Conditional Baptism

While going through RC parish registers in search of your Catholic ancestors, you may come across the phrase “baptized conditionally” or “baptized sub conditione,” or, in French, “baptisé(e) sous condition.” What did the padre mean, you may wonder, by this seemingly cryptic communication?

What the priest meant, basically, was that he had performed the baptism with words to the effect of, “If you are not already baptized, I baptize you.”


Why the conditional “if,” with its gesture toward the possibility that a baptism had already been performed?

Well, I’m no theologian, but as far as I understand it, it goes something like this:

According to Catholic doctrine, there is only one baptism, which means that there is no such thing as a valid second baptism or re-baptism. However, there was (and still is, as best I make out) some question as to whether a baptism performed by anyone other than a duly ordained Catholic priest actually counted [counts] as a baptism. So when a Catholic priest was asked to baptize someone who had maybe already been baptized, given the question surrounding the validity of that possible first baptism (which may or may not have been a baptism at all, from the RC perspective), the conditional baptism was a way of hedging one’s bets.

For genealogical purposes, the two most frequent situations where you’ll encounter a conditional baptism are: 1. the case of an infant who had been baptized at home by a (Catholic) family member as an emergency measure (because the infant was gravely ill, and at risk of dying, and there was no priest around to perform the baptism); and 2. the case of an adult convert to Roman Catholicism who had previously been baptized by a Protestant clergyman. A third situation would be that of an infant foundling (in French, un[e] enfant trouvé[e]), about whom there was incomplete information concerning a possible baptism.

Here’s an example of the first situation, for Mary Donahue, a granddaughter of Denis Killeen and Mary Ahearn, who was baptized by a priest serving the mission of Ste. Anne at Calumet Island (Ile du Grand Calumet) in Pontiac Co., Québec:

Le vingt de mars mil huit cent cinquante trois par nous prêtre soussigné a été baptisée  Mary née le vingt cinq de janvier du légitime marriage de Michel Donahoe et de Anne Keillan de cette paroisse. Le parrain a été John Haregan et la marraine Brigitte Charlock qui n’ont su signer. Baptisée sous condition. L.G.A. Ouellet, Prtre [The twentieth of March one thousand eight hundred and fifty three, we the undersigned priest baptized Mary born the twenty-fifth of January of the legitimate marriage of Michel Donahoe [Michael Donohue] and Anne Keillan [Killeen] of this parish. The godfather was John Haregan [Harrigan?] and the godmother Brigitte Charlock [Bridget Sherlock] who did not know how to sign. Baptized conditionally. L.G.A. Ouellet.]1

Now, sometimes the priest will note that an infant had already been baptized, or “privately baptized”, a day or so after birth, sometimes by the child’s mother or father or other (often female) relative, sometimes by a midwife. In the above example, he of course did not. But I think it’s safe to assume that the child had first been baptized at home in an emergency health situation.

And here’s an example of the second situation (adult convert to Catholicism), for Elizabeth Malcolmson, the first wife of John Moran.

This one is interesting to me because it shows two Canadian-born emigrants to North Dakota maintaining significant ties to a Canadian parish. From the register for St. Michael’s, Corkery, in Huntley township (Carleton Co., Ontario):

On this seventh day of February one thousand eight hundred and ninety two We the undersigned parish priest of this parish after having received her profession of faith have baptised ^“sub conditione” Elizabeth Malcomson daughter of James Malcomson and Janet Anderson and wife of John Moran aged thirty two years. The godmother was Mary Levi (Mrs Alexander Moran). P Corkery.2

So the godmother/sponsor for Elizabeth Malcolmson was her mother-in-law Mary Leavy (o, to have been a fly on the wall for this one!…), whose husband, Alexander (“Sandy”) Michael Moran had just been buried the day before. And the death of Sandy Moran was presumably the reason why John Moran and Elizabeth Malcomson were back in Canada for a visit in the first place. (They returned to Grand Forks, North Dakota shortly afterwards, where Elizabeth Malcomson, sadly, died in April 1893).

I think it’s always worth paying attention to a notation of “baptized conditionally/baptise(é) sous condition.” While it may signify nothing more unusual than an instance of the widespread precarious state of infant health, it may, on the other hand, point toward the more genealogically interesting situations of either a conversion or an adoption.

1Ste Anne, p. 70, B.11, Mary Donahoe

2St. Michael’s, Corkery, database, Registres numériques, Ontario, Cockery [Corkery], Institut Généalogique Drouin ( http://www.imagesdrouinpepin.com/main.php: accessed 3 May 2010).