Last weekend, I got a note from Sandra in Florida. She was looking for her grandfatherâ€™s cousin, who was a Catholic nun in the Pittsburgh area, but she didnâ€™t have a lot of information to work with. Since Iâ€™ve had a little experience in tracing nuns (we have three in our family tree), I thought Iâ€™d give it a shot. But before I could dive into the search, I got an e-mail from a very happy Sandra who had found her grand-aunt in the 1910 census.
Many people have family members who served in religious communities. Learning something about their lives can greatly enrich family histories and lead to other important clues, but finding them in records can present a unique challenge. Questions like Sandra’s come in with surprising frequency, so today, I thought Iâ€™d share a few tips for locating individuals who served in religious communities.
Try Census Records
Finding clergy in the census can be a tricky business. A search of the 1930 U.S. census turned up nearly 800 people with the first name â€œPastor.â€ Further searches turned up people with first names listed as Reverend, Rabbi, Father, Sister, and Mother. In many of these entries, no given name is listed, as in Rabbi Zien of Duluth, Minnesota, or Reverend Perry of Little Rock, Arkansas. In some cases the title is included as a middle name, as is the case with John Father Harnett of San Francisco, California.
Sandra found success in doing some creative searching for “Sister Rita” and the location of Pittsburgh. She eventually found her living with the Sisters of Divine Providence in Pittsburgh with Mother Therese listed as the â€œhead of household.â€
Church and Local Histories
Finding a family member who served a religious community can give your family history a real boost. You are likely to find unique records for that individual, including mentions in church-related and local histories. Check the Stories, Memories, and Histories Collection at Ancestry.com or search the Card CatalogÂ for keywords like the religious affiliation and location of the church or religious order.
Search engines may also turn up information. If the church is still in existence, youâ€™ll want to see if they have an online presence. Contact the church office for more information.
We have three Catholic nuns in our family tree and through the religious orders in which they served, weâ€™ve learned a lot about our family history. Letters my mom wrote back in the 1970s brought responses that included birth and death dates and places, as well as information on other family members. In one letter she received from her grand-auntâ€™s order it says, â€œI have obtained some of this from our records; the rest I learned from Sister M. Euphrasia, who is presently stationed here at our Motherhouse, and who lived with Sister Pacifica about twenty-two of the twenty-four years Sister Pacifica was in St. Francis.â€
To determine the Catholic religious order in which a family member served, look for the Official Catholic Directory which has been published since 1817 and includes contact information for religious orders, dioceses and parish, as well as any schools and religious orders affiliated with that parish. Clergy are included, as well as a necrology index for those who passed away in the previous year. A local parish might have a copy, and you may find a series of these volumes covering a longer time period at diocesan offices or university libraries. Other denominations may have similar publications.
If youâ€™re not sure in which religious community an individual may have served, you may find clues at the local level. Often young people were influenced by the order that served a nearby church, school, orphanage, or hospital. My great-great-grandmotherâ€™s sister became a nun. After her mother died young, she and my great-great-grandmother were placed in an orphanage that we later learned was managed by the Sisters of Charity–the order she later joined.
If you have a photograph of an ancestor in clerical garb or a nunâ€™s habit, you may be able to determine an affiliation based on their clothing. Look for publications like The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns and compare images.
With a little bit of research and perseverance, you can learn a lot about your family members who served in religious communities, and in turn learn more about your family.Â
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.