Alternatives to Consider When “Catholic” Ancestors Don’t Appear in Local Records

By Jan Nearing


One of the most frustrating things is to “know” your ancestors were Catholic, but find no trace of them exists in any local parishes or diocesan archives where they lived.

Besides the obvious possibility that they might not have been steady churchgoers, there is also the possibility that your ancestor belonged to groups that “seemed” very Catholic, but which is not Catholic in the Latin rite, or may be schismatic. There is also the possibility that your ancestor worshipped in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. So as you approach an immigrant, put yourself in the culture of the day, research the area for “alternative” places of worship, and see if one of these groups might hold the key to your research roadblock.

Sedevacantist Catholics

Very much a political and ecclesiastic drama, the First Vatican Council sought to solidify the power of the Roman patriarch at the time of great upheaval in Europe and attempts to unify the independent states of the Italian peninsula. Though not a wealth of intellectual debate, one of the proclamations of the First Vatican Council decreed the infallibility of the Pope. The debate was, well for lack of a better word, coerced. The Council was abruptly adjourned when dissent arose and it took nearly 100 years before a successor to Pius IX officially closed the Council to allow the convocation of the Second Vatican Council in 1962

One of the documents of the First Vatican Council, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, so incensed many bishops that they refused to accept the legitimacy of Pius IX any further and declared that the Seat of Peter was vacant…or in Latin sedevacante. The situation was particularly heated in the German states where the Pope had made threats of mass excommunication against a bishop who refused to vote affirmatively for the passage of the document.

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war was the official reason for adjourning the Council, but in reality it was to separate the dissenting bishops and allow the pontiff to exert pressure on individuals without allowing them to compare notes and debate openly between themselves.

In addition, the Diocese of Utrecht in the Netherlands was in an uproar over a century’s old power play between bishops and popes (the so-called Jansenist revolt). With the added impetus of the actions of Pius IX in the wake of the Council, many decided it time to separate from THAT Bishop of Rome and continue as a Church as though the First Vatican Council never occurred. These separated churches loosely united as the Utrecht Confession.

The movement also found a champion in French Canada and the Great Lakes states under the leadership of Rev. (Dr.) Charles Chiniquy. A colorful character with a hatred of Jesuits and popes, Chiniquy led a group of French-speaking followers into a similar situation as the Utrecht Communion. The declared that the pope had committed a heresy and was therefore an anti-pope and left the Chair of Peter empty.

All of these groups continue to this day, usually designating themselves as “Old Catholic” or “Old Roman Catholic”. Most continue to say masses in the Tridentine tradition, spoken in Latin, with all of the “bells and smells” those remembering back to the day before Vatican II will remember.

None of these churches is “in communion” with the Church of Rome, so the documentation of sacraments performed at these churches will not be found through the local diocese. In the case of Chiniquy’s Christian Catholic Church, it continues to thrive to this day. There is a seminary in Canada and many parishes exist in Canada, which is also where records of closed parishes from Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin are housed.


The Rise of Independent Catholic Churches

Secondary phenomena occurred in the wake of massive immigration from Eastern Europe and the Near East, where the relationship between the Church and State was tenuous and often perilous.

In the case of what we would call the “Eastern Bloc” countries, including Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, et al., there has been a ongoing issue between the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc) and the Church of Rome (Roman Catholic). A certain amount of autonomy was granted those who sought to remain in communion with Rome while living in the same communities as their Orthodox neighbors. It was (and is) and unsteady community and has often been the impetus for war. The answer for Rome, to avoid inflaming passions among the Eastern Orthodox, was to allow the local Latin rite Catholics to choose their own leaders, run their own seminaries and run as Eastern rites of the Church of Rome.

For those Christians in the Near East and Middle East who are surrounded by Orthodoxy and Islam, they actually continue the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy while still accepting the primacy of the Pope (Bishop of Rome). Their autonomy is so strong that they have a separate Canon code and allow a married clergy.

As emigrants from these areas reached the United States from 1890 onward, they sought to maintain the same level of autonomy as they had been given in their homelands. But alas, they instead ran into roadblocks put in place by the local bishops and cardinals who had no intention of allowing rogue churches to run with separate liturgies and hierarchies than the rest of the parishes in a diocese or archdiocese.

As a result of these conflicts, and also in light of several disagreements about issues of doctrine, various groups have separated from Rome, but continue to call themselves “Catholic”. When your research runs into a brick wall, search the area to find out if one of these groups worshipped near your ancestors and whether they may have joined that fellowship, even briefly. All too often, we find one of these parishes developed for a period of 10-20 years and drew people away from Latin Rite Catholic parishes in communion with Rome. In particular, the Polish National Catholic Church was very popular among immigrants, though their children left that tradition and returned to the Roman Catholic parishes as they “Americanized”. PNCC parishes in the Saginaw valley are no longer open, but their sacramental records can be accessed through All Saints Cathedral on Higgins Road in Chicago. For other groups, such as the Christian Catholic Church of Canada, an internet search engine should be able to point you in the right direction to obtain records if they still exist. In addition, several colleges and universites have indexed records and may be able to give you direction in your research.

Representative Sedevacantist and Independent

Catholic Churches in North America

American Catholic Church

American Church of the East

Anglican Catholic Church

Anglican Catholic Church of Canada

Catholic Apostolic Church

Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch

Catholic Charismatic Church

Charismatic Episcopalian Church

Christ Catholic Church

Christian Catholic Church of Canada

Christian Catholic Church of North America

Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI) - Traditionalist Roman Catholic

Contemporary Catholic Church

Ecclesia Gnostica

Ecumenical Catholic Church

Ecumenical Old Catholic Church

Evangelical Catholic Church

Federated Orthodox Catholics United Sacramentally (FOCUS)

Franciscan Servants of the Holy Cross

Free Catholic Church

Friends Catholic Communion

Igreja Catolica Apostolica Nacional in the USA (offshoot of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Brazil)

Independent Evangelical Catholic Church in America

Liberal Catholic Church International

Mar Thoma Orthodox Catholic Church Outside of India

Mexican National Church (Duarte church)

Old Catholic Church of North America

Old Catholic Church of Utrecht - Mathew Succession

Old Byzantine Catholic Church of North America (separate from the Byzantine rite of the Catholic Church)

Old Roman Catholic Church in North America

Orthodox Catholic Church

Polish National Catholic Church of America

Society of St. Pius V (SSPV)

Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) - Traditionalist Roman Catholic

The Thomas Christians

The Traditional Roman Catholic Church

United Catholic Church

United Reformed Catholic Church

Eastern Rite Catholic Churches

After the Great Schism between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox, many people found themselves torn between religious traditions, particularly in the lands where East met West. As a result of the torn allegiances between the Pope in Rome and the Greek Patriarch in Constantinople, a compromise of sorts developed in many communities. People continued to practice in “the old way” of the Eastern Orthodox, but they continued giving their allegiance to the Bishop of Rome.

Because the order of their masses and the understanding of sacraments is different from their western brethren, these groups are not called “Roman Catholic”, though they are completely members of the Church of Rome. Instead, they are usually called Eastern Rite Catholics or Uniat/Uniate Catholics (though this term is highly out of favor today, you will see it used often in older records).

For immigrants new to this country, the Eastern rite churches were available to them in larger cities. But as they moved west and north, the ability to worship in this tradition became more difficult. If your search leads to a roadblock, research the region in question to see if one of these churches existed at the time in question. If the church is no longer open, the records should be available through the diocesan archives or through the Eastern patriarch of North America.

Eastern Rites of the Church of Rome

Byzantine liturgical tradition:

Albanian Catholic Church

Belarusian Catholic Church

Bulgarian Catholic Church

Byzantine Catholic Church in America

Croatian Byzantine Catholic Church (Eparchy of Krizevci)

Czech Catholic Church

Georgian Catholic Church

Greek Catholic Church

Hungarian Catholic Church

Italo-Albanian Catholic Church (Southern Italy)

Macedonian Catholic Church

Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Romanian Catholic Church

Russian Catholic Church

Ruthenian Catholic Church

Slovak Catholic Church

Serbian Greek Catholic Church

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Antiochene liturgical tradition:

Maronite Catholic Church

Syrian Catholic Church

Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

Chaldean liturgical tradition:

Chaldean Catholic Church

Syro-Malabar Catholic Church

Armenian liturgical tradition:

Armenian Catholic Church

Alexandrian liturgical tradition:

Coptic Catholic Church

Ethiopian Catholic Church (Ethiopia and Eritrea)


Eastern Orthodox Churches

Known by many today as the Sister Churches of Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox Churches were founded in apostolic succession. These groups are autonomous, under the leadership of a patriarch. Together, they are the second largest group of Christians in the world.

In 1054, differences between the Eastern patriarchs and the Bishop of Rome led to the East ex-communicating the Roman patriarch (pope) and the Bishop of Rome excommunicating the patriarchs of the East. “The Great Schism” as it was called led to ethnic and cultural tensions throughout Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

(Note that the Catholic patriarch in Rome is not the only Christian leader to use the title “pope”, so for our purposes, he’ll be called by his official title of “Bishop of Rome”.)

In the last 50 years, much work has been done to repair the tensions between East and West. The mutual excommunications have been lifted, though the Eastern Orthodox do not recognize the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and do not allow Latin/Western rite Catholics to participate in their sacraments without converting. By contrast, the Church of Rome does recognize the apostolic succession of the Sister Churches of Orthodoxy and will allow Eastern Orthodox worshippers in good standing to participate in Roman Catholic sacraments when no Eastern Orthodox services are available to them.

When researching immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East, keep in mind the difficulty they would have had in worshipping in their own tradition. Depending on the area and the time frame, it is possible that they may have joined Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Episcopalian churches. The may also be found in Eastern rite churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome until their own priests arrived to found new communities.

Eastern Orthodox Churches

American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church

Antiochian Orthodox Church of North America

Armenian Church of America

Armenian Orthodox Church

Celtic Orthodox Christian Church in North America

Coptic Orthodox Church

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Indian Orthodox Church

Orthodox Catholic Church in North America

Orthodox Church in America

Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church

Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America

Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)

Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch

Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America


Copyright © 2012 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
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