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.
LINKS TO SITES AND TOPICS DISCUSSED IN THIS POST:
The Pope's Directive
Basis of RC Church's Position re: Access to Records
Wilmington DE Online RC Records
Philadelphia Archdiocese Records Research