Religious Records Part 1 – The Basics

St. Peter\’s and St. Paul Church, Bartibog Bridge, New Brunswick

Religious records are an important part of Canadian research. Unlike today, the houses of worship played a much bigger role in our ancestors lives. It was not only where you went to have your rites of passage performed. It was also where you went to socialize and catch up on the news of the area. This was especially true of our rural ancestors.

Canada has many different religions. Due to our British and French heritage though, the two main ones in our history are the Catholic religion and the ones that fall under the umbrella of Protestant faiths. These two are the ones I am more familiar with, so I\’ll be writing these posts geared to researchers of these religions. I will not get into the fundamental differences between the Protestant sects though. It could take up a whole post of it\’s own. If you\’re interested, the National Institute of Genealogical Studies has a Religious Records Course that breaks everything down. I\’ve taken the course and learned a great deal.

When I was preparing for this post, I realized that I was going to have to take the same approach as I took to civil registration. The establishment of the various churches, and where to find records, also varies by province and territory. So for this first part, I\’m going to give a quick summary of tips for searching in general. Future posts will be more specific to the province or territory we are looking at.

The Canadian census can be really helpful in determining where to look for religious records of our ancestors. Every national census from 1851-1921 has asked what religion each person was. It was also asked on the 1916 census of the Prairie Provinces. Having this question asked can narrow down your search for a church tremendously. Most family units tended to have everyone of the same religious sect. I have seen the parents have two different denominations on occasion though. In the cases I looked at, the children tended to have their religion listed as the same as the mother\’s.

In the early years of Canada, a lot of communities did not have an established house of worship. Instead, both priests of the Catholic Church and Protestant ministers traveled a great deal. Depending on the area of Canada, some had huge territories that they were responsible for, travelling a circuit. Sometimes it would be months before a community could get marriages performed or had their children baptized. This is significant for a few reasons:

  1. You may have to broaden the time period you search for for a baptism. In the Catholic faith, a lay person could do a baptism under certain circumstances. But, the family would still have to seek a priest to have a formal ceremony as soon as they realistically could. On the plus side though, you may end up seeing a group of siblings being baptized or christened on the same day.
  2. The marriage ceremony you are looking for may have taken place outside of the faith of the family. If a couple wanted to get married, but a minister of their own faith would not be there for several months, they might have gone to another minister that was in their jurisdiction right then. This could be because the couple didn\’t want to wait. It could also be that they couldn\’t wait. To put it delicately, the social norms of the time may have required that this couple get married as soon as possible, especially if you looked at the date of birth of their first child. You probably will not see this in Catholic couples, but a Church of England couple may go to a Methodist minister.
  3. The above was also true for baptisms. The Catholics and some of the Protestant variations held a firm belief that baptism should be done as quickly as possible, especially if the child was in ill health. Therefore, most of the clergy of these faiths would perform the ceremony even if the parents were not members of the church. Catholics generally did not go outside their faith as a rule, but a Church of England member might go to a Methodist minister if they were available, or even to a Catholic church if they felt that that the child was not likely to live.
  4. You may have to look at records in a different area to find the record you need. Pay close attention to the start date of the parish records. For instance, some of my New Brunswick ancestors\’ records can be found in three different parishes. Tracadie Catholic church records don\’t start until 1798, and even then, you do not see a lot of entries. The first entry I saw in the book was in August of that year. The first few years only a half a few pages for each year, and there are only 1-3 entries on each page. I had to look at neighboring parishes to find records of my ancestors.

The next thing to keep in mind is geography if your ancestor did not live in a city. Take a look at a map of where your ancestor lived. Let\’s say they were Church of England. The nearest church that was Church of England meant that they had to travel a couple of hours away. A Methodist church was maybe a little closer. Chances are that they will go to the Methodist church. Also note any possible barriers like river crossings. This guideline is more for the variations of the Protestant faith. Catholics as a rule went to a Catholic church, no matter what. But even still, you might find your Catholic ancestors going to a Catholic church outside their geographical parish. If your ancestors lived close to the borders of two parishes, the one that is closer and easier to get to will be the one that services their needs.

Let\’s say you have a couple who grew up in different areas. Usually the couple will live their married life in the husband\’s parish. The general rule is that the marriage itself though will take place where the bride comes from. If you can\’t find a marriage record in the parish where they lived, check to see if the marriage took place in the area that the bride came from.

Last tip: Chances are you are going to have to research the \”old fashioned way\” for religious records. In comparison to other records sets, you are not going to see a lot online. You might have to resort to looking at microfilm, or doing in person visits, Don\’t be surprised if you have to make phone calls, and write letters and emails.

In Part 2 of the post we\’re going to look at Newfound and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island.

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