Looking at Marriage Records

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Wedding Picture

February is the month of love – Valentine’s Day – so we are taking a look at marriage records – using Catholic records as an example to show the significant role of these documents in genealogy research.

The Catholic Church mandated that marriage records be kept after the 1563 Council of Trent, which decreed that each parish should keep records on baptism, marriage and death for their parishioners.  These records can contain valuable genealogical data linking together many generations. Each marriage record lists the names of the couple, their places of residence, along with each of their parents and their places of residence. It is possible to jump from one generation to the next using marriage records on their own, as they all tie together. Of course, the problem is whether you can find those records – a topic for another post – but when they are available over many decades, they are perfect for providing essential information which can lead to other parish and diocesan records for more investigative work.

According to the FamilySearch Wiki, you can expect to find in a marriage record:
• Marriage date and place
• Full names of the bride and groom
• Marital status of the bride and groom – single, divorced or widowed.
• Residence of bride and groom
• Ages of bride and groom
• Parents’ names, residence and/or birthplace
• Sometimes the parents’ civil status at time of marriage
• Witness names

When I conducted research in Spain, I used these records and was grateful to the Church and, in particular, to parish priests who have painstakingly recorded this information for centuries. Today, whether through an onsite visit to a physical parish archive, or via an online database, I can find and record important marriage data.
The Catholic marriage record – the certificate – as recorded by the parish priest is only one small piece of the much greater puzzle in Catholic Marriage Records. Once the Church required marriage records be kept, recording improved. Additionally, many new requirements prior to marriage were instituted, and any impediments had to be disproven.
Bride and groom had to prove they were not related within four degrees, prove that they were capable of being married, and that they were not already in another marriage.

The male had to prove that he had reached manhood and was ready to be married. The marriage announcement had to be made public for three consecutive Sundays – the priest had to personally address the congregation and provide an opportunity to show valid reason to disallow a proposed marriage. If there were problems with any of the above, the parish priest would need permission – from the diocese’s bishop – to continue with the marriage. The bishop would issue a dispensation – or dispense with a requirement – for the wedding to proceed or stop the marriage based on the impediment.

In my Spanish research, I saw hand-drawn and elaborate family trees from both the bride and groom to prove the absence of a familial impediment to marriage. If the couple were closely related, the bishop had to rule whether it would prevent the marriage.

In other countries, marriage data is also very important. While many countries provide the names of parents and witnesses, the Catholic records are some of the best, since they contain impediments to overcome and they also list other data described above.

In US civil marriage records, expect to find the essential information for bride and groom, parents and witnesses. Don’t expect it to have more, and you made need other sources – a will or court record – for additional details.

Happy hunting for the marriage records of your ancestors.

Mark Olsen

Catholic Marriage Register, Muñogalindo, Avila, Spain, Roll 188 Item 7 (BYU FHL Film 1650070)

Catholic Marriage Register, Muñogalindo, Avila, Spain 1737-1850 (Roll 188 Item 7, BYU FHL Film 1650070)

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12 Responses to “Looking at Marriage Records”

  1. Julian Hall says:

    I’m in the UK and I’ve never seen a marriage certificate here mentioning the mother at all, and the only father’s details are usually his name and occupation. That just gives you one relative back, so while it is helpful it’s not possible to build a family tree from marriage certificates alone in the UK.

  2. Donella says:

    the French-Canadian Catholic resources I’ve seen have been wonderful in their information (tho they are, of course, in French… and my school girl French is rusty, to say the least!). but… when my French Canadians got to upstate NY and then the church records were all lost in a fire!!!! that has presented a huge problem! I fail to understand why, in NY at least, the vitals were not recorded by the state or local government as well as by the church! I can’t believe the church had the ONLY records for generations… and that those were all lost!!! ugh!!!

  3. keith croston says:

    Hi Julian
    You Are Right I am Having it very hard to trace my grandparents, they sadly passed away before I was born and my parents did not talk about them. or I was to young to remember. But I will keep on digging for the answers. wishing you well with your search keith

  4. Hi
    Having said the above I feel that if we start our tree,s from what we know then it will be easier for our children to continue the family tree.

  5. Julian is right. I live in Ireland and here too only the details of the father is published, and his occupation. The census is worse, it only records the occupation of the head of household (unless widowed). The head of household’s wife’s occupation is given as married. The just become appendages of their husbands. It is very frustrating trying to build family trees with these restrictive views

  6. Phyllis Cole says:

    How do you go about getting access to the Catholic records? Is the local preist contacted or someone at the Diocese? If the Diocese, how do I determine which Diocese and where it’s located?

  7. Mark Olsen says:

    Phyllis – Great question. I will explore Catholic Records in more detail in an upcoming post. A quick answer is that many records are already microfilmed and available online. Determining which Diocese/Parish is an effort in researching the area and finding, based on the years in which you are searching, information about the parish – if they had a good set of records and where those records are now, are they filmed? Are they still in the Parish? Did they get moved to the Diocese? Each is unique.
    This research is simply a matter of locality research which I will discuss more in the blog post which I hope to have written and posted here sometime in March. Thank you.

  8. Lynette Ott says:

    I am in Pennsylvania, but searching for UK relatives. I used the Census to get the wife’s first name and then when I found the husband’s name in the Marriage Index, I clicked on “See Others on this page” and, hopefully, there is only one other person on that page with the same first name and location as the husband. Voila! This doesn’t always work and I don’t think the “Click here to see others on this page” is always active in earlier records. However, finding a marriage here in Pennsylvania hasn’t been so forthcoming. The German’s that came over (from my husband’s family) were not Catholics! And some were pioneers where no really good records were kept. So still hunting there!

  9. Chris says:

    Italian marriage records are a real treasure trove of info. They provide parents’ and sometimes grandparents’ names.

  10. PJ Achramowicz says:

    My grandfather was born in 1885 in Mosty (near Grodno) which was then in Russian Poland but today is in Belarus. His parents were probably born in pre-partition Poland. Trying to determine which parish and diocese (as well as which civil jurisdiction) of the period for them has me stumped.

  11. María Pilar de Olivar Vivó says:

    En Ciutadella de Menorca, España tenemos un alma caritativa que metió todos esos datos en una hoja excel hasta 1840, de manera que al tener apuntado el libro y la hoja todo ello se facilita mucho.

  12. Paul Ashworth says:

    Would you know how to research the Fall River Catholic Diocese’s archives in Massachusetts? I have tried everywhere in MA, will no luck, for the January 1857 marriage under both names Richard Ashworth and/or Mary Griffin.

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