Catholic Life: Keeping Parish Records

One thing the Catholic Church is very good at is keeping sacramental records. You might think that nothing could be duller than church record-keeping, but you might be surprised to learn the how and why of it all.

It begins, as you might expect, with baptism. Every baptism is recorded in some detail at the parish, including parents and godparents and the date of baptism. This record becomes the “home base” for the person’s future records. When we are confirmed, married, or ordained, it is recorded alongside our baptism. That is one reason why we are asked to produce our baptismal certificate prior to receiving those sacraments. Wherever we are confirmed or married, that parish will forward the record to the parish where we were baptized.

Confirmation is received only once, as is Holy Orders. Marriage is also a unique sacrament, although the death of a spouse allows that remarriage may take place. You can see how it would be important for the Church to have a system in place to manage records and protect the integrity of the sacraments. It is a universal system and, with few exceptions, people can obtain copies of their baptismal certificate from just about anywhere in the world.

The parish also maintains the records of marriages and confirmations that take place there. In the event that the sacrament was not properly noted with your baptismal record, it can be traced back through the parish of origin. Further, the diocese maintains duplicate records, so if the parish has closed or experienced fire or other disaster, the records can still be traced.

As our family genealogist, I love that parish records are a goldmine of information. As a Catholic, following the long line of sacramental records is a deep bond that runs through countless generations. Centuries of parish records have been preserved and in our digital age many can be viewed online. In the image above, the baptism of my great-great grandfather is recorded in 1818 at Saint Raphael’s Parish in Glengarry, Ontario.

Cumulatively, the parish records tell the story of families and of the parish. It is something I often thought about as I recorded my parish’s baptisms, marriages and funerals, as well as confirmations. They are the milestones in our lives and should be respected as such. I wish I had understood that when I was a young mom.  Each of my five children was baptized in a different parish because we were somewhat nomadic in those early days.  It can be a challenge to keep them straight!  Parents should make a point of visiting the parish where their children were baptized, if different from their home parish, and note that it is a special place. Kids always love to hear stories of their babyhood and telling them about the special day they were baptized is both heartwarming and catechetical. We can all benefit from reminders that we belong to God first.

Record keeping may seem a very mundane task, but in the case of the parish registers, these records tell the story of our lives. Between the lines of routine information is the history of our growth in faith and our connection to the generations of faith before us. To me, that elevates the mundane to something quite sacred.

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