Skip to main content
Making sense of old handwriting

Church Registers






What are Church Records?

In many countries throughout the world, Catholic parish records were written in Latin even into the 20th century. In some countries, registers of Protestant churches, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, were also maintained in Latin. Since the keeping of records as part of the civil registration systems did not start until the 19th century, parish records constitute an invaluable source of information about individuals. These records can be divided into two categories: Non-Sacramental Records and Sacramental Records.

Sacramental Records

Since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Catholic parish priests have been required to keep records of certain sacraments in bound register books. These include records of baptisms or christenings, marriages, deaths or burials, and confirmations. Parish entries appear in two basic formats: tabular and paragraph. The tabular format generally has columns with headings in Latin with the information within the columns written in Latin, although the grammar does not always precisely follow the proper grammatical function indicated. The paragraph format generally contains more information about procedures followed and parties participating in the sacrament, although they are more challenging to read.

Although the specific requirements for keeping parish registers have changed from time to time, the formats of baptisms, marriage, and death/burial entries have stayed basically the same. This tutorial will introduce you to those formats, focusing on the specific information contained in each entry and where within the entry that information can usually be found.

Non-Sacramental Records

Parish records also include records that record other events that are not related to the sacraments of the Catholic church. These other administrative records include fraternal order books, church censuses, account books, and local history documents. While not used as often as sacramental records in family history research, they can often be a valuable source of additional information.

"Seven Sacraments Altarpiece," Triptych (right panel), Rogier van der Weyden, 1445-1450.
This image is in the public domain


Paleography Introduction