In searching for your ancestors’ Catholic church records, the most common problem you’ll encounter is that you cannot find a relevant record. There are any number of reasons why you haven’t (or haven’t yet) discovered the baptismal or marriage record that you’ve been hoping to find, but in general those reasons will fall under one of the following two categories:
1. There is no surviving record:
1a. No record was ever made.
1b. A record was made, but does not survive (because the record was lost to flood, fire, carelessness, or some other natural or human catastrophe).
2. A record survives, but in another place:
2a. You are searching the church records for the correct denomination, but you haven’t yet traced your ancestors to the mission or parish where their record can be found.
For example, it took me a long time to finally locate a marriage record for my 2x-great-grandparents Thomas Benton and Honora Ryan because I was missing some key information about their emigration and settlement. I knew that they had been in Pakenham, Lanark County in the early 1860s, and I also knew that they had eventually settled in Arnprior, Renfrew County. But though I searched the parish registers for at least twelve different Catholic parishes and missions in Carleton, Lanark, and Renfrew Counties, I could not find their marriage record. What I hadn’t realized is that Thomas Benton and Honora Ryan were in the Gananoque region in the mid- to late-1850s (where Thomas Benton was probably working as a labourer on the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway); and it was here (in the parish register for St. John the Evangelist, Gananoque, Leeds Co.) that I finally found a record of their marriage.
2b. You are searching the church records for an incorrect denomination. For example, you have assumed that your Irish ancestors were Catholic, when in fact they belonged to the Church of Ireland (which is to say, the Church of England in Ireland). Needless to say, if your ancestors were Anglican, you’re probably not going to find their sacramental records in the Catholic parish registers.
Two (Records) for the Price of One
If no record is a frustrating, and all-too-common, occurrence, occasionally you might encounter a very different, and somewhat puzzling, scenario: two separate records, found in two different registers, for the same act of baptism or marriage.
For example, when my 2x-great-grandparents Patrick Killeen and Bridget Galligan were married on 28 February 1859, their marriage generated two separate records, one in the parish register for St. Peter Celestine, Pakenham (Lanark County), and one in the register for the mission at Fitzroy Harbour (later St. Michael’s, Carleton County).1
Marriage of Patrick Killeen and Bridget Galligan, St. Peter Celestine
So does this mean that on 28 February 1859, Patrick and Bridget presented themselves to two different priests, at two different churches, in order to be married twice on the same day?
No, not at all.
What it means is that Patrick and Bridget were married at a time of early parish formation, when many Catholics in the area were served by travelling missionary priests, when some — later well-established — parishes were still in their infancy, and when parish boundaries were still very much in flux. In some cases, baptisms and marriages were performed by a circuit-riding priest who travelled great distances to visit the far-flung settlements which fell within his jurisdiction. And in some cases, the same priest had the charge of different areas (not only in different townships but also in different counties) that would later become parts of separate parishes (which means, for example, that the records for your ancestors who lived in Fitzroy township, Carleton County. might be found in the register for St. Peter Celestine, Pakenham, Lanark County).
In the above case, it looks as though both records were the work of the same priest, the Rev. Bernard McFeely, who was parish priest at St. Peter Celestine, Pakenham (Lanark County), but who also served the Catholic Mission at Fitzroy Harbour (Fitzroy township, Carleton County), which mission served Catholics not only from Fitzroy and neighbouring townships on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River but also from the Quyon, Onslow area of Québec.
In terms of the provision of genealogical information, the difference between the two above records is quite striking. In the St. Peter Celestine record, we are given only the names of Patrick Killeen and Bridget Gallagan [Galligan], with the date of their marriage and the notation of “Paken” for Pakenham. In the Fitzroy Harbour Mission record, we are given the names of the bride and groom, along with the names of their parents, the Irish counties of origin of said parents (Galway for Denis Killeen and Mary Hearne [Ahearn]; Cavin [Cavan] for Patrick Gallagan [Galligan] and Mary Quilean [Cullen], and the names of the witnesses (Bernard Gaffney, John O’Neil and John Leahy [Lahey]). The first record, on its own, would still be a useful genealogical find. The second record refers these Ottawa Valley settlers back to Ireland.
If you’re looking for Catholic church records in an area of pioneer or frontier settlement, it’s not enough to search the register of the parish that would be associated with that area circa 1880 or 1920 or 1950. You should also search the registers for all surrounding parishes and missions. Because circa 1840, 1850, 1860, the parish boundaries might have been quite different, and the boundaries for Catholic missions might cross township, county, and even provincial borders. And in some cases, you might even find two records for the price of one.
- St. Peter Celestine (Pakenham, Lanark), Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1857-1968, image 18 of 318, M. 9, Patrick Killeen-Bridget Gallaghan marriage, database, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca/: accessed 6 March 2017), Ontario, Canada, Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1747-1967). St. Michael (Fitzroy Harbour, Carleton), Register of Baptisms and Marriages, 1852-1863, 28 February 1859, image 49 of 80, M. 9, Patrick Killeen-Bridget Gallagan marriage, database: FamilySearch.org (http://www.familysearch.org), Ontario, Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923. ↩