More Canada Church Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Religious Records  by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Other Records: Beyond The Birth, Marriage And Death Records[edit | edit source]

Baptismal, marriage and burial records, which can, if we are lucky, fill in the basic three dates which genealogists search for regarding individuals. However, there are many other church records which contain materials which can be of great value to the genealogist, and some of them can even point to one of the BMD dates which we want so much. While others may not supply a date, they can provide irreplaceable background information which will assist the genealogist in establishing a picture of the ancestor who was previously completely unknown, or add to the picture we already have of other people in the family.

Minutes of Annual or Business Meetings[edit | edit source]

The most extensive records in many churches are the annual meeting minutes, called vestry, synod or session minutes in some churches, or with other names. These are the records of the basic business matters of the church, but they contain many references to individuals who would be asked to do work, who contributed materials or services, who raised issues or made motions. Your ancestor may be among them. One of the best things about these records is that they are usually well-kept and tend to survive.

The reading of minutes is a dry business, and, especially in the case of more modern versions, can be deadly dull. Nineteenth century minutes are often more informative and colourful. In certain denominations, the minutes or accounts of meetings may have more significance than merely the transaction of business. In the case of Canadian Baptists, their theological beliefs meant that they did not keep the BMD records which we love so much until 1896, when they began to keep marriage records. The business meetings are pretty much all that we have.

For at least two denominations, however, there is an even greater reason for spending time reading the minutes. For Quakers, meetings were the most important and basic records of their religion, and the most important things they did are mentioned there. For Presbyterians, the sense of the kirk as a community was paramount, with each member feeling some responsibility for his neighbour. Now, some of us may simply view this as the chance for people to tattle on their neighbour or to try to control others’ behaviour. That is not important from a genealogical point of view. The important thing about the session records in the Presbyterian church is that virtually anyone’s name could come up for discussion, and often did. Whatever points would be made about this person would be recorded (and we must not forget that your ancestor may be the one complaining or the one appointed to look into the matter).

Very often two or three senior persons, usually men, would be asked to go and look into the infractions and discuss them with the person concerned. They might be asked for an undertaking to improve their behaviour, with the alternative being the possibility of censure or even expulsion from the kirk.

The aftermath of the visit may also be recorded in the next session’s minutes. Human nature being what it is, it is possible that the matter might drag on over several meetings or several months.

You might wonder what sort of incidents are recorded. I need hardly tell you that the usual problems with drunkenness or sexual license are prominent, but sometimes there are other glimpses into our family’s past.

From the session minutes of the Presbyterian Church in Rockwood, Ontario, in the 1870s comes a good example. A middle-aged widow had three teenage sons. Like boys everywhere, they decided to skip church and go fishing on a Sunday. In the ensuing discussion, the mother is criticized for her lack of attendance herself, and someone observes that her boys are not sufficiently under her control. Two men are appointed to go and talk to her—and them. I expect even the most defiant teenager would have wilted under the scrutiny of two stern Presbyterian elders at that period.

Unfortunately we do not know the outcome, but since the names are given, if you are related to these people you will have a story for the family history. And I like to think it is a good thing too, for these wild teenagers of the 1870s probably grew up to be sober and upstanding grandparents of the 1920s. It is always good to discover that your serious grandparent sowed some wild oats in his youth.

Session minutes have the same attractions as reading old newspapers: it is a long and sometimes tiring job, but the visions of a past life we receive make it worthwhile.

This extract from the minutes of a Methodist church in Ingersoll, Ontario, includes a motion that two women in the church have their pew rent remitted and they be allowed pews rent free for six months. It is an unusual notion for us that anyone had to pay for a place to sit in church, but of course it was both a status symbol in the more class-conscious 19th century and a fund raiser for the church.

Both these women, Mrs. Barr and Mrs. Hearn, were probably down on their luck and could not afford the pew rent at this time. Rather than banish them to the public pews the trustees are waiving the fee. Widows in the 19th century often had a hard time financially and this might be an indication for Mrs. Barr’s and Mrs. Hearn’s descendants that this was true for them.

Canada Methodist Church Minutes.jpg

The second extract from the minutes of the Methodist church in Ingersoll, is more dramatic. There has obviously been some difficulty in the choir and the leader, Mr. Galloway, may be replaced by John Andrews, who has set down some conditions for his leadership.

The trustees are very clear. “After an almost unanimous disapproval” of Andrews’ suggestion, they express (formally in a motion) their confidence in Mr. Galloway and their hope he will continue. Anyone connected with either Andrews or Galloway will find this interesting, but also if your relations sang in the choir there is a small glimpse into their lives here also.

Canada, Ingersoll, Methodist Church Minutes.jpg

Reading through many pages of these minutes is made easier by the fine handwriting, and a sense of human interest and curiosity are valuable in recognizing which motions or events will be helpful or useful in a family history. A good rule of thumb when deciding whether to record an extract or pass it over is ‘when in doubt, write it down.’ Many things which seem marginal at first take on new significance as your family history progresses, and as you gain in experience over the years of researching.

Facing years of minutes or synod journals may be daunting, but there may be guides, aids or handbooks to those in a church archives which will help you choose which volumes to examine. Anyone working in central New Brunswick’s Anglican records will find Gillian Liebenberg’s Guide to the Use of the Synod Journals of the Diocese of Fredericton (1995) invaluable, both because of her analysis of the history of the diocese but also because of her bibliographical references.

Financial Records[edit | edit source]

Secondly there are financial records. These will include information on the fiscal health of the church, but for genealogical purposes the interesting parts are those which list individuals’ offerings. A picture of your ancestor’s monetary status can emerge from these, in much the same way as it can from the agricultural census, or local assessment and tax records.

Yearbooks[edit | edit source]

Many large or urban churches produced yearbooks which include a copy of the church constitution, reports of activities and financial reports. Very often these include printed versions of the records of individual givings, with names, addresses and amounts. They can be accessed more easily than the handwritten versions of the same. For instance, the Allen County Public Library (with a genealogy collection second only to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City) in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has a long run of these printed yearbooks for the Presbyterian Church in Orillia, Ontario.

Canada Church Year Book.jpg

It may seem unusual to us that something now considered as private as church givings would be published publicly. This record, which dates from as recently as 1957, shows that attitudes were different in the past. By finding our relatives on this list we could determine how much they gave, and compare it to others; by going through several years of these annual reports, we could see if their givings remained constant or changed. This might be an indication of their financial fortunes during this time, and would be interesting for the family history.

The accounts are very general and provide information which may not appeal to you as being worth the effort required to plough through the masses of information. As you progress in your genealogy and become more particular, you may well decide to come back to them. Other lists might very well be more rewarding.

Regional or Association Reports[edit | edit source]

Another location for financial records in some denominations is a regional or association report.

An example is from the Twenty-second Report of the Executive Committee of the Diocesan Church Society of Nova Scotia, 1859 and concerns the givings at various Anglican churches. Persons or families are listed with the total of their givings, in some cases very small amounts which is all people could afford. It is interesting that sterling was still being used at this period rather than dollars.

Canada Anglican Church Committee Report.jpg

Confirmations[edit | edit source]

If you are having trouble with locating the baptism of your ancestor, try looking in the local church for a confirmation record. This assumes, of course, that your ancestor’s religion had confirmation (Lutherans and Anglicans do; Roman Catholics call this ‘first communion’).

Confirmation was seen as the step beyond baptism in affirming church membership. In infant baptism, as we know, the parents or sponsors spoke for the small child in making vows about living a Christian life and following the teachings of the denomination. At a time when the young person was felt to be old enough to make their own public statement, they were asked to confirm the vows made at the font on their behalf. As John Humphrey puts it, “Confirmation is seen as the completion of baptism.”

The confirmation ceremony was often conducted by a bishop, who would lay hands on the candidate’s head and indicate that they were now fully fledged adult members of the church. Confirmation was often a prelude to the commencement of full participation in the Eucharist.

If you can find your ancestor in a confirmation record, you may not be able to establish an exact age, but you can made an educated guess based on the usual age of confirmation for that church in that era. It was usual for children to be confirmed at an age which every era thought appropriate, but the age has varied considerably over the years, according to the view of children and their ability to make judgments. For example, in the Victorian era confirmation often waited until the age of sixteen or so, and in fact was linked to puberty (which occurred later in those days than now). It has become younger as time went on. Also, in more recent times children have begun to participate in the Eucharist before confirmation, and researchers who are used to this practice should not be confused. This was not usual in past times.

In addition, the age of confirmation and first communion varied from denomination to denomination, and may have done so even in different geographical areas, if the presiding bishop had unorthodox ideas.

To discover the usual age of confirmation at any period in the church which interests you, ask the denominational archivist, who is sure to have some idea of church practices in other times.

The discovery of a relation’s name on a list of confirmands also locates the family in the area at that time.

The confirmation list from St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Berlin (Kitchener), Ontario from 1904, is very informative. The child’s name is given, with father’s name, birthdate and place, day of confirmation and place of baptism. The birth information is especially useful if this was lacking earlier. The day of confirmation, Palm Sunday, is a traditional day for the event (as Easter Eve is for baptism). We can see from this list that 14 is a traditional age at this time for confirmation. Most of the children listed are born in late 1889 or early 1890.

Canada Lutheran Church Confirmation Register.jpg

Membership Lists[edit | edit source]

Most churches maintained some sort of membership listing, if for no other reason than to keep track of the size of the congregation. This list also determined who was eligible to vote at congregational meetings, or who might participate in certain sacraments. Membership records take different forms: a straightforward list, a contributors list, a communion register.

The communion register is particularly useful, because it states exactly who was present at a eucharistic event on a specific date in the church. If your ancestor is listed, you can be sure he was in the area on that date. If one of the questions you have been asking concerns when your family arrived in the town, the communion register can assist you in narrowing the gap. In the era before the formal organization of a Lutheran church in Berlin, Ontario, occasional eucharistic services were held by a traveling missionary in a local barn. The town clerk kept track of the attendance, and the resulting communion lists are the earliest church records in the area, invaluable for dating the arrival of the first Lutherans in the county.

The other side of that coin lies in trying to determine when a family left an area, and here again membership records can help. It could be that the family prepared for their departure by notifying the church authorities and asking for a document which would attest to their membership in good standing, which they would present to the clergy in their next place of residence. They might also make their move, establish themselves in a church community and then write for the letter transferring their membership. This would ensure that they would be accepted into the new church and allowed the privileges of communion and other sacraments, a matter of some considerable concern at a time when, for example, some clergy would not marry a couple in church unless they had assurances of their good character.

Virtually all denominations had some version of this document, which recorded the arrival and departure of someone in the congregation. The Quakers called them certificates of removal; the Episcopalians in the US, letters of transfer; the Baptists, letters of admission; the Congregationalists, dismission; the Latter-day Saints, certificates of memberships. If your ancestor left that particular church under a cloud, there might even be a record of excommunication; while this is not pleasant to find, it will provide a little colour for the family history. As with so many church records, the details for all of these removal documents are often incomplete, but you should still look at them for possible information on your family.

One very significant use of these membership lists, which most genealogists ignore, is that they can be clues to where people went. Sometimes they are the only clue. Arrivals may say where their previous membership was held. In the section of the document which lists people who have departed, the name or place of the church may be given. If you have lost someone, looking at their church’s membership lists may provide you with the place of disappearance!

Canada Prebyterian Communicant List.jpg

This example from Grand View Presbyterian Church in Manitoba provides a great deal of information. Mary Blakley (in the middle of the page, stroked out) has the following notations by her name: ‘left’, number 29, not got certif., C, for certificate, at communion on 3/04, gone to Roblin, got certificate. From this we can learn that Mary was number 29 on the membership roll of the church and was admitted by certificate from her previous church. She was present at communion in March of 1904, but later moved to Roblin. She obtained a certificate for transferring her membership to a church there.

Canada Presbyterian Communicant List 1900s.jpg

There are two other Blakleys on the list, right above Mary. Robert Blakley, a caretaker, came to membership by profession, meaning he had been a member of a church elsewhere, or could not prove it anyway. There is no more information about him; he was not at communion in March or October 1904 or June 1905, when others on that page are noted. Rachel Blakley also came to Grand View church by certificate, and was present at communion in March and October of 1904. This may indicate that while Mary left for Roblin during that year, Rachel stayed behind. She was not at communion in June of 1905, however. There is no notation about her departure save the single word ‘left’.

The hard facts which we have learned from this is that the family were present in 1904 in Grand View, all three of them for at least part of the time, and Mary moved to Roblin. Since she obtained a certificate, it would be worthwhile searching church records in Roblin to find her.

The listing under the Blakleys is for Mr. and Mrs. Albert Kydd. Mr. Kydd is a student who made his first communion on 6 March 1904 after a profession of faith. Mrs. Kydd is listed as ‘to Winnipeg, not got certificate’ as is the person next after her, Mrs. William Rawson. The handwriting and writing instrument (a pencil) are the same, which may be evidence that Mrs. Kydd and Mrs. Rawson are linked in some way. Since they did not obtain a certificate for transferring to a new church, it may be difficult to find them, and of course Winnipeg is a large city with many churches.

These seemingly bare and uninformative pages in fact contain a great deal of information if they are studied and interpreted properly.

Records of Subgroups or Other Organizations[edit | edit source]

Aside from these principal kinds of records, most churches also had smaller groups which would generate records of their own: women’s groups, men’s groups, children’s groups, Sunday Schools, committees of various kinds. There might also be limited records (limited by time) of specific monetary appeals or activities.

In the printed records for the Boston Church, Esquesing, Ontario, there is a list of those who contributed money for the raising of a fence for the church grounds (see example in at included at the end of the course material). This is followed by a listing of persons subscribing to a fund for the buying of land for the church, and then by a list of pew owners in the original church. In the past, people had specific pews on which they sat, and which they paid for. There were general pews at the back and sides for the poor and visitors.

The value of these records is to locate a person in the town at a particular time, and also to give some record of their religious views and financial state.

Boston Church, Esquesing, Ontario[edit | edit source]

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Parish Census[edit | edit source]

In many Roman Catholic parishes, it was the habit for the priest to make a list of the persons who belonged there. These censuses are sometimes confused with governmental documents, but they should not be, they are church records. In the case of Québec parishes, it is sometimes difficult to discriminate between the two, because everyone in the village is Catholic and belongs to the parish church. Nonetheless, these are church documents.

Many of these parish census’ have been published along with the BMD registers, and if so, they are very useful, because they portray family groups in the same way that government census’ do, and so can provide us with a family structure. Here is an example from Recensement de la paroisse Saint-Sévère, 1891, transcribed by Brigitte Hamel (1989):

Family 131

Trahan, Louis
48 p
Gelinas, Elzier
50 m

Trahan, Anna
20 e

17 e

11 e

5  e

15 a

The names and ages are obvious, and the father’s occupation is farmer. The relationships in the family are also given: p (father), m (mother), e (child), a (other—Eusèbe is not a child of the family).

Do not be confused by some libraries’ misunderstanding of these parish census records. Some of them, including Library and Archives Canada, catalogue them as if they were civil censuses. They are not; they are religious records.

A similar sort of register, but much more extensive and, admittedly, quite rare, is the Gemeinde Buch or congregational book kept in some Mennonite communities. If you find relatives listed in these, you will find a goldmine of concentrated genealogical information.

The Reinländer Gemeinde Buch, 1880-1903, Manitoba Canada[1] gives information about the Mennonite Church in Reinland, Manitoba, and families which later migrated to begin similar colonies in Hague and Swift Current (both Saskatchewan) later. After difficulties with the government, many members went to live in Mexico.

The listings, which the editors state are meant to reproduce the original register, are similar to family group sheets. They list parents and children, with the parents’ parents (and cross references to where these can be found in the book). For each individual you can find dates of birth, baptism (Mennonites practice believers’ baptism), death and marriage. The spouses of the children are listed, with cross references to their pages also.

This is an extraordinary document, but only possible where there is a great homogeneity of persons listed. These people tended not to move around too much, and to marry within the community.

Lutheran records in Germany were often organized by family also, with the records of all members of one family including two or three generations on a single page of the register. This habit was not continued in Canada because there was not the same unity of character in the communities here.

Notes and Remarks[edit | edit source]

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of searching in original church records is to encounter the asides made by record-keepers, perhaps concerning the persons they are marrying, burying or christening, about the weather or other local situations. These remarks may well concern one of your ancestors and might provide some glimpse into their life.

At the beginning of his work on these remarks taken from the early registers of New France (Québec), A travers les régistres,[2] Cyprien Tanguay tells us that the great forces of history have been clearly outlined, but there are many details to be found. He regards these gems of information as of both great interest and importance.

He begins by mentioning, from very early Québec registers, accounts of massacres at Lac-Saint-Louis in 1687 and at Lachine in 1689.

From a later period (24 June 1745) he notes in the register of Québec the christening of twins of Jean-Baptiste Dubé and Marie-Anne Rasset. They brought two further sets of twins for baptism, on 15 March 1751 and 11 January 1754.

Tanguay himself notes that the couple were married in 1737 and Jean-Baptiste died in 1780 aged 70 and his wife in 1797 aged 80. He comments, “She gave birth to nineteen children. A large family is not always the cause of premature death.”

In the register of Longueuil for 3 March 1757, Tanguay finds the burial notice of Joseph Lavallée. It states that he was a native of Ile d’Orléans and worked for Sieur Ganier and was found frozen. This is a gem for anyone related to Joseph.

Many of these extra bits of information (annotations marginales) have been transcribed and included in the published registers of Québec parishes.

Not only Roman Catholic registers have these notes, although few of the published versions of Protestant registers include the comments. It is another reason for being sure we look at the originals in every case.

Here is an interesting Anglican example.[3] When Rebecca Jenkin and William Martin were married in 1770, the priest noted that they were both from a neighbouring village but came to him to be married ‘while the church was rebuilding.’ This marriage had been difficult to find, but the priest’s note explained all; investigation showed that the church in their village had been struck by lightning and the tower collapsed. The building was unusable during construction, and so the couple had to go to a nearby village for their wedding. A financial record of the building fund shows that Mrs. Jenkin had contributed to the rebuilding before her wedding. These few words in the margin of the register provide us with a paragraph in our family history.

A similar item to this are diaries or journals kept by clergy which give insight into the lives of their parishioners. These may be in the church archives or, with any luck, published in book form. One of the finest Canadian examples of this is Interesting notes and comments from the diary of Rev. John MacDonald: Catholic priest for 14 years (c. 1823-1837) at the town of Perth, military settlement founded in 1816 during the reign of George III: historic capital of the district of Bathurst, 1822-1842, edited by Darby MacDonald in two volumes (1985-1988). If the clergyman was frank and open in his journal keeping, genealogists will be in for a treat.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Edited by John Dyck and William Harms, published by the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1994.
  2. Montreal: Librairie Saint-Joseph, 1886
  3. This is an English example.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Religious Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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