Accessing Italian Churches and Parish Records

by Shayna Nardi

    Accessing parish records was one of the challenges and goals for my recent genealogy trip to Italy. I used Ann’s video and Trafford Cole’s Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research to guide me.

    Even small Italian towns can have numerous churches, but it is usually the parish church that holds the archives of the sacraments fulfilled at all or many of a town’s churches. Searching for town names at http://www.parrocchiemap.it/ will direct users to the correct Diocese and provide contact information for still-functioning churches. Diocesan websites provide priest names and contact info (including email addresses!), which can also be confirmed by looking up churches online. Some parishes have Facebook pages only, others have websites, some town churches have separate websites, while other websites include all parishes in town; usually they all reference the head priest.

    A few months before my trip, I sent a respectful email in Italian to each priest, explaining my genealogy visit to their town on a particular date. I explained that I hoped to see inside their church(es), possibly attend a mass, and research in the parish registers or at least obtain a copy of a few of my ancestors’ sacramental records. I offered to make a donation to the church and included my ancestors’ name(s) and family tree.

    Surprisingly, I heard back from all four priests! They were eager to help and meet me, including one who gave me his cell phone so that we could arrange a research appointment time. I printed out their responses, and a few weeks beforehand, I sent a reminder email to them. Not knowing how much free access I would have and aware of the time crunch, I prepared a list of the priority records that I wanted to focus on in each town. My tree with names and birth, marriage, and death dates was especially helpful for narrowing my search and led for quick work later.

    Catholic churches aren’t always unlocked like they used to be, so my emails and just poking around ensured that 90% of the churches on my itinerary were opened specifically for me. Typically, one lead priest manages all churches in a small town now, if not multiple towns. This means that they are exceedingly occupied with parish matters.

    Indeed, I observed that the priests are more important than the mayors to the townspeople, and they are about as busy too! One priest hurried to unlock three churches for me. In another town, the church was only open for a wedding scheduled to begin 20 minutes later. The priest was preparing his sermon as we rushed in for a quick tour, just as the wedding party began arriving.

    Another head priest was working in a different town on the day of my visit, but he arranged for his assistant priests to guide me. He opened four churches for me, and in the oldest one, he happened to find the key to the basement room, where the parish records are stored. This dark, cool, damp room resulted in very moist, soft pages that even the assistant priest complained about. 

    The smallest town had the most genial and accommodating priest, but even he was busy meeting parishioners and preparing for ceremonies. Unbeknownst to me, he had enlisted the help of a local history student who had–during his spare time in the intervening months–researched through the parish records to bring some of my family branches back to the 1600s!

    During my morning there, this student pulled requested volumes from the church’s archives in the basement. Together, we (and my driver!) poured through volumes and took photos in the light of the priest’s study room/library. Nobody used or even mentioned cotton gloves, and photos were freely permitted.

    Most of the 1830s and later records that I found were neatly rebound in labeled hardcovers. They were divided into baptisms, marriages, and deaths by year. Each volume had an index, either by first or last name, but not all of the records were listed in the index. So, if an ancestor’s name didn’t appear in the volume’s index, we looked through the records by year (clearly labeled and only a few pages). All records were in Latin, usually handwritten, but a few records were typed forms where the priests handwrote in the blanks. 

Even though others helped me, I’m so used to reading old records and so familiar with my family names, that I tended to spot my ancestors’ records before my helpers. 

    My visits to many town churches and two parish archives were very successful! I obtained sacramental records for about 50 relatives! Several priests or their assistants also offered to send me photos of anything else that I needed. 

    Final note: Unless churches are famous or pilgrimage sites, most do not have books about their history or religious tokens to purchase. 

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