From our Archives

Vital Records from Unlikely Places –  Letters from Back Home

Baptismal records are a unique part of Catholic record keeping. Unlike birth records, baptismal records provide more than the date of birth, parents, and birthplace. They offer genealogical information such as the family parish, godparents, and other annotations which are a treasure trove for descendants tracing their family tree.

(Above) the 1905 testimony of baptism for Catherine Coleman includes a letter from John Coleman

The process of entering a religious congregation holds the same requirement as sacraments in the Catholic Church: a record of baptism. Many applicants to the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston proved their baptism by producing to the Mother Superior an official certificate or a note from the local parish priest who performed the sacrament or who confirmed its presence in the parish register.

However, at the turn of the 20th century, a significant number of young women seeking entrance into the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston were born in other countries – mainly Ireland, Italy, and Canada. For those born abroad, obtaining official documents was not as simple. A request for their baptismal record needed to travel overseas and sometimes relied on family back home to prompt the search.

One applicant, in particular, received an exciting response, at least in the eyes of a genealogist. Pictured here is a letter sent to Catherine Coleman, born in Ireland, who had applied to the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1905. A section of the letter is written by John Coleman, possibly Catherine’s brother, and includes the name of the town he is writing from  (Tonacor in Newbridge, Galway). An 

official birth or baptismal certificate would not offer such insights, or include personal family correspondence! A letter like this can open up additional pathways for research in the tracing of a family tree.

For genealogists who enjoy the thrill of the hunt, these letters happily spark new questions.

(Above) letter regarding baptism of Katie Foley

Catherine Coleman’s letter includes an incorrect birth year of 1870 when in reality she was born in 1864. At some point in its life, the ink was scratched out and changed! Sometimes going straight to the original source of the parish register is the only way to confirm the correct date of birth or baptism.

The letter pictured left was sent on behalf of Katie Foley, applicant in 1898. Here, the priest explains his failure to find a baptismal record for Katie. He notes the register “is very defective, being very irregularly kept”, but after speaking with her parents, godmother, and the priest who performed it, he is “perfectly certain” of her baptism “ according to the rites and ceremonies of the Holy Catholic Church”. As a last resort, oral history was relied upon to confirm Katie’s eligibility for the Congregation.

Recently, the Archdiocese of Boston Archives has partnered with the New England Historic Genealogical Society to digitize Boston parish registers from 1789-1920 – a daunting yet exciting undertaking! Some of the fruits of this project are already available for viewing online. To search for Boston sacramental records, you can browse the digital collection. Parish registers in Ireland are available online through the National Library of Ireland.