Marriage register of St. Joseph Parish in Owensboro dating from 1926. COURTESY OF ARCHIVES
Sacramental registers reveal bonds of early Catholic communities
BY EDWARD WILSON, ARCHIVES
It’s February and the stores are no doubt filled with chocolates, roses and more heart decorations than a cardiologist convention. St. Valentine’s Day is just another day that Catholics can stand back and truly appreciate how deeply rooted and influential our beloved faith is on Western culture. Catholic or not, it is a feast day that nobody wants to be left out of. This is a perfect time of year for the archives to showcase its bound sacramental registries. I know. It may seem like a stretch connecting these books to Valentine’s Day. However, I assure you, they are some of our oldest and most love-laden books. Their pages are filled with marriages and baptisms that came as a result of those blessed unions. Many dating back to the 1800s, they are definitely a history lesson of Catholic love and family in our diocese.
Some of these registers date as far back as 1848; that means they could hold the marriage records of your great, great, great, great, great, grandparents… romantic! In all seriousness, one of the primary missions of the archives is to assist researchers. One of the most common researchers we help is genealogists. These records can paint a picture of an individual that is otherwise largely lost to time. These are obviously records of major life events, such as marriages and confirmations, but they can also offer a more personal look. This is possible because priests would oftentimes comment on the individual. Anecdotes or remarks on the piety of the individual and their family can be seen throughout the pages of these registers.
Though the archives directs parishioners to the parish of their baptism when they are inquiring about more modern administered sacraments, we keep these older texts. There are a couple of reasons for this. One circumstance that puts these into our hands is that a church closes and the archive is the best fit for the register. Another reason is that the register is historic and requires preservation. The archive is temperature, humidity, and light controlled and the artifacts and documents are stored in archival grade, acid-free boxes. All precautions are taken to assure the safety of the objects. This is simply not possible in all of our parishes.
Besides being a wealth of information, the books themselves have a history; they are more than records, they are artifacts. To many, these may appear to be nothing more than old books, but to historians and lovers of history, they have a life of their own and beautiful stories that they want to share. It is absolutely incredible to think of the lives these little objects have lived. Sitting on the desk of a priest who served his congregation on horseback, in a room lit by lamps and heated by a wood-burning stove, a quill recorded the sacraments upon their pages. Entire lives of entire communities lay upon these pages. Before phones, cars, even as far back as before the American Civil War, some of these tomes were preserving the most important moments of our ancestors’ lives.
These books illustrate the connectedness of Catholic communities. A couple’s marriage record could be recorded on one page and years before you can find that they received the sacrament of Confirmation together. These books are a beautiful treasure and hopefully, now, you have some love for them as well.
Edward Wilson is the director of the Diocese of Owensboro’s Archives and the Archives of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Comments and questions may be sent to email@example.com.
Originally printed in the February 2022 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.