Last week's post dealt with the difficulties in locating and obtaining Roman Catholic Records in the US. I gave you the bad news first--in many locations, these records are becoming increasingly hard to obtain. Now for the good news: the RC Church records are a treasure chest for family historians. Not only does the Church keep records of milestones in its members' lives, those records are usually well-preserved and archived.
When I was planning my wedding back in 1980, I complained about the paperwork I needed to submit to the Church. My husband is Jewish, and we were planning a Jewish ceremony with a Catholic priest in attendance. When we were interviewed by the rabbi, my husband brought no papers--he simply told the rabbi he was Jewish. The priest, on the other hand, needed my sacramental records, plus quite a few other forms. Like any bridezilla who would rather be thinking of gowns and cakes, I grumbled at the extra work Of course, had I been thinking like a good family historian, I would have been thankful for all those forms and records!
Generally, the Church keeps and saves records of persons receiving certain sacraments. Note that many (not all) of these records are in Latin. In the US, some priests wrote in Latin, while others did not. Just in case, when researching you should be aware of the Latin spellings of your ancestor's names.
Be aware, also, that when a Latin equivalent of a name was not available, the priest often assigned one. For example, Owen was recorded as "Eugenio" by Irish priests in the US and Ireland. See my archived post of 14 February 2010 for more information on naming issues and patterns.
1) Baptism. Baptismal records usually provide the date of birth of an infant. If not, you can usually (but not always) assume that the child was born close to the baptismal date. Until modern times, many Irish parents planned baptisms within weeks, if not days, of the birth. However, especially in rural areas in winter, getting a baby to the church was not always easy. There was a provision in Church doctrine allowing lay persons to perform baptisms when the baby's survival was in doubt.
A baptismal record usually contains the following: child's name, date of baptism, date of birth, parents' names (with maiden name of mother), sponsors' names (a male and a female), and the name of the priest. Before states began to require civil birth and marriage registrations, the baptism might be the only record of your ancestor's birth. It is often a valuable source of the mother's maiden name. It may also be a source of new ancestors--many of the sponsors were family members. Sponsors also were often close friends from Ireland who also emigrated. I have seen two instances of Irish relatives traveling to the US to serve as sponsors. Surprisingly, in both cases the families were poor. The researchers assumed that the sponsors were "by proxy" but further research turned up travel records to show that, indeed, the sponsors sailed across the pond and back for the baptism.
Other notes might be found on the church record. I have seen baptismal records noting that the father was not a Catholic. I have also seen notations that the child was "illegitmate." In the Irish church registers in the 1800's, the clerk often noted the amount of the baptismal donation (or that no fee was paid).
2) First Communion. The age at which a child received First Communion, also called First Eucharist, varied through time, but usually occurred during the early elementary school years. Customs varied with individual parishes, but often students made their First Communion together with their class members at one Mass. After the invention of the camera, photos of the Communion boy or girl, with family or with their entire Communion class, became popular. These photos can contain many genealogical clues.
3) Confirmation. Confirmation records are not always easy to find, as many are kept at the Diocesan, not parish, level (confirmation is a sacrament given by the bishop or his representative). The age of confirmands varied over time, sometimes being as young as 7 or as old as teen years. Again, the ceremony was usually a group affair. I have found lists of confirmands in Irish church records in the early 1800's, but these lists are very rare and are often sandwiched in between other records.
4) Marriage. Like baptismal records, marriage records are a source for a woman's maiden name. Sometimes, marriage records will contain the names of the spouses' parents. Usually the two witnesses will be named, along with the priest who preformed the ceremony. Again, consider the possiility that these witnesses could be family members or friends from Ireland.
People often attempt to find funeral or burial records in Catholic parishes, to no avail. Most parishes did not keep burial or funeral Mass records, unless the parish kept its own cemetery. Nor were records usually kept for sacraments such as Extreme Unction (Last Rites) or First Confession.
There are other non-sacramental church records that can also provide information for a family historian. Jubilee and church anniversay books can be valuable sources, as can old church bulletins. Some churches have such records of parish history, and many dioceses have archives or libraries with such records.Don't forget to check online parish websites, many parishes are putting historical sources online. Ebay is another source of those old jubilee and yearbooks.