Roman Catholic Church in the United States

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History in the United States[edit | edit source]

Holy Cross Basilica
Saint Louis, Missouri
  • With 23% of the United States population as of 2018, the Catholic Church is the country's second largest religious grouping, after Protestantism, and the country's largest Church or religious denomination.
  • In the colonial era, the Spanish established missions that had permanent results in New Mexico and California (Spanish missions in California). The French set up Catholic villages in the Mississippi River region, notably, St. Louis and New Orleans. Some English Catholics settled in Maryland. In 1789 the Archdiocese of Baltimore was the first diocese in the newly independent nation.
  • In the mid-19th century there was political anti-Catholicism in the United States, sponsored by pietistic Protestants fearful of the pope. In the 20th century anti-Catholicism seldom appeared.
  • The number of Catholics grew rapidly in the 19th century, through high fertility and immigration, especially from Ireland, Germany, and after 1880, Eastern Europe and Italy. Large scale Catholic immigration from Mexico began after 1910 and in 2019 Latinos comprise 37 percent of American Catholics. By 1900 it was the largest denomination.
  • Parishes set up parochial schools, and over a hundred Jesuit and other colleges were established. Nuns were very active in teaching and hospital work.
  • Since 1960 the percentage of Americans who are Catholic has fallen slowly from about 25% to 22%. However, in absolute numbers, Catholics have increased from 45 million to 72 million. Source: Wikipedia

Finding Records[edit | edit source]

Look for online records.[edit | edit source]

Some records have been digitized and posted online, where they are easily searched. More are being added all the time. Partner websites such as Ancestry.com, FindMyPast, MyHeritage, and American Ancestors can be searched free-of-charge at any Family History Center.

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Online databases are incomplete. This can lead to two common errors:

  1. Near matches: Researchers might mistakenly accept an entry very similar to their ancestor, thinking it is the only one available "so it must be mine". Only use information that matches your ancestor in date, place, other relationships, and details.
  2. Stopping research: Researchers might assume the database proves church records do not exist. Actually the record is still out there, just not in this incomplete collection of records. Keep searching!
This database only contains the French Catholic parish records from the United States:
  • It covers the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania.
  • The types of records include baptisms, marriages, and burials as well as confirmations, dispensations, censuses, statements of readmission to the church, and so on.
  • They are written mainly in French, as well as English, Latin, and Italian.
"Images of Boston's oldest parish records, including those from Holy Cross Cathedral and Holy Trinity, are available immediately to browse, which means you can view the records online but can't yet search records by name (searchable records will be available at a later date). However, if you know the parish and rough years of the name you are looking for, you may be able to find it using our index. Locating records in this unique collection varies slightly from volume to volume and parish to parish. The “Index” at the beginning of each volume can help a researcher know where to start to find a name in the volume. Additional parishes will be made available as we complete them."
  • Requires membership in AmericanAncestors.com. American Ancestors.com can be searched free-of-charge at any Family History Center.
  • Requires membership in FindMyPast.com. FindMyPast.com can be searched free-of-charge at any Family History Center.

Look for digital copies of church records listed in the FamilySearch Catalog.[edit | edit source]

Family History Library
Salt Lake City, Utah
  • There are many entries of Catholic church records listed in the FamilySearch Catalog:
  • Online church records can be listed in the FamilySearch Catalog state-wide, county-wide, or for a town.
  • If you find a record that has not yet been digitized, see How do I request that a microfilm be digitized?
  • Some records might have viewing restrictions, and can only be viewed at a Family History Center near you, and/or by members of supporting organizations.


  • To find records statewide records:
a. Enter your state name in the "Place" search field of FamilySearch Catalog. You will see a list of topics and, at the top, the phrase "Places within United States, [STATE]".
b. Click on "Church records" in the topic list. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
  • To find county-wide records:
c. From the original page, click on Places within United States, [STATE] and a list of counties will appear.
d. Click on your county.
e. Click on the "Church records" topic. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
  • To find town records:
f. From the list of counties, click on Places within United States, [STATE], [COUNTY] and a list of towns will appear.
g. Click on your town if it appears, or the location which you believe was the parish which served your town or village.
h. Click on the "Church records" topic. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
i. Some combination of these icons will appear at the far right of the listing for the record. FHL icons.png. The magnifying glass indicates that the record is indexed. Clicking on the magnifying glass will take you to the index. Clicking on the camera will take you to an online digital copy of the records.

Correspond with or visit the actual churches.[edit | edit source]

Records of most parishes are kept in the individual parishes. Records for defunct parishes are in diocese offices. Contact the current minister to find out what records are still available.

  • Make an appointment to look at the records. Or ask the minister of the church to make a copy of the record for you.
  • To find church staff available, you might have to visit on Sunday.
  • Ask for small searches at a time, such as one birth record or a specific marriage. Never ask for "everything on a family or surname".
  • A donation ($25-$40) for their time and effort to help you would be appropriate.
  • If the church has a website, you may be able to e-mail a message.
  • See the Letter Writing Guide for Genealogy for help with composing letters.

Address lists:

Check the church records collections in archives and libraries.[edit | edit source]

Some church records have been deposited for preservation in government archives or in libraries. Watch for links to digitized, online records offered by the archives. Some archives provide research services for a fee. For others, if you cannot visit in person, you might hire a researcher.

For cemetery records, contact the diocese or archdiocese:



For older North American church records kept by priests of the Order of the Holy Cross

  • Holy Cross Provincial Archives
    P.O. Box 568
    South Bend, IN 46556
    Telephone: 219-631-5371

Information in Records[edit | edit source]

  • Baptism records: includes date of baptism and birth, parents names including the mother's maiden name, parish where the family is residing, legitimacy of the child, godparents names.
  • Confirmation records: in most cases about the age of 13 or 14, but also known to be at the age of 7.
  • Marriage records: includes date and place of marriage, names of the bride and groom, names of both sets of parents, including the mother's maiden name.
  • Death and burial records: includes name of the deceased and date of death and burial. Often includes the names of surviving spouse or parents, cause of death and age at death.
  • Cemetery records: includes name of deceased, date of death, burial date and place, sometimes age and cause of death. These are kept at the diocese level archives.

Reading Latin Records[edit | edit source]

Some records will be written in Latin. They are easy to translate because they only use a few Latin words/ Y/ou do not have to be fluent in Latin. The vocabulary you need will be found in the Latin Word List.

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]


Carefully compare any record you find to known facts about the ancestor[edit | edit source]

You will possibly find many different people with the same name as your ancestor, especially when a family stayed in a locality for several generations, and several children were named after the grandparents or aunts and uncles. Be prepared to find the correct church records by gathering in advance as many of these exact details about the ancestor as possible:

  • name, including middle name and maiden name
  • names of all spouses, including middle and maiden name
  • exact or closely estimated dates of birth, marriage, and death
  • names and approximate birthdates of children
  • all known places of residence
  • occupations
  • military service details


Dark thin font green pin Version 4.pngCarefully evaluate the church records you find to make sure you have really found records for your ancestor and not just a "near match". If one or more of the details do not line up, be careful about accepting the entry as your ancestor. There are guiding principles for deciding how to resolve discrepancies between records that are seemingly close. For more instruction in evaluating evidence, read the Wiki article, Evaluate the Evidence.