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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - June/July 2005
Locating Records For Lost Churches


Church records play a significant role in genealogical research.  Prior to the implementation of laws mandating civil responsibility for civil record keeping in the mid to late 1800's, depending on the locality or region, church records were the primary source for locating information about their ancestors.  Locating parish or congregational records when the church no longer exists presents a significant challenge.  The options listed below may make this process easier.

Check resource books such as Ancestry's Red Book which covers church records under each individual state listing.  Some local or state genealogical societies have also published works of a similar nature for their specific locality or region of coverage.  Never underestimate the value of potential services offered by these societies.

Every religious denominations maintains some level of record keeping in local, state, or regional l depositories.  The Roman Catholic Church has at least one diocesan repository in all 50 states.  Some states such as California and Texas have 12 and 14 respectively.  The book, U.S. Catholic Sources, written by Virginia Humling, lists all diocesan offices, their addresses, phone numbers, geographic areas of coverage, what records or collections are held, and guidelines for access.

Protestant denominations such as the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and the Mormons tend to have repositories organized in a similar format to the Roman Catholic Church.  Other denominations such as the Baptists, Assemblies of God, Church of God, and other Pentecostal groups are usually organized in a congregational method.  Researchers tracking Jewish ancestors may encounter elements of both types of record keeping practices.  In general terms, many records are still in the area churches or synagogues.  Records from closed or defunct churches or synagoges are often stored in a regional church or synagogue archives or a nearby congregation of the same or similar denomination.  When in doubt, contact the pastor or rabbi of the largest church or synagogue of the same denomination as your ancestor in the community where your search is being conducted.

Many religious denominations operate their own colleges or seminary schools. Investigate the holdings of any academic libraries operated by the same religious denomination as the defunct or closed church.  If you discover an academic religious collection operating within 100 miles of a closed or defunct church, contact the library for information on their holdings.  Most academic, public, and seminary library collections can be searched over the Internet.  Once you access the home page for the institution, look for the icon for the library or information resource center.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City is another excellent source for tracking down church records regardless of the denomination.  Researchers may search holdings via the Family Search website http://www.familysearch.org or by visiting their nearest Family History Library branch.

The Works Project Administration (WPA) created some inventories of church records from the early 1900's.  Check your state archives to determine if the records for that state were inventoried and where the lists are currently kept.  The information in these WPA inventories does not include names or records for individuals.  They are indexes or inventories as to what churches had records and where the records were at the time of the inventory.

Bryan L. Mulcahy
Reference Librarian
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL  33901-3917
Tel: (239)- 479-4651
Fax: (239)- 479-4634


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