One of the most overlooked sources for immigrant origins are the records of the immigrants' churches. The vast majority of immigrants were closely connected to a church in North America. They had come from a culture where the church was one of the focal points of society, and often the strongest glue that held together their local society. It was a tradition in most of our immigrants' home countries to participate in the key sacraments of their religion. This tradition carried over to their new country.
In part, the new church in North America represented a connection to the old country and, in that way, eased the transition to a new life in a new country. Ethnic churches represented a key part of an immigrant's society.
North America was more religiously diverse than any home country of our ancestors. There were many more churches, and a wider variety of denominations in North America, than in their home land. Over time, the descendants of these immigrants affiliated with any number of different denominations. Sometimes they changed churches when the pastor changed, or when the family moved to another locality.
However, the ancestral religion, itself, was still a strongly felt conviction for most of the first generation immigrants. If it was at all possible, they generally affiliated with a local church representing both the denomination and ethnic group to which they belonged in their ancestral home.
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.
However, such practices took place much earlier than the nineteenth century. There are few, if any, instances of post Civil War immigrants changing their names to that of the town from which they departed. Rather, that town name becomes sort of an "extra identifier," used in the church records, on occasion, to describe the immigrant.
Records with Immigrant Origins
What kind of records are you seeking? You need to find records that discuss virtually any and all members of the congregation, so the Deacon's minutes, or donation records will not usually be helpful for our current task. Rather, you want records that describe, for some reason, individual immigrants.
Virtually all ethnic churches practiced infant baptism. Usually the only persons getting baptized were newborn children, and of course, they were not immigrants. Although their parents might have been immigrants, the records describe the child, and generally give no more than the parents' names. Of course, you shouldn't ignore the baptismal records. Birth places of parents have been known to be listed on their child's baptismal record (see Example #1), but don't plan on it. Of course these records have great value for other genealogical purposes, such as locating and documenting all the children of an immigrant couple.
Do go after the following records, generally in the order discussed:
Example #1 - Burial: One genealogical event that occurred, in their new country, to virtually every immigrant, is their death. They were certainly born in the home country, and they may have married and raised their children there. However, if they immigrated, they likely died in North America (except for the very unlikely situation of someone who died on a rare visit home). If they died, they were generally buried. Immigrants usually chose a church burial, as that is how it was done in the old country. Therefore, the vast majority of immigrants will be found in the burial registers of their local church. (See Example #2).
Example #2 - Wedding: Many immigrants arrived during their youth. After a few years in America (sometimes only months), they found a wife or husband and desired to be married. While American counties generally require a bride and groom to obtain a license to marry, many marriages are performed by religious leaders. Among immigrants, this was by far the most preferred way to marry, for that is how it was done by their parents in the old country. Usually the marriage license return, kept by the county, identifies the office of the person who married a couple. Obtain that record of marriage and take note of the officiator. If he was a Pastor, Reverend, Father, or listed as a minister of the gospel, then the couple likely had a church wedding. Determine what church that officiator was connected with, and you are on your way to finding the church record of the wedding.
Many immigrants brought young children with them. They desired that their children be raised in their faith, and generally had them participate in confirmation classes during the early teen, and preteen years. Many church records of confirmation were not kept, or they consist only of a list of the children who were confirmed on a given day. However, on rare occasions, they provide more information about the children, such as their birth dates and parents' names. When this information is listed, the local pastor might also have noted their place of birth.
- Remember, the immigrant couple usually had several children, not just your direct ancestor. If your ancestor was already past confirmation upon arrival, perhaps younger brothers or sisters were not. This is why it is so important to research the entire immigrant family. Since they all came from the same town in the old country, you don't need to limit yourself to a record about a direct ancestor. The origins of a sibling serve the same purpose, and may be the only record you will ever find, before you verify the family in the records of the old country.
Now, the real question is, how likely is it that a home town will be listed in one of these records? That answer varies widely, due to several circumstances. It really all comes down to local record-keeping practices. Some ministers recorded birth information about immigrants, while others did not. In some registers, specific towns are given for some immigrants, while only the country is noted for others. In some cases, it depends on how recent the immigrant had arrived, while in other situations, it depends on how few (or how many) immigrants the local church served. Generally a church that served more immigrants recorded more information about their origins. As noted above, this pertains to how immigrant oriented the church was at the time of the event.
Experience has shown that birth places of immigrants tend to appear in burial registers more often than in wedding registers or confirmations. However, it is only wise to check all possible records. Any religious denomination to which immigrants belonged could be an immigrant church (or could have been, in earlier years). However, for the purposes of this lesson, we are going to discuss the two major denominations to which nineteenth century immigrants belonged: the Roman Catholic church, and the Lutheran churches.
Roman Catholic Records
Records of Roman Catholic parishes may be, generally, the best of all American church records. This is also often reflected in the record of immigrants. However, there are few certainties in such research, for there appear to be no proscribed manner of keeping these records.
Certainly the Catholic church is the largest in the world, and beginning with the mid-nineteenth century, it became the largest in America as well. The further forward one comes during the century, the larger percentage of immigrants were Catholic. As they settled in America, and as their numbers grew, the Catholic church created parishes specifically to meet the needs of different ethnic groups. Thus in a large city, such as New York or Detroit, you will find different Catholic parishes for Germans, Italians, Irish, Poles, French and others.
Each parish will have its own record keeping traditions. Personal experience has shown that English speaking Catholics (such as Irish) tend to have less information in their parish registers than those serving continental Europeans. However, even this varies from city to city. Several German Catholic parishes in Chicago mention birth places in their burial registers, at least some of the time. Correspondence from a former German Catholic parish in Cincinnati included the comment that she "seldom saw birth information in these records."
Since Catholics tended to congregate in the larger cities, you will find several Catholic parishes in those cities. Often there may be several for each of the major ethnic groups. Use a city directory from the time period when the family lived there to determine which parishes served which ethnic groups. Then, locate your immigrant family on a map, and plot which of those parishes are the closest. Remember, they did not always go to the closest parish, so you may have to check several.
Fortunately, the parish usually kept the same name (usually named for a Catholic Saint), even if they no longer serve that ethnic group. Contact the current diocese to learn about where the records are. A useful book is U.S. Catholic Sources: A Diocesan Research Guide, compiled by Virginia Humling (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1995). Your local Catholic parish will have a copy of the Catholic Directory, which includes creation dates and addresses of each parish.
Lutheran Church Records
Lutheran church records are only slightly more uniform than Catholic church records, but that seems as much a function of the ethnic groups they serve, as any other factor. Lutherans tend to be either German or related to one of the Scandinavian countries, so there are fewer ethnic groups. Also, although it is also one of America's largest denominations, there are far fewer Lutherans in America than Catholic.
On the other hand, Lutherans are more splintered denominationally than are Catholics. While most Lutheran congregations today belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), it was not always such. Over the years there have been many different Lutheran synods, each with slightly different doctrinal approaches, but that has little affect on parish registers.
What it does affect is where you are likely to locate those registers. Some synods encouraged the centralization of older records into church archives, while others have left the records in the local parishes. It may also affect the name of the church. While church names have likely not changed much since your ancestor attended a Lutheran parish, it may have happened. Also, the congregation may have moved, at which time the name may have changed. Fortunately, Lutheran churches tend to be in more rural environments, so you can contact a Lutheran church in the area where the immigrant lived, and inquire about the early records. Certainly Lutheran churches are found in the large cities as well. In such cases, use the strategy explained above, under the Catholic discussion.
Certainly, immigrants arrived who were devout church members, but did not belong to the Catholic or Lutheran denominations. If they were a nineteenth century immigrant, than much of the above discussion also pertains to their church. However, colonial immigrants often belonged to other churches (there were few colonial Catholics). These churches, such as the Friends (Quaker), Reformed (German and Dutch), Anabaptists, and others, will be discussed later, when we cover colonial immigrants.
Accessing the Records
After you have identified what church your immigrant family likely belonged to, you will need to contact that church. Keep in mind that times have changed, and that parish likely does not cater to immigrants any more. On one research trip to Jersey City, I wished to locate the records of the one- time German Catholic parish. Upon finding myself at the parish, I learned that the same parish now served the local Hispanic population. The young priest was willing to help, but knew very little about the early records, besides, they were in a language he could not read! Fortunately he left them in my hands and allowed me to search for the family of interest.
This, or similar scenes, plays itself out across America where researchers are seeking the older records of a congregation. Modern church activities, and record-keeping practices, are different then they were a hundred years ago, when an immigrant's death was recorded. It may be difficult for the local church workers to assist you. Consider yourself fortunate if they can even locate the records from that long ago. Indeed, often the records are no longer stored at the local church. Many Catholic records have been collected by the diocese. Lutheran records may be in a synodical archives.
However, you should generally start with the local congregation. Usually one of the workers will know about the early records, and where they are stored. They may even know of descendants of your family that still attend that church. If you cannot locate the local church, or they no longer exist, then turn to the appropriate diocese or synod. The results are worth the effort!
Hopefully, this lesson has strongly encouraged you to learn more about your immigrant ancestor's ethnic church and locate those records. As with any other genealogical record, you don't know what you will find until you look at the record, but the possible pay off is so great, you shouldn't waste time.
Your assignment for this lesson is to:
1. Choose an immigrant ancestor and find out what religion the immigrant ancestor was. You should:
- Ask other relatives for information.
- Check family records for clues.
- Use a local history to find information.
- Learn about the ethnic churches in the areas where the immigrants family lived.
2. After you determine the name of the church the immigrant likely attended, write to the current church and inquire about the early records. Church workers are devoted souls who are always willing to help, but be sure to include a donation to their church, after all, you are asking them to do a favor for you. You'll be surprised at how much information you may get back.