As a parish secretary for over 20 years, I received many genealogy requests. People seem to have expectations about the sorts of records that Catholic Churches keep. Many people think that the town of origin of their ancestors will be found in the records of churches. This is very unlikely. What Catholic Churches are required to keep are sacramental records. That means records of baptisms, marriages, first communions and confirmations.
Death records are not always kept since death is not a sacrament and when the church has a cemetery, the records are often in poor condition because sextons have a rather bad reputation of being drunkards, at least in the experience of this genealogist.
Typically, the marriage record will include the names of the couple getting married, the date it took place, the name of the witnesses and the name of celebrant. By the 1930’s, the names of parents may be included as well.
There are some exceptions; French Canadian records are far more detailed at an even earlier date. They often include parish of origin and almost always include parents and whether or not they were living or dead which is very valuable information. If the witnesses are related, it also states that so it is much easier to establish family relationships.
Italian records as well are often more detailed and may include even the grandparents.
Baptism records give the name of the child, some include both the date of birth and the date of the baptism. The mothers name is usually given with maiden name which is very valuable and the names of the godparents. Again in the French Canadian records the relationship to the child is often included such as aunt or uncle or grandparent.
First communion and confirmation records included nothing of use to genealogist except the date that the event occurred. Many times there are no parent’s names included making it difficult to be sure it is the correct person.
Do some Catholic churches have additional information? The answer is yes, there may be a parish census or records of parishioners who fought in wars or any number of things but you can’t expect and may not find anything beyond the sacramental records. Also keep in mind, that in the United States, these records were not created to be public and there is no requirement to share them with genealogists.
Some churches are not genealogist friendly. Always call ahead and ask if they have someone to do research. Do not walk in and expect everyone to drop what they are doing and research your family for you. Be sure to make a donation to the church if you expect them to do research for you.
Can Catholic Church records be of use to you as a genealogist? Yes but often the public records have more information and are easier to get to.