Step 6 - Research in the church records

You have exausted the civil records archive. You have, through acts of deaths and marriages, reached approximate birth dates for ancestors in the early - mid 18th century.
The parish books of deaths, baptisms and weddings, if still extant, are usually preserved in the local parish churches, though some parishes might have delivered thep to central church archives. The keepers of the resources (archives, parishes) must be contacted to check the existence of records and obtain permission to make research. Months and longer may be necessary to get an appointment.

Research Remotely

  • First of all, you need to find the parish. If the place you are researching is small, there will surely be just one parish church. If the place is large, it is necessary to check in the earliest documents of birth you obtained from the Civil Records where the baptism was celebrated. After a parish is established, the priest in charge must be contacted.
  • Then, you need to contact the parish priest. It is often difficult to do this research remotely, however you can give it a try. Here is a model form, we added a sentence in the end mentioning an offer, thanking the priest all the same and asking for a reply anyway, where he might tell you why he could not help you. The record books you need may be missing, and this piece of information may be helpful too. If the place you are researching is small, there will surely be just one parish church, so if you just address your request to the "Parrocchia di (name of place)" the request will reach your parish.
There are some points to consider when you ask a parish priest to do research for you.
  • The Time: A parish priest is usually very busy with his parishioners, duties, administrative functions etc. A research requires long hours.
  • The Place: books are usually kept in the church, and the priest does not often live there. The church locals may be cold and uncomfortable
  • The Experience: this is the field of archivists and specialists, and not all parish priests have the time, expertise, patience and eyesight necessary. It may be a problem for them to make copies for you, if there is no photocopier in the place, or take a digital picture and send it.
  • The Offer: send in case an offer which will be easy to cash.

Research in the Parish yourself

Check your instruments and skills - When you visit a parish there are a number of things you'll need.
  • The Stationery: you must take with you charts, and pieces of paper to use as bookmarks - you shouldn't go to the priest every now and then asking for paper, pens etc. It is better to use only pencils, not to risk to stain the ancient books. You might as well need gloves and a face mask.
  • The Background: you may need lists of surnames from the place, and from nearby ones. Print our lists if available for your place etc. It may also be useful to have the names of nearby places.
  • The Cameras: while there may be a photocopier around, you'll find that it may be cumbersome for the priest to be at your disposal for photocopies whenever you find an act you need. Take photos (you must have some experience at photographing documents), two shots of each document. But always ask the priest for permission, some may not allow pictures. Do not forget spare batteries or memory cards or a second camera.
  • Make a Catalogue: write down all the books available and the year when each starts and ends. There are usually the Liber Baptizatorum, the Liber Mortuorum, the Status Animarum, the Liber Matrimonium. Others may be of no utility, but if the family was prominent you might find also a confirmation document interesting. You may need an act of death or a marriage and have to pass from one book to another many times at each generation
  • A suggested Method: make notes of whatever you think might be useful writing down the book, the number of the page and date - you'll be able to find it again quickly in case you need it later.
  • The Money: have the money for an offer ready, and make it easy for the priest to accept it in the form of celebrating a Mass for your ancestors - If he rejects the offer, you might want to leave the money in the offer box anyway. That church preserved the documents of your ancestors for centuries, and might well need funds to keep the premises in good condition.

Skills you must Have or Develop

  • A knowledge of Latin: A minimum knowledge of the language in which the records are written is important.
  • Deciphering Handwriting: you must have some experience at finding the relevant piece of information inside the formulas, which will be the same from an act to another. But then at a certain point the priests change, and all the hard work you have already done to decipher the years up to that point must start from scratch again, and you will have to get accustomed to another handwriting.
  • Use the Status Animarum: when the "Status Animarum" (Book of the Souls) is available, that will mean a fast method of getting the whole family together, each member with his/her own age written aside, with annotations - usually a capital C - on confession, communion and confirmation. Then you'll proceed from the status to find the birth act of the ancestor you need, and just before the first child you'll most probably find the marriage act of the parents - unless the mother was from another place, since the marriage usually took place in the bride's parish.
  • Find the Indexes: in some books there is an alphabetical index comprising all the births or marriages or deaths recorded, covering from 30 to 100 years or more, but you'll soon see that it is by Christian name, not surname. If you are looking for one Antonio or Maria you'll have hundreds of names to check.
  • The research Time: if the parish has centuries of records, you'll need hours to make a research. Find a place to stay in the vicinity and try to fix another appointment before you leave.

Rely on Professional Assistance

There are a number of factors connected to church records in estimating both the time and the expenses involved.
  • The Books: only some may be available, for example only marriages, or births from a certain year. This means not everything can be found.
  • The Indexes: books may be available, but without indexes, or indexes (if by Christian names) may be almost useless. This means the search will be time consuming, and therefore more expensive.
  • The Distance: the parish may be far away. This means you'll have to reimburse to the researcher also the time necessary to go there.
  • The Copies: in most small parishes there is no photocopier, or books may be so delicate that no photocopy can be made. This means photos must be taken, two of each document to be sure. Digital photos of records are easy, every generation there may be 20-30 pictures to take. This will also add to the time and therefore expenses.
  • The Unavailabily: as soon as an act of birth is found, it is possible to find there that the father was from another place. This will mean all the trouble was taken just to discover that the whole process of contacting a parish church has to start all over again.
You can contact us to make the research for you. Our procedure will be as follows:
  • try to contact the priest
  • get on the phone all possible information on availability of books, copies, etc
  • email you back with our estimate of fees and expenses for a first visit to the parish church.

Our Fees

Consider that it would be impractical for us to engage in research for less than 2-3 hours, given the distance and difficulty in getting an appointment, and that research in the parish books will often be allowed for just that time, since the priest may not live there, and has to stay also to ascertain that the books will be trated correctly. Therefore, on a first visit we will just concentrate in going as far back as possible from father to father along the paternal line, not including siblings at each generation, apart from those accidentally found. If time remains, we'll complete the generations with the siblings of your ancestor.

Time necessary: 1-3 months, maybe longer, report by email on advancement of search. If you want to proceed, prepare a text report of the most ancient records you have. Below is a rough estimate of fees and expenses:

  • Fee for one session: 200 EUR (including research, English translations of documents, images if allowed, email reports).
  • Travel expenses: 0.50 EUR per km - This means if the church is 80 km away from our base, it will be 80 EUR.
  • Digital photos (if allowed): 30 EUR, all pictures taken recorded on disk or memory or uploaded to a cloud.
  • Offer, in the form of a Mass for your ancestors, or other: we'll leave that to you to decide.
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