Catholic Records

Register of Notre Dame Basilica, Ottawa: Part 1

If you’re looking for Catholic ancestors in the Bytown/Ottawa area and beyond (see below), you will probably (and by “probably” I mean “almost certainly”) want to check the parish register for Notre Dame Basilica, Ottawa.

The register is available online at two different sites:

  1. At, as part of their collection titled Ontario, Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923. To access the parish register for Notre Dame, Ottawa/Notre Dame d’Ottawa: Go to Carleton; then go to Ottawa; then go to Notre Dame d’Ottawa.This database is available online free of charge, which is truly a gift from the LDS to the ancestor-seeking public. But: it has not been indexed, and is therefore not searchable by name. The only way to find records (and therefore people) here is to search the old-fashioned way, albeit in a new-fashioned mode: by browsing, sometimes page by page, through the online images.

  2. At, as part of their collection titled Ontario, Canada, Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1747-1967. This set of Ontario Roman Catholic records is a subset of their larger (much larger! they claim to have over 25 million English and French Drouin records, and I believe them) Drouin collection, which includes Catholic records from Québec, Ontario, Acadia (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), and even some parts of the United States (from U.S. states which had French Catholic parishes). Note that on Ancestry’s main page for The Drouin Church and Vital Records, the Ontario Catholic records are listed as Ontario French Catholic Church Records. But some of the parishes in this “Ontario French Catholic” collection were predominantly Irish, and many of the records are in English (other parishes, including Notre Dame, Ottawa, were a mix of French and Irish parishioners, and the records are in both French and English). To access the parish register for Notre Dame, Ottawa: Go to Location Letter O; then choose Ottawa; then choose Basilique Notre Dame. This collection is available by subscription only. It has been indexed, and is therefore searchable by name.

notre dame ottawa titlepage

This Register is Huge

This is not the easiest Ontario Roman Catholic parish register to search, and there are at least a couple of reasons for its unwieldiness.

First, this was a very large parish, serving thousands of Irish and French-Canadian Catholics in the Bytown/Ottawa region. Now, I’m not saying that Notre Dame was a megachurch: it was far too Catholic, and far too old-school (but old-school in a new, frontier environment), to meet the definition of a megachurch. But its numbers were a bit megachurchy.1

Moreover, in addition to recording baptisms, marriages, and (much less frequently) burials for Catholics residing in Bytown/Ottawa, the early register of Notre Dame also served as a kind of repository for baptismal, marriage, and (much less frequently) burial records from surrounding missions in neighbouring townships. Did your Catholic ancestors live in March township in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s? Check the Notre Dame, Ottawa register. Did your Catholic ancestors end up in Pontiac Co., Québec by the 1850s? Check the Notre Dame, Ottawa register. Have you discovered your Catholic ancestors in Renfrew Co., Ontario in the 1861 census? Again, check the Notre Dame, Ottawa register. Indeed, if your Catholic ancestors can be found anywhere in the Ottawa Valley in the nineteenth century, you should not overlook the Notre Dame, Ottawa register.

Second, the priests at Notre Dame were mostly French Canadian and Irish (though there were also at least a couple of Scottish priests), and the two languages used in the register reflect this typically Ottawa Valley mix. The marriage of your French-Canadian ancestors might have been recorded in English by an Irish (or perhaps a Scottish) priest; the marriage of your Irish ancestors might have been recorded in French by a French-Canadian priest. Not surprisingly, the French priests sometimes had some difficulties with the Irish surnames, while the Irish priests sometimes had some difficulties with the French surnames. For this register especially, and especially for the early records, surname spelling variations which evade the algorithm of the Soundex are extremely common.

For example, in records pertaining to the Killeens of South March, the French-Canadian Oblate Father Damase Dandurand seems to have consistently used the spelling “Killahan” — which makes me wonder if my Killeen ancestors pronounced their name as something closer to Killean or Killian, which Father Dandurand heard as Killahan. Here, for instance, is the record of the marriage of Patrick Cavanaugh, son of Christopher Cavanaugh and Jane Malone, to Bridget Killeen, daughter of Denis Killeen and Mary Ahearn, 2 May 1854.2

Marriage of Patrick Cavanaugh and Bridget Killahan [Killeen]
Marriage of Patrick Cavanaugh and Bridget Killahan [Killeen]

Note that Father Dandurand used the spelling Killahan even when two parties — the bride Bridget, and her younger sister Margaret, a witness — signed the register with the surname Killeen. Notice also that the record was written in English. Damase Dandurand, who was surely one of the most interesting and impressive parish priests that Bytown had ever known, 3 was fluently bilingual, and moved easily between French and English. For his French-Canadian parishioners, he wrote the records in French. For his Irish parishioners, he typically used English, though sometimes with some rather quirky phonetic spellings.

So: given its enormous size (there are thousands of pages in this register), and its sometimes quirky surname spelling variations which evade the logic of the Soundex, what’s the best way to search this register?

To be continued…

  1. In his Upper Ottawa Valley to 1855 (McGill-Queens Press, 1990, cxxiii), Richard Reid records that in the 1820s and 1830s, “John Cullen, the pastor for Bytown and Richmond, was responsible for 3,750 Catholics” in Bytown and its surrounding townships. By 1887, l’Annuaire de l’Église catholique au canada (Montréal: B.M. Advertising Inc., 1887) recorded the presence of 9,200 parishioners for the parish of the Basilique Notre Dame d’Ottawa.
  2.  Basilique Notre Dame d’Ottawa (Ottawa, Ontario), Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1852-1855, image 122 of 244, M. 39, Patrick Cavanaugh-Bridget Killahan marriage, database, ( accessed 25 April 2015), Ontario, Canada, Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1747-1967.
  3.  He was not only a priest, but also an architect; and though he contracted typhus at Bytown in the summer of 1847, he survived the disease to live on to the age of 102.