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Ontario GenWeb Project: Church Records
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Church Records

What Is It

Church Records are, in a nutshell, records kept by a church. This would cover everything from the care of the church building, the appointment of a minister or preacher, the goings-on of the parishioners, pretty much anything to do with that particular church.

Most ministers/preachers kept careful records of their church, including any baptisms, marriages or funerals they oversaw. It's mostly these records that are sought after by genealogists. But other church records (church minutes, etc) can provide other information that can give some insight into the daily lives of our ancestors.

How Do I Find It

In order to find church records, you must first know these things:

1. Your ancestor's religion

You can find this information by using census records, newspapers, the family bible, possibly even cemetery records (is your ancestor buried in a cemetery meant for the parishioners of a specific church or religion?).

Take note if there are differing religions within one family group (husband, wife, children). If a husband & wife have differing religions, look towards the wife's religion first for church records. If children have a differing religion than a parent, look towards the children's religion first.

If your ancestor is listed as having no religion, don't despair! Look at other records and see if any mention a religion, check their spouse to see if they had a religion prior to marriage. Look at their siblings & parents - what religion are they? Ethnicity may provide a clue. If your ancestor was British there's a great chance of him/her being Anglican; if German or Scandinavian look to the Lutheran or Mennonite Church; if Irish or French look to the Catholic Church. Prior residence is yet another clue - many immigrants who came to Ontario from the USA (esp in the early 1800's) were Methodist.

2. Where your ancestor lived

With the exception of the Church of England (funded by the British Crown until 1815), the responsibility of building and maintaining each church fell to the parishioners. If a population of a certain religion wanted a church of their own, they would have to raise the funds themselves. Places with larger and more settled populations were usually the first to establish churches.

Parish boundaries are also a factor - if there was more than one parish in one area your ancestor may have had to attend the parish that covered the area where they lived even if the other parish was closer (it would depend where the boundary lie - much like today's school districts). Take care to note that boundaries changed over the years, if your ancestor disappears from the records of one church, check nearby parishes.

If your ancestor was an early settler in the area, you may even be lucky enough to find a notation in a local history source that he donated the land for the church. In any case, local history books can tell you what churches existed and when they were built, and sometimes they even give lists of early members.

3. When your ancestor lived

When Ontario became a British colony in 1763, it was hoped by the governing entity that it would become an Anglican population. Until the 1790's only the Anglican church was recognized. It was then that the government started allowing other religions to perform religious ceremonies. If your ancestor lived during this period and you can't find church records from their religion, look towards the Anglican church.

4. The denomination(s) of their local church(s)

Find out what churchs were within a day's travel of your ancestor's home. If your ancestor lived in or near a settled area with a large population they may have been lucky enough to attend a church of their own religion. If your ancestor lived too far away from a church of their religion they might have used the services of the nearest church even if it wasn't their religion (it's more likely they used the services of a travelling minister).

Your ancestor may have used a church of another religion for other reasons as well - In the early days of Ontario very few religions had the right to perform marriages (see marriage records for more information). If your ancestor wanted a marriage that was legally recognized they would need to be married by a justice of the peace or under a religion that was allowed to perform marriage. Also, some churches charged a fee for some services. One of my ancestors was Catholic but had their children baptised in a Presbyterian church because it was free (had they used their regular Catholic church there would have been a fee).

5. If the area your ancestor lived was serviced by a travelling minister, and which denomination

For areas without churchs, areas without churchs of your ancestor's religion, or if your ancestor moved there before a church was built, settlers relied upon circuit ministers. These ministers would travel from town to town performing needed religious ceremonies (baptisms, marriages, burials). They would make note of what ceremonies they performed and once their book was full would send it to their church headquarters. Check newspapers to see when ministers would be visiting your ancestor's area, and their denomination. Then check the archives of that denomination.

How Do I Use It

As church records offer many different kinds of information they can be used in different ways.

  • Baptisms - Can be used to establish parentage. Most baptismal records give the names of both parents. They can also be used to establish that a person was living at the time of baptism (for instance William was baptised 31 Oct 1803, therefore he was born on or prior to 31 Oct 1803), but should NOT be used to establish a birth date! Many baptisms took place months or years after a birth, and it wasn't uncommon for an entire family to be baptised at the same time. Baptism merely means that your ancestor became a member of that church and that a ceremony was performed welcoming them into the fold. If your ancestor lived in more than one place be sure to check for baptisms in each area they lived. People were not always baptised where they were born.

  • Marriages - Can also be used to establish parentage as well as a date of marriage. Pay attention to witnesses as possible relatives. Often siblings or cousins acted as witnesses. However, don't jump to any conclusions that because so and so was a witness, he MUST be a relative - just keep it in mind as a possibility.

  • Burials - Can be used to establish date and place of burial, usually in the church yard cemetery. Unfortunately burial registers are few and far between.

  • Other records - Can be used to establish who was part of the church. They may mention community events, fund raising efforts, etc that can be used to create a history of the area and time period in which your ancestor lived. Depending upon the information offered you may also be able to use other church records to establish family relationships (is there an "unknown" family with your ancestor's surname attending the same church?).

    What Does It Offer

  • Baptisms - Usually the date of baptism, minister who performed it, parents, godparents. May also include date and place of birth.

  • Marriages - Names of bride & groom and their parents, minister, and witnesses. If the church your ancestor attended does not have marriage registers, or the registers have been lost, look for the church minutes they may mention a marriage.

  • Burials - Name of deceased, date of burial, minister. Burial registers are very rare, they were usually not part of official church records.

  • Funerals - Name of deceased, date of funeral, minister, perhaps names of those attending the funeral

  • Church Minutes - Vary from church to church, but were usually a summary of church board meetings - who attended, what was discussed. Some church minutes may also refer to births, marriages or deaths, as well as community events, social issues, and reprimands for those who did not follow church rules (did your ancestor commit the offence of wearing inappropriate clothing? It may be mentioned in the minutes)

  • Membership Lists / Communion Rolls - Names of those who attended the church, possibly when they joined or left

  • Clergy Lists - Names of the ministers or preachers who presided at the church

  • Bulletins, Newspapers, Newsletters - Some churches released publications to keep their widespread flock up-to-date. Items mentioned may include births, marriages, deaths, profiles of prominent church members, mention of new parishioners, new ministers, and more.

  • Communions or Confirmations - Vary from church to church, some have the names of those being confirmed or taking communion, others have only the number of people partaking in the ceremony and the name of the presiding clergy.

  • Financial Records - Vary from church to church, might include costs of maintenance, costs of additions, amounts collected through donations, names of those who donated funds, fundraising efforts. Some churches would raise funds by 'selling' pews to parishioners, others would maintain their church by having parishioners donate money to buy specific items and then dedicate them in their honour (a new window for instance).

    What Does It Look Like

    The examples below show two different types of registrations. The example on the left is from 1887. It has six registrations per page. The examples in the middle and on the right are from 1899. These registrations are in list form, two pages wide, and had room for twenty-eight registrations per double page. The example in the middle is page one, the example on the right is the continuation. By clicking on the examples you will see a larger version with one registration highlighted.

    Marriage Register (Anglican)
    Burial Register

    If you have an Ontario church record that is different from these examples, please consider sending it in to be included as an example.

    Where Can I Find It

    Some church records are still with the original church (if it still exists), others have been sent to the church archives for safe keeping, and some, unfortunately, have been lost or destroyed. There's no central list of what survived and where it can be found, so the only way you'll know if church records exist for your ancestor's church is to search for them.

    Start with the church itself. Does it still exist? If yes, contact them and ask where their records are and if you can access them. If no, or you don't know where to find the church, check the Church Archives (see below).

    Check with genealogy groups and societies that cover the area where the church existed. Perhaps they know where records may be - write and ask (be sure to include IRC's and SAE).

    Check existing churches (of the same religion) in the area where your ancestor's church was located - perhaps the current minister or preacher will know where the records of your ancestor church are located.

    Check the Archives and Family History Center. Many church records have been microfilmed and are now available for loan from the National Archives of Canada (now Library & Archives Canada), the Archives of Ontario, and the LDS Family History Center. There are church archives but they were created for the use of the church, most are not equipped to handle genealogical enquiries.

    Check the library and booksellers. Some church records have been published in book form. Plus some published newspapers that are available in book or microfilm form.

    Keep in mind:

  • If your ancestor was Methodist or Congregational you should be looking at the United Church for records. In 1925 the United Church was created from the joining of the Methodist Church, Congregational Church, and most Presbyterian churches.
  • In early Ontario the Anglican church performed most baptisms and marriages - if you're seeking church records prior to the mid 1800's check the Anglican records regardless of your ancestor's religion.
  • If your ancestor used the services of a circuit minister, the records may not be located in the area where your ancestor lived. Some of the circuits were quite large.
  • When contacting a church remember that the clergy are not there to do genealogy research. Inquire about their holdings and their policy regarding family history (do they allow visitors to look at the records, hours of operations, fees, etc) and enclose an SAE and IRC's. Do not request any research to be done on your behalf. If a church responds that the records you seek are at the church, consider hiring a local researcher or plan a visit around the church's hours of operation.

    Is It Online?

    Finding Ontario church records online is hit or miss. There isn't an organized effort to bring any of these records online. Where there are church records online they're usually birth, marriage, or death records (see birth records, marriage records, and death records for links).

    Alternate Resources

  • Birth Records
  • Marriage Records
  • Death Records
  • Cemetery Records
  • City Directories

    Related Material

  • Religion In Ontario
  • Questions & Answers
  • Books
  • Links
  • Birth Records
        Adoption In Ontario
    Census Records
    Church Records
        Religion In Ontario
    Citizenship/Naturalization Records
    Court Records
    Death Records
        Cemetery Records
        Funeral Records
    Emigration Records
        To the Red River Valley
        Migration: Out of Ontario
    Immigration Records
        Grosse Île
        Migration: Into Ontario
        Ships Lists
        Petworth Emigration Scheme
        WANTED: Settlers
    Land Records
    Marriage Records
    Military Records
        Military Actions
        UE Loyalists: What? Who Were They?
        Black History
        Mental Health Records
        How Gender Influences Work on Wolfe Island, Frontenac Co. Ontario
        Languages In Ontario
        Ontario Newspapers: Past and Present
        Ten Ontario Research Tips

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