Using Catholic Church Records to Make Family Discoveries

Family History
25 January 2023
by Kyle J. Betit

Even if your ancestors weren’t Catholic, you might find them in Catholic records. In some predominantly Catholic countries, the Catholic Church kept records of the entire population on behalf of the government. For example, you may find Jewish ancestors in Poland recorded in Catholic records. Your ancestor might also have married a Catholic, creating a Catholic marriage record.

Catholic Church records are often extensive and informative. After all, church records are a rich source for discovering your family’s story. With about 1.3 billion baptized Catholics in the world today, it is the largest Christian denomination. Catholic records hold different information than government (civil) records, and many survived when civil records were destroyed. They may also start long before civil records began to be kept.

Finding Your History Starts with Understanding Catholic Church Records

It helps to know something about the beliefs and structure of the Catholic Church as you seek records of your family. The head of the Catholic Church is the pope, the Bishop of Rome. All Catholics in the world are in communion with the pope. The celebration of mass (also called the “Eucharist”) is central to Catholic worship. Catholic Church records tend to concern the seven sacraments, which mark significant events in the life of a Catholic. Those seven sacraments are baptism, confirmation, confession, holy communion, marriage, ordination, and the anointing of the sick or dying (historically called “extreme unction”). The sacraments are generally provided by priests and bishops, who also keep the records. The most common records to find are baptism and marriage records. Some, but not all, parishes kept death or burial records. The requirements for modern Catholic record-keeping were established at the Council of Trent (1545–1563).

The Roman Catholic Church is organized into parishes and dioceses. The local community is the parish, and a parish could have more than one consecrated church within its boundaries. Most people belonged to a parish by virtue of their specific address (geographical). However, some American ethnic parishes specifically served people of a particular ethnic origin who lived over a wider geographical area. The head of the parish is typically called the parish priest or pastor, and has assistant priests, sometimes called “curates.” Parishes are grouped into a diocese, headed by a bishop.

Did you know that not all Catholics are Roman Catholics? Various Eastern Catholic churches are in communion with the pope, such as the Greek Catholic Church, which had many members in countries like Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary. Eastern Catholics have different forms of worship than Roman Catholics. Eastern Catholic parishes keep separate parish registers from Roman Catholic parishes.

How to Use Catholic Parish Registers

Our  AncestryProGenealogists® team are experts at understanding the information found in Catholic parish registers of baptism, marriage, and death/burial from various countries and time periods. Here are some tips for getting the most out of Catholic parish registers:

  • Pay close attention to the place names listed in the registers, including where events happened and where people lived. These help you identify more specifically where your own family lived in the parish.​
  • Carefully note the names and information given about people who were baptismal sponsors (godparents) and marriage witnesses. In many cases, they may have been relatives.
  • Analyze patterns based on place names, sponsors, and witnesses. This can help you figure out relationships with family members you didn’t know before. It can also help you track the right person when they have a common name. This may be the key to identifying your Mary Kelly or Johann Schmidt.

There are some basic requirements for parish registers, but beyond that, there was wide latitude regarding what information priests included. The details vary by country and time period. For example, Catholic records from the province of Quebec, Canada, date back to the earliest years of French settlement and are very detailed. They will tell you the names of both parents of each bride and groom. On the other hand, some places like Ireland and the UK do not generally have Catholic records extending back as far in time, because the Catholic Church was in a weakened state there after the Reformation of the 16th century. Irish parish registers tend to be simple and include fewer details.

Catholic baptism record from St. Anthony’s chapel in Liverpool, England – 1805. Source:, Liverpool, England, Catholic Baptisms, 1741-1919.

Due to rules established in the early 20th century, a Catholic’s baptismal record can reveal much about their history in the church. Later sacraments, such as confirmation, marriage, and ordination, were supposed to be annotated in the baptismal record.

Don’t Forget to Look for Other Catholic Record Types

Other Catholic records include records of confirmation, first communion, marriage dispensation, and marriage investigation; parish and diocesan histories; local Catholic newspapers; parish and diocesan censuses; cemetery registers and gravestones; and records of Catholic fraternal societies.

There were many reasons a couple might seek a marriage dispensation (to obtain permission to marry even though there was an impediment). They might have been related. One might have been a non-Catholic. They might not have had the banns read three times before marriage. Records of marriage dispensation can provide much detail about the couple and their family.

Similarly, parishes and dioceses in Latin America and Spain kept records of marriage investigations (called informaciones matrimoniales or similar names). The investigation ensured that the bride and groom met the church’s requirements and entered into the marriage of their own free will. Often, the records named both sets of parents, even when the groom or bride was widowed. Witnesses were also brought forth to verify that the couple met the requirements.

San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Catholic Church Records
Marriage information record, Santa María de Guadalupe Church in Villa de Guadalupe, San Luis Potosí, Mexico – 1882. Source:, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Catholic Church Records, 1586-1970. Registro de Información Matrimonial, Iglesia Santa María de Guadalupe en Villa de Guadalupe, San Luis Potosí, México – 1882. Fuente:, San Luis Potosí, México, registros parroquiales, 1586-1970.

Tip about Catholic cemeteries: Make sure you find out not only who is recorded on the family gravestone, but also everyone who is listed as buried in that plot in the cemetery register.

Find Your Immigrant Origins

Catholic records are a great place to search for your family’s immigrant origins. That elusive hometown may be found in Catholic baptism, marriage, death/burial, and other records. That’s because specific birthplaces were sometimes given for ancestors in the records. For example, suppose your immigrant ancestor from Italy was married in the United States in the 20th century. In that case, there is a good possibility their marriage record will indicate their date and place of baptism in Italy. That information needed to be sent back to Italy to be annotated in their baptism record.

Tip: Death/burial records of German Catholic immigrants are a good source for finding their birthplaces!

Was There a Priest, Nun, or Other Religious Figure in the Family?

Don’t overlook records of family members who were priests, religious sisters (nuns), and religious brothers. Their records tend to be very detailed and can shed light on the rest of the family. Although they usually didn’t have descendants, information about them can help to trace the families of their brothers and sisters who may be your ancestors. There are two kinds of priests: diocesan (secular) priests who report to a bishop, and religious priests who belong to a religious order (such as the Franciscans or Jesuits). Most records of diocesan priests are held by the diocesan archives. Most records of religious order priests, sisters (nuns), and brothers are kept by the religious order archives. Contact the diocese or religious order to inquire.

Obtaining Your Own Sacramental Records

In most cases, your record is held by the parish where your baptism, marriage, or other event occurred. If you know the name of the parish, you can contact that parish directly. Most parishes typically have a system for issuing certificates. Be as specific as possible about the date and other information to help them find the correct record. Contact information for many parishes can be found easily online, or you can contact the diocese to obtain parish contact information. Many parishes have been consolidated in recent decades, and the diocese can help identify the current parish.

If you want to obtain your baptism certificate, and don’t know the parish of baptism, you can also contact the parish where you received another sacrament such as confirmation or marriage. They may have a record of your baptism parish. Likewise, if you know the name of the priest or deacon who provided the sacrament, you can investigate which parish he served in at that time.

Start Exploring Your Story in Catholic Records 

Many Catholic parish registers from across the world are available online on Ancestry®. Typically, parish registers remain in the custody of the local parish. If the parish has closed, the records typically go to a diocesan archive. In some dioceses, all records from a certain time period have been centralized, or the oldest records of the diocese are kept in the diocesan archive. Policies about accessing sacramental records differ widely among dioceses.

Start exploring your family’s Catholic heritage on Ancestry®

References for Further Reading

Patrick J. Corish and David Sheehy. Records of the Irish Catholic Church. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 2001.

William F. Hoffman and Jonathan D. Shea. In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents – Volume III: Latin. Houston, Texas: Language & Lineage Press, 2013.

Stuart A. Raymond. Tracing Your Roman Catholic Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Family History, 2018.

George R. Ryskamp. Finding Your Hispanic Roots. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009.