Beyond the Internet Week 11: Church Archives can be goldmines

This is Week 11 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week’s topic is Church Archives.  I’d love it if you wanted to join in with your thoughts on this topic. If possible please provide a link to your post on this page.

First up, let me say that I’ve never used church archives overseas so can’t speak about them there. Perhaps some overseas bloggers can comment on that? My comments will mainly refer to the benefits of using the Australian Church Archive relevant to your ancestor’s location. For me personally that means Queensland church archives, Catholic and Anglican.

Australian civil registration dates mostly from the early-mid 19th century, with the precise date being determined by each state. Cora Num’s website provides a useful guide to these dates. If this is the case why do we need to bother with church records?

I don’t know about you, but I have a number of early certificates with lots of blanks, usually in the fields that would be most useful eg place of birth. It was only by turning to parish registers held either in the parish or the local archives, that these blanks were (mostly) filled in. The information I obtained in this way, broke down what would otherwise have remained insoluble brick walls. For example, I could never have taken my George Kunkel back to his home village of Dorfprozelten without this parish information. On no other documentation, including several of his children’s birth certificates, does he give his specific village of origin. You can read more about this story here

Similarly the marriage of Hannah Kent and William Partridge obtained through the Anglican Archdiocesan Archives enabled me to clarify several points about their background.

Consecration of the family to the Sacred Heart: one of the children, Anne Kunkel was the granddaughter of George & Mary Kunkel and shared a lot of oral history with me.

In researching the Bavarians from Dorfprozelten I’ve used church archives to great advantage. It’s rare that the marriage entries in the church registers don’t add something to what I know about these immigrants. If you’re searching for multiple people it can also be cheaper to do it this way, even allowing for a daily fee or a donation. Compare the cost to buying another certificate: surely it’s worth knowing you’ve explored all the options. I always encourage people with apparent brick walls to try this strategy. Unfortunately until you’ve seen the benefits, not everyone is convinced that they could tumble those walls in this way.

As with any archive, the records held will vary depending on what has survived and what has been transferred: some records may be in a garage somewhere. Some of the things you might like to ask about, in addition to the standard baptisms and marriages, are communion records, confirmation records, and society records. The archive may also have old books or newsletters which will tell you more about your ancestors’ churches in their era: all grist for your family history.

I’ve recently been fortunate enough to be thought of when there was a clean-up of surplus holdings and in this way obtained a 93 year-old church-based certificate which had once been in my ancestor’s original property. My great-great grandmother’s youngest son had the house blessed when his family took ownership after she died in 1919. Without my link to the archive this would never have come to light.

Where to find the relevant church archives? Well I’d tend to look up the local phone book first (under the name of the religion) but really a better strategy in Australia would be to use this Australian Society of Archivists search page. Similar societies exist overseas.

Please don’t forget when visiting churches or archives, that they have other purposes than helping family historians and may be time-limited. While some have fixed daily fees for research, others don’t specifically ask for money. I recommend always offering a decent donation for the service they provide.

25 years of Family History: reflection and celebration: Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1, research in the “bad old/good old” days was very different. We’d probably all riot now if we were deprived of internet access to digitised records, Scotlandspeople, Findmypast, Ancestry, World Vital Records etc etc. We’ve all got used to the ready access to such a wide array of resources, many of which we would “never” have had a chance to look at: imagine, for example, trying to find someone in the Passenger Lists leaving the UK: 1890-1960 without actually knowing when they travelled.

Despite this, much was possible by visiting four different repositories of wonderful family history information. They were invaluable then but are equally relevant now: the “virtual world” of the internet means we can accomplish part of our research lists online and use these “real world” resources for documents etc which may never be digitised.

So my top four research venues then (and now) were:

  1.             Churches and church archives

I have to put this first because the information I obtained directly from the church or denominational archives, was pivotal to taking my families back through time. The marriage record for St Mary’s Catholic Church, Ipswich was the only place where my German ancestor’s place of birth was correctly documented – numerous birth certificates for his children had been unproductive. Similarly the Anglican Archives in Brisbane provided equivalent information on another early marriage. In both cases the information provided was significantly more comprehensive than that on the official marriage certificate. Church archives can be challenging places but I’ve had wonderful support from some. Read the story of how pivotal they were to my family here.

2.                 State Library of Queensland (SLQ)

SLQ was based in William Street in an old building and if my memory serves me, Shauna Hicks was one of the librarians on duty in those days. Historic newspapers were held on microfilm and so you would search for specific known events for your family eg obituaries, weddings, births, deaths, funerals and perhaps war service. No such joys as Trove with the ability to turn up completely random information about your family.

SLQ also had/has books of general historical relevance, especially for Qld families, as well as the indexes for births, deaths and marriages in Queensland. However, and this is a big one, the indexes had a very restricted time range making it a challenge to take your family back, or indeed forward. You had to become adept at using all possible resources to suss out further information – funeral directors’ records were especially helpful. At this stage you thanked heavens you were searching for uncommon names or had some clues about family background. I’d been lucky that my family is somewhat obsessive about keeping documentation and there were birth certificates held for both my paternal grandparents –invaluable clues

3.                 Queensland State Archives (QSA)

QSA was still housed in an old building next to Boggo Road Gaol when I first visited and signed up. There was limited support for researchers, certainly nothing like exists today, and there were no research guides. It took me quite a while to figure out how to find what I wanted and as I was working full-time my visits had to be limited to occasional flexitime days, but slowly the information built up.

The first time I visited QSA after they’d moved venues to Runcorn, around 1992, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. We had just returned from an overseas trip where I’d done quite a lot of family research in various British archives and repositories. QSA’s facility was cutting edge and far more user-friendly and modern. It continues to be a wonderful resource which well merits learning the ropes: this is where you can add more flesh to your family stories. Like most archives it now has an increasing array of digitised indexes making it so much easier to navigate than previously. But like anything worth having, some of its secrets require “mining” and persistence and repay your efforts, or at least eliminate possibilities.

4.                 Family History Centres of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints (LDS/Mormons)

I think I was a bit uncertain about my early visits to the family history centres, quite unnecessarily. I used the IGI here and also at GSQ but I mainly used the centres to order in and read parish registers, cemetery records, and census films (the only way they came in those days). I still regard these microfilms as a cornerstone of my research and will often order all available films for a particular parish overseas. But don’t forget to see what’s available for Australia as well.

If you haven’t visited them, or their local equivalent wherever you live, do give them a try: they will reward your efforts with new jigsaw pieces for your family history puzzle, and I”m convinced we all  love a good trail to follow!

Australia Day 2011 meme: the importance of church records and archives to my early documents.

Shelley from has invited us to submit an Australia Day post on our blogs. She suggests that we “Find the earliest piece of documentation you have about an ancestor in Australia. If you don’t have an Australian ancestor, then choose the earliest piece of documentation you have for a relative in Australia”

On Wednesday 26 January 2011 post your answers to these questions:

  1. What is the document?
  2. Do you remember the research process that lead you to it? How and where did you find it?
  3. Tell us the story(ies) of the document. You may like to consider the nature of the document, the people mentioned, the place and the time. Be as long or short, broad or narrow in your story telling as you like!

The earliest Australian documents I have for many of my ancestors is their shipping documents: the extended Kent family on the General Hewitt into Moreton Bay in 1854 or two lines of my families arriving on the Fortune into Moreton Bay in 1855: the Gavin family along with another ancestor, William Partridge on the same ship, even though they had differing views of the success of the voyage.

But these documents posed no real challenge so I opted for ones that were a little later but were absolutely pivotal to my family history research. [It didn’t help that these ancestors don’t appear anywhere in the shipping records and have defied all my attempts over 20+ years.]

Like pretty much everyone else I started out buying the marriage certificates of my first Australian couples. In particular the one I was most curious about was George Kunkel’s marriage to Mary O’Brien. The certificate duly arrived, probably helpfully collected from the Registry by my daughters on their way home from school. You might well imagine I had visions of every section of our wonderful certificates comprehensively completed and sending me back to my ancestors’  “Old Country” to locate further branches of their families.

My early-research illusions were quickly shattered when the certificate revealed the following:


When & where married: 26 September 1857 at Ipswich
Name & Surname: George Hatheas Kunkel Mary O’Brien
Condition: Bachelor Spinster
Profession: Servant Housemaid
Usual place of residence Ipswich Ipswich
Parents-Father’s name and surname, mother’s name and maiden surname
Father’s rank or profession

George had signed and Mary made her mark. The witnesses were stated to be Carl Blomai and Sarah O’Brien. Officiating Minister was Wm McGinly. (Qld Birth certificate 140/81 of 1857 registered in the Colony of NSW)

I could have wept….so many blanks just where I needed them and an additional puzzle because I knew nothing about Sarah O’Brien. Somehow I concluded George & Mary were married in the Catholic Church Ipswich (because I knew they were Catholic, and I suppose I’d read that Wm McGinly was actually Father William McGinty, parish priest of Ipswich. In those days in the late 1980s I was allowed to look at the parish registers (no longer possible) but still there were blanks.

Sometime later I was talking to an experienced researcher at the Genealogical Society of Queensland who told me there were actually two registers at St Mary’s Ipswich, as they’d discovered when GSQ was indexing the records. I needed to go back there and ask for the second one. This wasn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, because I needed to get time off work, drive to Ipswich, and then get the staff to find the correct book.

However, when the register was finally delivered to my table, all the trouble was worth it. There, in faded writing, was so much I hadn’t known and which had been omitted from the certificate!

THE PARISH REGISTER from St Mary’s Catholic Church, Ipswich (not quite in this format but easier to see how the gaps are filled)

When & where married: 26 September 1857 at the Catholic Church Ipswich
Name & Surname: George Mathias (not Hatheas) Kunkel Mary O’Brien
Condition: Bachelor Spinster
Birthplace: Dorfprozelten, Germany
Profession: Servant Housemaid
Age: 23
Usual place of residence Ipswich Ipswich
Parents-Father’s name and surname, mother’s name and maiden surname Adam KunkelCatherine Happ
Father’s rank or profession Innkeeper

You can imagine my excitement! I figured that if an Irish priest had bothered to write down a difficult name like Dorfprozelten it had to be correct. I’d earlier tried buying almost every one of George & Mary’s children’s birth certificates and he’d persistently said he came from “Bavaria” and nothing else, except for one time when he put Aschaffenburg, again, who knows why. Research into that had turned up blank prior to finding this marriage register.

Armed with the correct information I was eventually able to confirm (after multiple visits and letters) that George had been baptised Georg Mathias Kunkel in Dorfprozelten Bavaria, to parents Adam Kunkel and Catherine Happ. Technically it was Catherine who was the innkeeper as the inn had been in her family for generations. Adam came from another part of Bavaria, but that’s a story for another day.

There’s another interesting fact about this marriage: that of a German immigrant to an Irish woman. I’d been confidently told by the German expert at GSQ that there were no Bavarians and no German Catholics in Queensland. Wrong on both counts as my research, and other’s, has clearly demonstrated. So a tip for those with German ancestry: if you find a marriage in the Catholic church, there’s a good (but not inevitable) chance that they were actually Catholic, not Lutheran, which is why they sometimes married Irish men or women who shared their faith.

Still there were all those blank spaces against poor Mary’s name: did George not know this detail? was the register filled out when she wasn’t there? Actually to give him credit George did well, my best estimate is that he’d arrived in Australia c1855 and could plainly speak enough English to get by. Mary’s death certificate gave me the name of her parents but not her birth place, other than County Clare. Mary O’Brien from County Clare is like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.

It was oral history that solved the final puzzle of this couple’s ancestry. One of their youngest surviving grandchildren, Anne Kunkel, told me in the late 1980s that Mary had arrived with her sisters Bridget & Kate (actually Kate came later). She knew that Bridget had married a man named Widdup and lived in NSW. Luckily it was such an unusual name as I was also able to get her death certificate. This confirmed that her place of birth was Broadford, Co Clare, although that document had mistakenly put down her parents as Michael & Bridget not Michael & Catherine. Although the parish registers for Kilseily (Broadford) post-date the birth of Mary and Bridget, the fantastic oral history known by Anne Kunkel and other O’Brien descendants in Sydney gave such a good triangulation of data that Mary’s background could be confirmed.

But wait, we still have the mystery of the witnesses for whom I searched for many years. Carl Blomai looked more like Carl Mosrins per his signature on the church document but eventually turned out to be Carl Wörner as deciphered by the Dorprozelten local historian (thanks Georg!). Sarah O’Brien was the daughter of Daniel and Winifred O’Brien who came from Tipperary to Ipswich, Queensland. I still can’t find any family connection between these O’Briens and mine but as Broadford is in East Clare it’s quite possible, and the families do continue to witness each other’s church events for a long time.  I still haven’t managed to get to the bottom of the puzzle of these inter-connecting families.

Which just goes to show, quite often one document is just not enough to tie up the ends, but persistence, oral history, and multiple records can solve the problem if you’re lucky.