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Immigrant Churches

Mere affiliation with an ethnic church in America would not be enough to interest us as immigrant origins researchers. However, those churches usually kept records of the sacraments they conducted for their parishioners. The records of these actions -- baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and burials -- often contain significant information about the people.

The immigrants imported their churches, and their record keeping practices with them. In many European countries, church parishes had been keeping copious, detailed, and comprehensive records since the 1600s. This pattern continued in America.

Often called "ethnic" churches, because they catered to members of a specific ethnic group (Germans, Irish, Norwegians, etc.), these churches often held services in the native language of that group. Therefore, the records are also often in that same language. Indeed, the minister was often trained in that foreign country, at least before acceptable theological schools were established in America.

Over time, these ethnic churches became more "Americanized." As the new generation grew up not knowing the mother tongue and the ethnic group themselves became more American, the church services and their records reflected that change. However, for the first one or two generations in every immigrant settlement, these churches were a close reflection of life and religion from the old country.

This evolution is important to consider, for it means that you will generally have more success finding a record of an immigrant's place of origin in a record created closer to his or her actual immigration. Also, churches that were still more tied to the "old" ways (from the old country), were more likely to record such information.

During their first years in America, many immigrants still identified themselves, in part, by the name of the town where they came from. This was a long-standing tradition from the old countries that dated back to before recorded history. Indeed, many surnames originally developed out of the tradition of taking on the name of one's former residence.

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