Finding Family in Religious Service, by Juliana Smith

Last weekend, I got a note from Sandra in Florida. She was looking for her grandfather’s cousin, who was a Catholic nun in the Pittsburgh area, but she didn’t have a lot of information to work with. Since I’ve had a little experience in tracing nuns (we have three in our family tree), I thought I’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 I’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 “Pastor.” 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 “head of household.”

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 or search the Card Catalog 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, you’ll want to see if they have an online presence. Contact the church office for more information.

Religious Orders
We have three Catholic nuns in our family tree and through the religious orders in which they served, we’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-aunt’s order it says, “I 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.”

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 you’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-grandmother’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 nun’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. 

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 [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

10 thoughts on “Finding Family in Religious Service, by Juliana Smith

  1. I always thought it was great aunt and grand niece or grand nephew. I have never heard the term Grand Aunt. Is this a term local to a certain area of the USA or other country?

  2. And I moved from Iowa, where an aunt was “ant”, to Minessota (Scandanavian contry)where an aunt is an “ont”!!
    Has anyone searching the Census data had this happen … or are willing to admit it???LOL! My mother-in-law divorced her first husband, and father to my husband’s 1/2 brother in 1929. I needed his data for my chart, but only knew some basic info and verbal family “gossip”. I searched 1930, his name. Up it came with my data. PLUS, all his “roomates” on census day 1930. Four pages of Leavenworth Prison inmates in 1930!! How funny. At least I thought at least odd!

  3. Thank you for the informative article. I have at least three relatives who were nuns. From her father’s obituary I knew one only as Sister Olivia in Cleveland. I then found her listed in the 1900 census where I also learned what order she was in. Fortunately the order still exists and has an archivist. I wrote to the archivist who sent a biography that included her birth (Clara) and parents names, where she was assigned, her duties and some comments about her faith and character. They also told where she was buried along with a very good photo of Sister Olivia in her habit. I’ll be using this article to help me do more research on the other sisters in my family.

  4. Also try naturalization records if more recent arrivals. In indexing our local research centers naturalization records, we found lots of Sisters becoming citizens when women weren’t normally doing it (pre-1922).

  5. where to find “Official Catholic Directory of 1817” you wrote about in the article, or preferably a much later version, or a link to such..Sincerely Dorothy Bentley

  6. I can not even tell you how many peoople have contacted me about their relative who was in religious life. Many do not know whe congregation. It would be helpful to have at least an idea of where the person entered the convent or something about the religious community.
    A way people might help themselves is to get access to the National Catholic Directory and look up the diocese/archdiocese a person entered and try to get information by writing/e-mailing the specific congregation.
    It is difficult when someone says the person was a “Franciscan” there are so many that one really needs other clues.

  7. Still cannot print the article without all the comments! Why have we lost that capability?

  8. This article brings to mind my most formable brick wall, my great grandmother, Magaret Oehlschlaeger Pflueger. I have her DOB in Clarion, Pennsylvania. She married my great grandfather, Adam Pflueger, there 8-5-1877. I have her obit in Columbus, Ohio and even her death notice, but cannot find her parents names.
    I am confident that the problem is the numerous variations in the spelling of the last name. One night late I tried the spelling, Oelshlager in the Columbus, Ohio census. To my surprise, I had a hit. The Oelshlager was shown with several other men and it appeared to be a very large rooming house.
    I checked the column under relationship to head of household and quite distinctly it was listed as “prisoner”. My first thought was “how did he get a census taker to participate in this joke”?
    Further research gave the true answer, I was looking at the listing for the Ohio Penitentiary. Later, I was talking with an Ohio State Legislator, Scott Oehschlager, who knew the full story on our possible common relative. The scoundrel had brutally murdered his mother, lived north of Cincinnati, and at the time this was a major news item. It received widespread publicity.
    As my great grandfather was a Professor and a minister, I wonder that this possible connection is why so little is know of Margaret’s family. Adam was also the Editor of the Lutheran Standard, a national publication sent to members of the Church. I have been told that many times Obits for ministers families were often published in the Standard. It is high on my To Do list, to check this lead out.

  9. If you wish to print the great articles without the comments (as I do!) simply highlight (or block) the area you wish to print and use the word “print” in your mousie’s right-click or in the FILE designation up in your toolbar — do NOT use the little sign/sketch for the printer up there.

    Up will pop a screen that lets you make many choices and preferences for how you will print. You have many options!

    In the list of ways you can print, you should find one choice that indicates “block” or “highlighted” or “selection” or some other word that indicates you only wish to print the part you have chosen. Choose the one that makes the most sense to you.

    Then click on “ok” or “print” at the bottom of that screen.

    You should get just what you want. I have been doing this for about 22 years, starting with WordPerfect for DOS in the 1980s. Every software uses a different term here or there, but you can figure it out!

  10. While searching for family in New Riegel, Ohio in the mid to late 1800’s, the US Census showed the names of the priests at the local St. Boniface Catholic Church, right down the street from our ancestors. Of course, this does not help find the order, etc, in the first place.

    If you know your male ancestor was a Catholic bishop, archbishop, or cardinal, try google alerts…found lots of info (including photos) on my fourth great uncle, Bishop Thomas James Boyd, via this search engine. It took awhile, but that’s the way genealogy tends to work.

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