Catholic Sacramental Records
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Whether generated by monks or friars presiding over missions or by secular priests presiding over organized parish churches, sacramental registers are nearly identical. Parish archives contain nine major categories of records: baptisms, marriages, death or burial records, confirmations, co-fraternity books, account books, censuses, individual documents, and local history materials. The records of the sacraments—the first four categories of baptisms, marriages, deaths, and confirmations—are found in nearly every mission or parish. Generally, they are divided into three separate books or sets of books, with confirmations appearing along with baptisms except in very large parishes. In smaller parishes and in earlier years, all three of the records may have been kept in the same book, although generally within separate sections. The attached image shows the title page for the first book of baptisms for the San Francisco, California, mission.
Marriage records are especially valuable, as a marriage entry in a Spanish colonial parish usually contains the names and surnames of the bride and groom with an indication of their professions, residences, birthplaces, ages at the time of marriage, parents’ names, racial descriptions of the parties, date the marriage was celebrated, name of the parish, and name of the priest performing the marriage. The record also states whether the three canonical admonitions (similar to the English banns) were published or dispensed with. In addition to the above, the marriage certificate records any special difficulties or circumstances surrounding the event. For example, on some occasions there may have been an objection or impediment to the marriage necessitating an apostolic dispensation.
In many cases, marriage records are missing details such as the ages of the bride or groom. Nevertheless, the parents’ names are given (although not often in the case of a second marriage) and, frequently, the parents’ residence and/or birthplace of the groom. Obviously, this information is particularly valuable as it may be the only clue regarding the town of origin of the male ancestor. The town of origin of the female ancestor in a marriage is usually known, because the vast majority of all marriages are performed in the parish of the woman. The significant value of a marriage entry is illustrated by the attached image, a page of marriage entries from the St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans, Louisiana, during the Spanish period.5 Note several grooms’ birthplaces are shown.
Some parish records will have collections of separate, individual documents, including testamentos (wills), capellanias (special grants given to the parish in the form of land, money, or other property by its members), pleitos (litigation papers), and expedientes matrimoniales (marriage petitions containing copies of baptismal records filed by the bride and groom at the time they were requesting marriage).
Frequently, the priest recognized that his sacramental books were documents that would be preserved for centuries and, as a result, made notes about historical moments of particular interest or times and events of national importance. In working through the pages of parish records, watch for these items, such as the date on which the first stone was laid for the building of a new sacristy, visits of important individuals, or tragic events such as fires, floods, or droughts and their impact on the people of the parish. For example, in New Orleans the priest recorded the transfer of the colony to representatives of the Congress of the United States of America in 1803 in his baptismal register. All of these local history materials provide great insight into the lives of one’s ancestors and can add significant color and human dimension to the family’s history.