Catholic Marriage Records: Discovering an Immigrant's Place of Origin

Author: George Ryskamp

“In the town of Natchez on the 22nd of the month of August of 1793 I Don Gregory White principle priest of this parish having completed the customary diligences without any impediments having resulted, wed and blessed Policarpio Regillo, legitimate son of Jose and of Rufina Gonzalez native of Lesuza, Province of Tholedo and Margarita Thomas, legitimate daughter of Elias Thomas and of Catarina, native of Virginia. The witnesses were Wendelin Piroth and Israel Lennard and I sign this Gregorio White.”

Consider the marriage record of an Anglo-American bride, a Spanish groom, an Irish priest and two French witnesses. Nothing better indicates the immigrant nature of society in Natchez, Mississippi, at the end of the eighteenth century than this Catholic marriage record. It is also typical of the detail found concerning locality of birth for the bride and groom in many, if not most, Catholic marriage records. This is detail that can prove valuable in tracing family lines across borders and oceans.

Tracing immigrant ancestors from the Americas back to Europe challenges the researcher to find the link to a specific place of origin, usually a small town or village in the mother country. Before the appearance in the United States of detailed passenger lists beginning in 1896, a variety of documents—such as naturalization decrees, censuses and journals—can be consulted with varying success for making that linkage.

When tracing ancestry to a predominantly Catholic country, such as Italy, Spain, Mexico, France, Portugal, or southern Germany, that search should always include marriage records, not only for the ancestral immigrant family, but for friends and neighbors from the same country.

Catholic Marriage Procedures
The very nature of the procedures followed for marriages in the Catholic Church emphasized an inquiry into the fact that the parties were properly baptized Catholics, the proof of which often required questions concerning the place of origin, even the specific parish, of the bride and groom.

The philosophy of the sacrament of marriage as the binding act in the union of two free wills thus found practical expression and protection in the Church’s procedural controls over marriage. In each marriage investigation, whether conducted by the local parish priest or under the direction of the Bishop’s vicar general, an effort was made to ascertain that this marriage was an exercise of free will on the part of the parties. In the case of the parish investigation, a declaration of consent by both parties was obtained, stating that each wanted the marriage of his or her own “spontaneous and free will.”

Canonical Impediments to Marriage
The honor of the Church as an institution was maintained by being certain that a full investigation was conducted and the parties were not in violation of the impediments imposed by Canon law.

Since the Council of Trent in the 1560s, bishops, acting in the name of the Pope, might dispense or forgive certain impediments such as relationships within the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity, failure to read the banns, and one party not being a Catholic (disparate cults or mixed religions). Also, if a party were not from the diocese and no proof of his good standing in the Catholic Church could be readily obtained (such as a man from Ireland, Italy, Spain, or France marrying in an American diocese), a dispensation prior to marriage was required from the Bishop. In dioceses such as Brooklyn, New York, this appears to have been incorporated into the dispensation of the reading of the banns, while in Spanish or Latin American dioceses there was a separate dispensation, called the ultramarino.

Records of Marriage
Any step in this marriage process may reveal the locality of immigrant origin, although the marriage process varied in detail from country to country and from one time period to another. Potentially, three different records could be created:

  1. Pre-marriage investigation
  2. Parish marriage register entry
  3. Marriage dispensation
The first two of these relate to the marriage performed by the parish priest. The third refers to the application and subsequent investigation of a future bride and groom by the bishop to waive an impediment to the proposed marriage. Any of these records may and often do reveal the locality of immigrant origin.

Pre-marriage Investigations
The marriage process began with an investigation by the Catholic priest in which he asked the bride and groom questions that would reveal if there were any impediments. If none were discovered, an announcement (or bann) would be made in the parish of the bride, and if the groom was from a different nearby parish, in his parish. These banns were read on three consecutive holy days, usually Sundays, to allow anyone in the community who might have knowledge of an impediment to raise an objection. If no objections were raised, the bride and groom would be married.

In all Catholic parishes, beginning at least soon after the Council of Trent, a record was made of the marriage itself. Each marriage record contains a phrase like this: “having preceded the information concerning freedom and single status and there having resulted no impediment, I married and blessed . . .”). For each marriage, the Catholic parish priest conducted an investigation to be certain that the bride and groom met the Church’s requirements prior to performing the marriage. Although not extant for many parishes, the written records of these investigations are available in books or files, separate from the sacramental registers of marriage, in a significant number of Latin American parishes. In Mexico—where some date from as early as the mid-1500s—they are called informaciones matrimoniales or diligencias matrimoniales.

Two examples from northern Mexico illustrate the potential value of investigations as sources for immigrant place of origin. In Catorce, Nuevo Leon, Juan Grunert married Ricarda Briones in 1868 with a marriage record that did not even list their parents’ names. However, in the pages of the Información matrimonial for that marriage there appears the testimony of one Adolfo Chevalier, a Frenchman, who testified that he had known the groom for many years as they served together in the French army in campaigns in Italy and Mexico. He then gave the names of the groom’s parents, and his place of birth as Bavaria, information which led the researcher to the Registres de Armee de Terre in Vincennes outside of Paris, France, for more complete origin data.

In the second example, written nearly a century earlier in Hermosillo, Sonora, the immigrant ancestor is not the groom, but one of the witnesses. No investigation record appears to exist for the 1787 marriage of Vicente Botello, the researcher’s Spanish immigrant ancestor, but in one of the marriage informations he appeared as a witness, testifying that he had known the groom when the latter was but a lad in the town of Xativa, Valencia, Spain. In both cases, the record of the marriage investigation provided the clue to locating the immigrant place of origin.

Marriage Parish Register Entries
The Council of Trent required that each parish priest maintain a register of all marriages performed. The issues of marital status and place of birth or baptism raised questions that often yielded information about the locality of origin of an immigrant groom or bride. For example, a 1695 marriage record in the Catalan town of Reus revealed that the groom, Jean Icard, came from the parish of Casteras in the diocese of Reiux, in what is now southern France. This information led to a search for the Icard family in the parish and notarial records in the archives departementales in Foix, France.

The following marriage record from Hidalgo del Parral in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua illustrates the detailed information often given about the immigrant:

In this parish of Saint Joseph of Parral on the twenty-second of July of the year one thousand seven hundred and fifty nine having previously completed the reports on freedom to marry and single status, and the most illustrious Dr. Don Pedro Tamaran of the council of his majesty and most worthy bishop of this kingdom of New Galicia having dispensed with the ultramarine impediment in his decree of six June of this year, also dispensing with the three canonical admonitions which are required by the Holy Council of Trent…I announced the appropriate admonition saying: That Don Miguel de la Fuente and Doña Tomasa Antonia de Escondon who were present desire to contract marriage according to the order of Our Holy Mother Church and that if anyone knows of any impediment the they so declare, and no one responding negatively I did marry by words in the present the above mentioned Don Miguel de la Fuente son of Jose de la Fuente and Maria Sanchez, native of Llanes, Bishopric of Oviedo, Principate of Asturias, resident in this town, and Doña Tomasa Antonia de Escandon daughter of Don Alejo de Escandon and Doña Maria Angela Ochoa de Herive, spanish, native of this place…before these witnesses…
—Antonio Estanislao de Garnica

In the United States, marriage records from ethnic parishes are particularly likely to provide locality of origin information. Figure 1 shows marriage records in tabular form for the German parish of St. Johns in Baltimore, Maryland in which the priest faithfully recorded places of birth for nearly all brides and grooms. Priests in ethnic parishes were most often of the same ethnicity as their parishioners and therefore more likely to recognize specific locality distinctions. A priest in a Spanish-speaking parish in Florence, Arizona, rather than writing simply “Mexico,” or even “Sonora, Mexico,” instead wrote “Ures, Sonora.”

Marriage Dispensations
If at any point in the priest’s investigation an impediment to the marriage were discovered, a petition would be filed with the local curia, or bishop’s court, asking that the bishop review and determine if the impediment might be dispensed or waived. Many times there are comments in the parish marriage record itself as to the granting of a dispensation.

The detailed nature of the dispensation process varied from country to country, and city to city. In colonial Boston, a couple merely appeared at the bishop’s door and explained the nature of their dispensation request, often with a letter from the parish priest, and the bishop granted the request on the spot. Dispensations in Anglo-American dioceses, such as Baltimore, Boston, and St. Louis, were not recorded, even in ledger format, until the 1850s. Even then, the ledger entries were often minimal.

At the opposite extreme, in the great ecclesiastical bureaucracies of French, Spanish, and Portuguese dioceses such as Bordeaux, Paris, Toledo, Mexico City, Lisbon, and São Paulo, complicated procedures involving written petitions prepared by ecclesiastical notaries and written testimony from witnesses in the hometown of the bride were standard procedures by the early seventeenth century. What a contrast there must have been for Boston’s first bishop who, after several years of service in Boston beginning in 1786, was appointed as bishop of the large French diocese of Bordeaux.

In Europe and even in Latin America, the vast majority of dispensations were granted for consanguinity and affinity relationships. In the United States, dispensations for mixed religions or disparate cults and waiving of the banns predominate. In Bishop Loughlin’s Dispensations, Diocese of Brooklyn, 1859-1866 (Brooklyn, 2001) ), Joseph Silinonte indicates that in the diocese of Brooklyn, over 80 percent of all dispensations granted between 1859 and 1866 were for dispensing with the banns, most likely serving as a vehicle to waive the necessary gathering of information on a groom or bride born outside the diocese. Figure 2 shows a portion of a page from this book with the entry of James Kane and Mary Murtagh, both from Longford County, Ireland. This information narrows the immigrant ancestral search from all of Ireland to one county, which at that time contained eighteen Roman Catholic parishes—a hard task, but not an impossible one (see figure 3).

Family historians with ancestors from a predominantly Catholic country should always search marriage records from as many of the phases of the marriage process as possible. A thorough search of these detailed records will often yield the place of immigrant origin. Marriage records can likewise provide insights into those people. Recorded at a moment of important transition in the personal lives of these immigrants, marriage records reflect the changes taking place as they became part of the American experience.

George R. Ryskamp, JD, AG, is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. He specializes in Southern European and Latin American research.

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