I have a guilty secret. Church records aren’t always the ultimate source when it comes to identifying the place of origin of our immigrant ancestors. They’re like the little girl in the old poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — the one with the curl on her forehead. When they are good, they are very good indeed, and when they are bad, they are horrid.1 (Horridly disappointing, at least.) In the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook, we often hammer home the importance of checking church records for our immigrant ancestors. That’s especially important in the case of Roman Catholics, which describes the overwhelming majority of Polish immigrants, because Catholic church records often specify the precise place of birth for the bride and groom in a marriage record, the place of birth of the deceased in a death record, and even the places of birth of each parent of the baptized child in a baptismal record. For example, here is a best-case scenario — the marriage record of Polish immigrants Waleria Majczyk and Jan Kłusek, who married at St. Hyacinth’s Church in Lackawanna, New York in 1913 (Figure 1).2
Figure 1: Extract of record from St. Hyacinth’s Church, Lackawanna, New York for the marriage of Jan Kłusek and Walerya Walczak (sic), 7 May 1913. 2
Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that the priest erroneously recorded the bride’s surname as Walczak instead of Majczyk. The third column heading for this record reports “Datum et Locus Baptismi” and the information given in this column tells us the parishes in which the bride and groom were baptized. In this case, the groom, Jan Kłusek, was baptized in “Swiniary, Kr. Pol.” and the bride, Walerya Majczyk was baptized in Gracanów, Kr. Pol. The notation, “Kr. Pol.” refers to the Królestwo Polskie, or Kingdom of Poland, which was the official name for the Polish puppet state that was under Russian rule. The next column reports the names of the parents of the bride and groom, and then after that, we have the column “Domicilia” which reports the place of residence of the parents of the bride and groom. This reveals that Jan Kłusek’s parents were living in Oblekon, Kr. Pol., while the bride’s parents were living in Rostów, Kr. Pol. This is pretty remarkable, when you think about it, because this single document gives us two geographic points of reference for locating the birthplaces of both Jan and Walerya. It’s especially nice to have two points of reference, since these place names are slightly misspelled — the bride’s village was Rostowa, and her baptismal parish was Gradzanowo, which is phonetically similar to Gracanów, and the groom’s village was Oblekoń (missing only the diacritic) in the parish of Świniary. But even despite the misspellings, with just the information from this one church record, it’s a straight shot back to records in Poland.
Baptismal records from St. Stanislaus Church in Buffalo are also a thing of beauty, and as a bonus, they’re already digitized on FamilySearch, so there’s no excuse not to check them. Here’s the baptismal record for my great-grandmother, Genowefa Klaus (Figure 2).3
Figure 2: Extract of record from St. Stanislaus Church in Buffalo, New York for the baptism of Genowefa Klaus, born 28 September 1897.3
The column headings are cut off in this image, but this tells us that Genowefa was baptized on 3 October 1897, was born on 28 September of that year, and was the daughter of Andrzej Klaus of “Maniewo (sic), Gal.” and Marya Łącka of “Kołaczyce, Gal.” The abbreviation “Gal.” refers to the region of Galicia, which was a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is divided today between southeast Poland and western Ukraine. Andrzej Klaus’s hometown is slightly misspelled here — he was born in the village of Maniów in Dąbrowa County. However, it’s easy to deduce the correct location based on evidence from multiple baptismal records from this parish, since several of his children were baptized here. Once again, church records prove to be a home-run in terms of finding evidence for place of origin of immigrant ancestors.
Here’s another example, this time from the death record of Apolonia Bogacka, a Polish immigrant who died in Buffalo, New York, and was buried from St. Stanislaus Church (Figure 3).4
Figure 3: Extract of record from St. Stanislaus Church in Buffalo, New York for the death and burial of Apolonia Bogacka, who died 16 April 1906.4
It’s obvious from the column headings that the parish adapted the preprinted register pages to suit their own needs, for which we can be grateful, since parents’ names and birthplace are arguably more useful information from a genealogical standpoint than the name and address of the nearest relative. Apolonia Bogacka was about 84 when she died, and her parents’ names were apparently not known to the informant. However, it’s useful to infer that her maiden name was Prusiecka, which is the feminine singular form of the plural surname recorded here for her parents, Prusieccy. (The Polish language exhibits a great deal of grammatical inflection, and the endings of both given names and surnames will change depending on grammatical context.) Moreover, this entry reveals that Apolonia was born in Chełmno, which was at that time in Prussia but is located in Poland today.
At this point you may be wondering if Catholic church records are generally useful in noting the place of origin of immigrants, or if Polish Catholic priests were particularly conscientious in that regard. In the course of my own research, I’ve found that the ethnic character of a parish has no relationship to their sacramental record-keeping practices. For example, Figure 4 shows the baptismal record for Augustinus (“John”) Wagner from Old St. Mary’s Church in Detroit.5
Figure 4: Extract from baptismal record for Augustinus Wagner, born 3 May 1856 in Detroit.5
St. Mary’s was not an ethnic Polish parish, but nonetheless, this record tells us the place of origin of both parents of the baptized child. The baby’s father, Henry Wagner, was from “Roßdorf, Chur Hessen” which is a reference to Kurhessen, properly called Kurfürstentum Hessen, or the Electorate of Hesse, a German state also known as Hesse-Cassel. The baby’s mother, Catherine Grenzinger, was from “Steinsolz, Alsatiae,” which refers to the village of Steinsoultz, located in the Haut-Rhin Department of Alsace, France. This is the kind of precise evidence for place of origin that is necessary in order to make the leap back into European records, so it’s clear why church records are so valuable for researching immigrant ancestors.
However, if we’re being honest, it’s not fair to say that church records will always come through with that kind of information. If all the children of my great-great-grandparents, Andrzej and Marya Klaus, had been baptized in the neighboring parish of St. Adalbert’s, instead of being baptized at St. Stanislaus, I might have had a more difficult time determining where Andrzej and Marya were born. Here’s the baptismal record from St. Adalbert’s for their daughter Zofia, who was born 3 December 1891 (Figure 3).6
Figure 3: Baptismal record from St. Adalbert’s Church in Buffalo, New York, for Sophia Klaus, born 3 December 1891.6
See those empty lines after “ex loco”? That’s where the priest might have done me a favor if he’d recorded the place of origin of each of the parents more specifically than just “Galicia,” as he wrote for Andrzej. Unfortunately, he did not. Likewise, in this marriage record for Stanisław Lewandowski (“Edward Levanduski”) and Antonina Budzyńska, the priest provided very little information (Figure 5).7
Figure 5: Marriage record from St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church in Middleport, New York for Eduardus Levenduski (sic) and Antonia Budzinski (sic), 12 May 1896.7
The marriage record, written in Latin, tells us only that, after three publications of the banns, Edward Levenduski, son of Michael Levenduski and Elizabeth Rotka, was joined in marriage with Antonia Budzinski, daughter of John Budzinski and Catherine Lukomski. The record goes on to mention the witnesses’ names, but that’s it. It’s short and sweet, with no mention of where either the bride or groom was born. Interestingly, there is also no mention of this being a second marriage for Edward, whose first wife, Mary (née Woźniak) Levanduski, had died 7 months earlier. That’s another detail that one might typically hope to see in a marriage record, which was unfortunately omitted here.
The record for the remarriage of another immigrant ancestor, Jacob Boehringer, also fails to reveal his place of origin (Figure 6).8
Figure 6: Marriage record from St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church in Buffalo, New York, for Jacobus Boehringer and Theresia Fuchs, 25 October 1866.
This was a second marriage for both Jacob Boehringer and Theresia (née Liebler) Fuchs. Their parents’ names were mentioned, which was ultimately very helpful in allowing me to confirm Jacob’s place of origin in Germany, after I determined it using other resource strategies. However, the record itself offered no indication of the birthplace of either the bride or the groom.
Finally, Figure 7 shows the baptismal record for Elizabeth Walsh, who was baptized in the cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Catharines, Canada West (present-day Ontario). Although her father, Robert Walsh, was an immigrant from Ireland, no mention is made of his place of birth or that of the child’s mother, Canadian-born Elizabeth Hodgkinson (recorded here as “Hutchkison”).
Figure 7: Baptismal record from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Catharines, Ontario for Elizabeth Walsh, born 21 May 1854.
This record was a huge disappointment, along with the baptismal records for the other Walsh children which I was able to discover in this parish. My great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Walsh, is one of my most stubborn brick walls, because I have not been able to discover his place of origin in Ireland, nor have I even been able to determine his parents’ names based on existing Canadian records. I had really hoped that church records might give me a clue about Robert’s place of birth, so it would have been great if Fr. Grattan had come through for me back in 1854 when he recorded the baptism of little Elizabeth Walsh. Alas, he did not. So I guess church records aren’t much good after all, huh? Based on the representative sampling from my research that I’ve shown here, there’s perhaps a 50-50 chance that a church record might tell you the place from whence your immigrant ancestor came.
Even in darkness, there is often a glimmer of light. The page opposite the baptism of Elizabeth Walsh contains this marriage record for Patrick Powers and Mary Bennett (Figure 8).
Figure 8: Marriage record from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Catharines, Ontario, for Patrick Powers and Mary Bennett, 27 May 1854.
This record reveals that Patrick Powers was a native of Ballyguran (sic), County Waterford in Ireland, and that his bride was a native of Newport, County Mayo, Ireland. The name “Ballyguran” suggests the townland of Ballygarran in Waterford County, and interestingly, Patrick was noted to be the son of James Powers and Catherine Walsh. Now, at present, I have no idea who these people are, or if there’s any connection between this Catherine Walsh and my Robert Walsh. Walsh is ranked 4th in most popular Irish surnames, and it would be foolhardy for me to think that every Walsh who migrated from Ireland to St. Catharines was related. That way madness lies. And yet, chain migration is a real phenomenon, and cluster research strategies could potentially be leveraged here to break through that brick wall in the absence of direct evidence for Robert Walsh’s place of birth. Perhaps it’s possible to find a link between these two families, or to study all these early church records for Walshes in St. Catharines and see if there’s a common theme or pattern in their recorded places of origin. Hope dies last.
That’s pretty much the point of looking at church records. Hope dies last, and if there’s even a 50-50 chance that the records will reveal your immigrant ancestor’s place of origin, it may be worth the extra effort it sometimes takes to obtain them. If you’ve already got abundant evidence for place of origin, and the pastor is reluctant to provide digital photos of the original parish records, perhaps you can do without them. But a good genealogist leaves no stone unturned, so if it’s at all possible, you should really take the time to examine church records. You’ve got nothing to lose, and you might even discover an ancestral village along the way.
1 Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “There Was a Little Girl,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org, accessed 21 March 2018.
2 Roman Catholic Church, Queen of Angels parish (merged from the former parishes of St. Hyacinth’s, St. Barbara’s, Our Lady of Grace, and St. Michael the Archangel), (Lackawanna, Erie, New York, USA), Records from St. Hyacinth Church, 1913, Marriages, record for Jan Kłusek and Walerya Walczak (sic), May 7, 1913.
3 Roman Catholic Church, St. Stanislaus Parish (Buffalo, Erie, New York, USA), Baptisms, 1874-1903, 1897, #620, baptismal record for Genowefa Klaus, born 28 September 1897, FamilySearch, http://familysearch.org, FHL film no.1292864/DGS no. 7897436, image 1074, accessed 21 March 2018.
4 Roman Catholic Church, Transfiguration Parish (Buffalo, New York), Deaths, 1893-1917, 1906, p. 20, #20, record for Apolonia Bogacka, accessed as browsable images, FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org,” Church records, 1893-1982,” FHL Film no. 1292859, DGS no. 7900112, image 567 of 955, accessed 21 March 2018.
5 Roman Catholic Church, Old St. Mary’s Parish (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan), Baptisms, 1856, #116, p. 219, record for Augustinus Wagner. “[Record number] 116, [date of baptism] 4 Maji, [date of birth] 3 Maji, [child’s name] Augustinus, [father and place of birth] Henricus Wagner Roßdorf ChurHessen, [mother and place of birth] Catharina Grenzinger, Steinsolz, Alsatiae, [godparents] Augustinus Wagner et Gertrudis Wagner, [residence] Detroit, [minister] P. Beranek.”
6 Roman Catholic Church, St. Adalbert’s Basilica (Buffalo, Erie, New York, USA), “Church records,” Baptisms, 1891, p. 69, record for Sophia Klaus, FamilySearch, http://familysearch.org, FHL film no.1292864/DGS no. 7897436, image 1074, accessed 21 March 2018.
7 Roman Catholic Church, St. Stephen’s parish (Middleport, Niagara, New York, USA), “Church Records, 1878-1917,” 1896, Marriages, p. 16, record for Edward Levenduski and Antonia Budzinski, 12 May 1896, FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org, FHL film no. 1378522/DGS no. 8273181, image 132, accessed 21 March 2018.
8 Roman Catholic Church, St. Boniface Parish (Buffalo, Erie, New York, USA), “Church records, 1849-1899,” Marriages 1849-1899, 1866, #22, record for Jacobus Boehringer and Theresia Fuchs, 25 October 1866, FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org, FHL Film no. 928704/DGS no. 7585930, accessed March 2018.
9 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), “Parish Registers, 1852-1910,” 1854, #88, baptismal record for Elizabeth Walsh, accessed as “Ontario, Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org: 21 March 2018), path: Lincoln County > St Catharines > Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, Marriages 1852-1860, image 28 of 104.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018