Canadian Denominational Background Roman Catholics and Lutherans (National Institute)

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
National Institute for Genealogical StudiesNational Institute for Genealogical Studies.gif

The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Religious Records  by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Denominational Background[edit | edit source]

Roman Catholic[edit | edit source]

The Roman Catholic Church is the mother of most other Christian churches. Until the early 16th century it was the Christian church in western Europe. The Reformation, a movement begun to reform or renew the church, eventually caused a series of schisms or breaks which resulted in new churches or denominations being formed. Since the 16th century, theologians or religious thinkers have arisen in many countries whose writings have inspired new denominations, and this process continued in the 20th century. The earliest of these (Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli) created groups which then had their own internal differences, or nationalistic leanings, and so they split into further divisions.

The Roman Catholic Church reacted to the Reformation by holding the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which dealt with the questions raised by the reformers to the church’s satisfaction and formed the basis for Catholic practice for the next four centuries. Roman Catholicism was the earliest European religion brought to Canada, by the French who founded their colonies in Québec and Acadia. It has remained here, a firm presence in every province and territory, ever since. As each area of the country has been opened for new settlement, there have been Catholic missionaries (priests and nuns) to establish churches, schools and hospitals.

The tradition of record-keeping established in Europe was brought to Canada and has resulted in very fine registers which are available to researchers depending on local attitudes. In the early days of microfilming by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1950s, there was considerable emphasis on obtaining Roman Catholic records for the collection in Salt Lake City. Theological differences curtailed this filming somewhat later. However, many bishops and priests have been encouraging to genealogical work and in Québec, in particular, have made possible the extensive publication of records in book form. Some dioceses, such as Hamilton (Ontario), have a policy of restricting access to the records, but these attitudes are largely the result of the bishop of the time and may change with a new administrator; at any rate, local priests or parish secretaries often have different ideas about the registers. It is always best to enquire locally.

In Ontario, the majority of Catholic dioceses, in agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' microfilming program, have since allowed their parish registers to be filmed. The cut-off date was 1910. Each diocesan archives, as well as the Family History Library, has filmed copies of these 18th-19th century registers. As mentioned above, there are still some holdouts among them. An overall history of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada would be too general to be of use to the family historian, but most dioceses have published histories of one sort or another, and there are a great many supplementary historical publications which can be profitably used by researchers.

Lutherans[edit | edit source]

The questions raised about church practice by Martin Luther in Germany began the Reformation which resulted in the many Protestant denominations. The followers of Luther became known as Lutherans, and this became the predominant denomination, or even the national religion, of some of the German states (usually in the north and west of Germany), Scandinavia and Finland.

Lutherans came to Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries, with sizable numbers of them in Nova Scotia and Waterloo County, Ontario. Missionaries were sent from the United States and pastors emigrated from Germany. There were a great many divisions, not necessarily antipathetic to one another; in 1900 there were about 64 synods or church bodies in Canada and the United States. The bodies often had affiliates in both countries. Various amalgamations have now reduced the number to four major bodies, of which two are significant in Canada: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Lutheran Church—Canada (Missouri Synod).

Lutheran record-keeping is of the highest standard, taking the characteristics practiced in Germany, where the church records had civil importance. The German practice of allotting one page in the register to a family, and thus allowing genealogists to discover a great many family names and dates at one glance, was not continued here. The records are chronological. Lutheran liturgy is a recognizable descendant of the Catholic mass in form and the various sacraments are similar.

For the genealogical researcher, it is useful to know that there are baptisms(Taufen), marriages (Copulationen), burials (Todten), confirmations(Confirmanden), membership and communicants lists, as well as minutes and subsidiary documents. Early records are kept in German, perhaps up to World War I, when public opinion forced many Lutheran churches to change to English for services, records and publications.

German-language record-keeping also includes writing in the Gothic script which is difficult for modern researchers, since it involves a different alphabet, including letters and accents which are completely different from English, such as the double S (b). Teaching and reading in Gothic continued in Germany up to World War II, but was abandoned later and few Germans now can read it. It can be difficult to find people who can interpret it.

Non-German speakers should not be defeated by Lutheran records, however. First, there are texts which provide examples of Gothic and common church register words in Gothic. Serious researchers with a great deal of Gothic work ahead of them might find it useful to learn to read it in the form of print, in old German books or newspapers. They will then be prepared for attempting Gothic handwriting.

Success in interpreting Gothic handwriting depends on the quality of the handwriting itself (many pastors wrote dreadfully) and experience. Practice, however excruciating, does improve the ability to interpret Gothic handwriting. The benefits of learning some Gothic will be considerable. Lutheran and other German records are so informative, often including information available in no other kind of church records, that the work required to read them is amply repaid.

As time passed and the effects of the surrounding English-speaking culture was felt, the German records may be written partly in German, partly in English, or partly in Gothic, partly in English lettering. There are two Evangelical Lutheran seminaries in Canada:

Laurier Waterloo Lutheran Seminary
(at Wilfrid Laurier University)
75 University Avenue West
Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3C5
Telephone: (519) 884-1970

There is a substantial Lutheran archives at WLU but the situation for using it is delicate. Researchers should not approach the archives first; they should get in touch with the Synod archivist to discern whether there are records at WLU which will be helpful. Original records are accessible only through him. Microfilmed records can be accessed through the archives but only the archivist has a list of them.

Lutheran Theological Seminary Saskatoon
(affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan)
114 Seminary Crescent
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 0X3
Telephone: (306) 966-7850

There are church records available, but the archivist is only in on Tuesdays.

The Lutheran Church (Canada also has two seminaries):

Concordia Lutheran Seminary
470 Glenridge Avenue
St. Catharines, Ontario L2T 4C3
Telephone: (905) 688-2362

The East District archives is located here, and the archivist has been able to secure East District churches’ archives which had been housed in the United States and move them here.

Concordia Lutheran Seminary
7040 Ada Boulevard
Edmonton, Alberta T5B 4E3
Telephone: (780) 474-1468

References[edit | edit source]


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Religious Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.