed, assured me that there were many more stories like his.

     "Your Dza-dza was a legend in Camden," he said. "He was a great man."

     Some of the legends have a sour note. Watsie, as he was known in the Polish section of Camden, spoke his mind, freely and loudly. He berated customers who came to his grocery shop with a competitor's bag in hand. He yelled at people--or so I have heard. I don't remember any yelling. In my mind, any loud or harsh words I may have heard him utter were well-deserved by the recipient. I idolized him and felt protected by him, as though I had someone on my side who was afraid of nothing.

     One warm October evening in 1960, I presented him with my first report card. After closing his produce store, Dza-dza took me on a celebratory tour of the other shops along Mt. Ephraim Avenue, introducing his genius--his first grandchild, of course she is a genius!-- granddaughter to his fellow merchants. The first stop was Rossner's Shoe Store next door. Heads nodding solemnly, Mr. and Mrs. Rossner approved of my grades. Next, we walked across the street to the dress shop. As I tried on a frilly red dress in the makeshift dressing room in the back storage room, I heard Dza-dza bragging about my straight “A's.” I poked my head out of the curtain and called to him.

     "I didn't get straight A's," I said. “I got..."

     He cut me off with a wave of his hand, and turned back to speculating with his fellow merchant about my future as a doctor or president. I emerged in a fluff of crinkly red tiers, and was ordered to parade up and down the narrow store aisle. After the dress was modeled and packaged, Dza-dza and I capped off the celebration with an chocolate ice cream soda at Chris's Sweet Shop.

     We formed a mini-parade that evening--Dza-dza strutting along Mt. Ephraim Avenue, his chest puffed out like a proud peacock, cigar clenched in his teeth, Stetson hat on his head, and little Debbie hopping alongside, solemnly attempting to match his stride.

     Perhaps, I should stop here and mention that Watson Burdalski was an invalid. He took those strides wearing a heavy, wooden, artificial leg. In three more years, by the time he lost his lifelong battle with diabetes, Dza-dza would lose all his arms and legs in a desperate measure by doctors to save his life.

     After he lost his first leg, Dza-dza wore a bulky prosthesis anchored by a leather strap. After a wearisome day of standing in his store, he would take off the cumbersome limb, then hand it to me to carry over my arm like a surrealist's handbag. The leg was half my size, so I would it drag around, sometimes asking the grown-ups to toss in some pennies.

     "Oh my leg, it itches! Scratch it for me!" Dza-dza would shout, and I would hurry to the old armchair where, wearing a white tank undershirt and smoking a huge cigar, he sat.

     I would pretend to scratch-- scratch, scratch, scratch--the empty air, the phantom limb.

     "Ahh, yes, you are hitting just the right spot," he would say.

     After Dza-dza strapped the leg back on, he would stretch out his two legs and say,

     "Which leg has the candy?"

     I always guessed correctly and was rewarded with a taffy or other sweet, plus any pennies I had collected.

     Having no right leg did not stop Dza-dza from driving, even though handicapped-equipped cars were yet to be invented. He rigged his standard shift '50's Chevy with a broomstick and wooden block and somehow worked all three pedals with that contraption and his good leg. One August day, he arrived to pick me up for an outing, and my mother told me to get in the back seat.

     "Get in the front," he said.

     I looked at him, then at my mother, who shook her head, then back at him.

     I got in the front. After we turned the corner and escaped my mother's eyes, he handed me the broomstick and taught me how to push the gas pedal.

     Perhaps Dza-dza had a bizarre sense of humor, but from him I learned never to be frightened of deformities or scars or loss. He taught me to keep moving, no matter what life tries to take away. From him, I learned to treasure the “A’s” of life and celebrate them, even if life’s report card contains lower grades. Sometimes I catch a whiff of a cigar, and I laugh. Dza-dza is reminding me to scratch that itch, even if it exists solely in my mind.

10 June 2010


     I've already discussed hearsay evidence and standards of proof (see the blog archive), and this week I decided to tackle another evidentiary problem that family historians encounter when dealing with records: reliability. I have seen many researchers give great weight to a marriage license or social security application simply because they are government records. But mistakes are made, and, yes, lies are told, even on some of our records that contain that raised seal of governmental authority.
     I thought of this topic after I heard a panelist on a CNN news program yell at another pundit: "Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!" Besides being indicative of the level to which our televised public discourse has sunk, the almost-forgotten childhood chant made me think of another relic of childhood: crossing one's fingers behind one's back while telling a big fib--not that I ever did so myself (said with fingers crossed).  Occasionally, I have had to suggest to a fellow family historian that their ancestor prevaricated, fudged, stretched the truth...you know, Grandma lied!
     I know researchers who have found false information given on marriage licenses, social security applications, and birth certificates. So how can we judge the veracity of the information on these records?
     To evaluate the reliability, we have to ask ourselves, "Did the ancestor have reason or motive to give false information?" Some motives I have found are the following:
     1. "On the lam."  Was your ancestor running from the law or creditors? Don't judge these ancestors too harshly, for our Irish ancestors often lived under very unfair laws that criminalized actions not punished today. Others broke laws for the purpose of civil disobedience. This is an example of how knowing Irish history can aid your research--if your ancestor arrived after a failed rebellion, you might want to research his or her political history. She might have been a rebel or aligned with a political faction.
      Other ancestors ran from servitude. I found one instance of a researcher's ancestor who may have fled Ireland while bound as an apprentice to a master. Indentured servants often fled harsh masters.
      It was much easier in the past to disappear and create a new identity than it is today, with  internet databases, news channels, and massive search and rescue operations.
     2. "Not married." I know researchers who have uncovered bigamist ancestors--and I don't mean Mormon polygamists. I mean a family in one county or state and another across the border.
     3. "Converts." Some people changed their religion when they came to the US. Not all of them bothered with formal conversion--why should they when it was simpler to declare themselves a member? People often changed religion to fit-in with their new American society, or, during Famine times, to get help or aid.  The Irish have a term for this type of conversion: "souperism" or "taking the soup."
     4. "Paternity."  Sometimes there are varying types of "truth." In the case of a birth certificate, the father listed may be the legal father but not the biological father. Under the common law, a child born into a marrage is the legal child of the father, no matter if he was the biological parent or not.  The law's purpose is to make sure that children are provided for by a father (paternity testing is a relatively recent concept). Many men were knowing or unknowing fathers of children not biologically theirs.
     In a similar way, birth dates could have been falsified, particularly before the era of doctor-attended or hospital births, to fit a child's birth past a nine month period after a marriage.
     Once, a researcher brought an old family Bible to my class. The information written in the family tree section did not fit with what she was discovering about family names and dates. When I looked at one page, I noticed what seemed to be erasures and overwritten indentations. Sure enough, when the page was examined with a magnifier under good light, changes had been made in both birth date and surname for a child.
     5. "I don't look my age." Yep, my own grandma lied--right on her social security application. Caused her plenty of problems when she tried to collect social security upon retirement many decades later. Ask yourself if there might have been a reason for your ancestor to appear to be younger or older when you are having difficulty pinning down a correct date of birth.
    6. "It's none of their (expletive deleted) business." Some people just didn't want to reveal information, especially to the government. One researcher I know believes that his great grandfather often lied to census takers simply because he didn't like the government intrusion. Don't forget that many of our ancestors were fleeing what they regarded as an oppresive government.
     Some people get upset when they hear the suggestion that their ancestor might have stretched the truth. Others take delight in having a colorful story to tell. One thing for certain, our fibbing ancestors can wreak havoc with our genealogical research! But I have to laugh when I think of them up above, watching us running in circles tracking those fibs, their fingers crossed behind behind their backs. Liar, liar, pants on fire!

06 June 2010


     This week I am going to take a break from discussing genealogical evidence. Since everyone is buzzing about the 1901 Irish census going online, the census MUST be the topic of the week. I gave a talk at the Mid Atlantic branch of the National Archives (NARA) on Friday on a non-Irish topic, but the many of the questions afterwards were about the Irish census. I was amazed at how many discoveries fellow researchers had made in the first 24 hours after the census went online. Must have been quite a few all-nighters on the computer going on the past few nights!
      So, I sat down to compose my post, but while procrastinating, I read an article about the census by Lori Lander Murphy in the online IRISHPHILADELPHIA.COM .  I simply cannot improve on Lori's article, so I will post the link and advise my readers to read Lori's report on the digital 1901 Irish census at
     After reading Lori's article, check out the rest of the IrishPhiladelphia.com site, even if you are not in the Delaware Valley area. Much of the news on Irish music and arts and movies is of interest to anyone who wants to keep current about Irish culture.