Using Church Records To Fill In Information Gaps
Because of the prominence of Catholicism in Hispanic society, especially before the 20th century, parish registers kept by priests documenting baptisms, marriages, and deaths are key to tracing ancestors. These documents vary from simple entries of names, dates, and locations in tables to paragraphs containing more information such as the names of parents, grandparents, and godparents; ethnicity, widowhood, legitimacy, and more.
Parishes with full sacramental records will include baptism, confirmation, first communion, and marriage records, but these can vary by time period, location, and circumstance. For example, some confirmations were administered by bishops who may have visited sporadically. Consider how New Mexico, during the Spanish and Mexican periods (1598–1846) was visited by the Bishop of Durango only a handful of times, notably in 1833 and 1845 by Bishop José Antonio Laureano de Zubiría.
Even though older confirmation and first communion records can be rare and hard to find, they can be useful tools to fill in genealogy gaps when baptism records are missing. In places where they do survive, confirmation registers might only list the names of children, parents, and godparents, plus the date and place of the confirmation. Since Vatican II, usually only teenagers and adults are confirmed, but before the 1960s it was typical for infants and toddlers to be confirmed – in some cases a few days, weeks, or months after being baptized.
The priests who kept their parish registers did amazing work recording live events, especially in the colonial period when parish registers were typically recorded in narratives and paragraphs, not tables or grids. For baptisms, some entries include up to three generations with the names of the child, parents, and both sets of grandparents. If a parent, spouse, or grandparent had died, this was sometimes noted with words like difunto/a, fallecido/a, or finado/a which mean late or deceased.
In a similar way, marriage records tend to have the names of the bride and groom, along with the names of their parents. For second marriages, widows and widowers were recorded as viuda and viudo, respectively, and sometimes the name of the deceased spouse was also mentioned. Death registers vary in whose names were include besides the deceased. If the deceased was married, their spouse, widow, or widower may be listed along with surviving children. If the deceased was a child, the parents or at least the father’s name are usually recorded. Rarely, the parents of adults are included, usually when the deceased was single.
Saint Names and Godparents
Similar to how some Spanish-speaking islands in the Caribbean traditionally named hurricanes after the saint’s day when the storm made landfall, it was a longstanding tradition and custom in many places for children to be given the name of the saint on which they were born or baptized. For example, a child born or baptized on March 17, the feast of St. Patrick, may be named Patricio for a boy or Patricia for a girl. In Mexico and the southwestern U.S., children born on December 12 may be named Guadalupe, a unisex name for boys and girls. In cases such as these, the child’s sex can be confirmed with first names, such as José Guadalupe or María Guadalupe.
One strategy to narrow down missing birth dates is consulting calendars of saints and feast days. For example, my grandfather Luis Esteban Montiel was born on December 26, the feast of St. Stephen; his father Juan Evangelista Montiel was born on December 27, the feast of St. John the Evangelist; and his father was Juan de Dios Montiel. The only clue he left for his birth date is one census record where he states March as his birth month and a quick glance at a calendar of saints shows the feast of St. John of God on March 8, which means he was probably born or baptized on or near that date. A calendar in Spanish can be found here, and the Denver Public Library has several books that can also be helpful, such as Butler's Lives of the Saints and The Catholic Baby Name Book.
The General Roman Calendar has been revised a few times (as recently as 1969), so it is important to consult the calendar current to the time period in question. Lastly, while saint names can be a useful tool in Hispanic genealogy, not everyone was named after their saint — children were named after relatives or godparents as well. Godparents are always included in baptism records and can offer clues to kinship, especially when grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives were honored by being chosen to be padrinos.
This series is designed to help customers deepen their research while learning about Hispanic cultural traditions and customs they may encounter in their family history and genealogy records.