Church Records in Hispanic Research
The records of the Roman Catholic Church represent the single best Spanish-language source for finding the family’s place of origin. Most important are those found in the local parish. Parish records, which contain a rich collection of materials of interest to the family and local historian, can be divided into two major categories: sacramental records and non-sacramental records. Sacramental records are baptisms, marriages, and confirmations. Non-sacramental records include death or burial records, fraternal order books, account books, censuses, individual documents, and local history materials.
Hispanic Catholic parish records are generally divided between three books or sets of books: one for baptisms, another for marriages, and a third for deaths. Frequently, confirmations are also recorded in the baptismal books, although, during some periods, and especially in larger parishes, a separate book for confirmations may have been maintained. Particularly valuable are marriage records, in which the place of origin is frequently given for the bride and groom and/or their parents. The attached images show marriage entries from Catholic parish records in Our Lady of Guadalupe, Los Angeles, California, and in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico (1759), as well as a printed page of extracts of marriages from the Saint Louis Cathedral, New Orleans, Louisiana (1786), all of which serve to identify the place of origin of the bride and/or the groom in Mexico or Spain. Even in the United States, many Catholic parishes in Spanish-speaking areas continued to maintain parish records in Spanish well into the twentieth century. Always check for these records in their original form; extracts often omit the very details about place of origin that the researcher seeks.
Before a marriage, the standard procedure for the parties involved was to file a marriage petition (expediente matrimonial, información matrimonial, aplicación matrimonial) with the parish priest. This petition would contain proof of good standing in the Catholic Church (usually the baptismal certificates of the bride and groom), written permission from the parents if the bride or groom was under twenty-one (though this age varied), and the priest’s permission for the marriage to take place. In addition, if the groom was from another parish, there would be a statement by the priest of his parish that the three admonitions had been read or posted there on three consecutive Sundays or holy days. If the father of the bride or groom—whose consent was normally required—was dead, then the death record or date of death of that father would also be included in the marriage petition. In many parishes, such petitions have been conserved and are of particular interest if the groom is from a parish other than the one in which the marriage took place, since the petition may even provide a copy of his baptismal certificate. In American parishes, if the groom came from Spain, statements from witnesses testifying as to his good character and Catholic standing might substitute for the other documents. Often, these witnesses were immigrants like the groom or bride and knew one or both of them in the country of origin.
The marriage petition would also include any special dispensations required from a bishop or the pope for the marriage to take place. In addition to references to dispensas de consanguinidad, which were granted to permit marriages between relatives in the fourth degree of blood relationship, marriage entries may offer other interesting information about the bride and groom. If either the bride or the groom lived extensively outside the diocese in which the parish was located, there is usually mention of a special dispensa, or note from the bishopric authorizing the marriage. All such information should be noted as the parish research is done because it may provide clues for further research in the diocesan archives. Catholic parish records can be found in microfilmed form by looking in the Family History Library Catalog for the ancestral town under “Place Search.” Many marriage dispensation records have also been filmed and some even published (see George Ryskamp, Finding Your Hispanic Roots, chapter 10).
- For a detailed discussion, see George R. Ryskamp, "Catholic Marriage Records as a Source for Immigrant Place of Origin," Ancestry Magazine 20 (May/June 2002):36-41.