Determining an Ancestor's Church in Canada (National Institute)

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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 ($).

Geography[edit | edit source]

Geography plays an important part in establishing which church your family attended. If they lived in a town, then they had the choice of whichever denominations were available there. Most people lived in the country in early Canada, and their choices were restricted.

Not only for church records but for all genealogical research, it is important to understand the effects of the local geography on your family’s lives. It does not take long to look at a map and familiarize yourself with their situation. It can also be fun, and a suitable map will add visual interest to your family history when you publish. Finding old maps is not as difficult as you might think. There are published listings of many of them.

Published Listings of Maps[edit | edit source]

A good place to start is Heather Maddick’s County Maps: Land Ownership Maps of Canada in the 19th Century (Public Archives of Canada, 1976). It lists maps at the Library and Archives Canada which may help genealogists. Books which contain lists of maps come in several kinds:

  •  Listings which cover specific geographic areas, such as Lorraine Dubreuil’sSectional maps of western Canada, 1871-1955: an early Canadian topographic map series (Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives, 1989).
  •  Listings of particular collections in libraries or archives, such as Répertoire cartobibliographique sur la région de Québec compiled by Yves Tessier with the collaboration of Jacques Martinez and Louise Lavoie (1983), which concerns the map library at Université Laval.
  •  An atlas or collection of maps for the area which interests you, either published at the time your ancestors lived there or a modern reprint. An example is Macdougall’s illustrated guide, gazetteer, and practical hand-book for Manitoba and the North-West, 1883, with the latest official maps, land regulations, etc.: a concise compendium of the latest facts and figures of importance to the emigrant, capitalist, prospector and traveler, edited and published by W. B. Macdougall. These atlases often have maps of too large a scale to be useful for our purposes, but they should be examined anyway.
  •  Be creative in your thinking, as a printed list of maps which may at first seem to be too restrictive or not about your area may have include items of use. As an example, The Robertson collection: catalogue of the maps and plans of the Town of York, Upper Canada, 1788-1834, and of York after being incorporated as the City of Toronto from 1834-1908: also a collection of miscellaneous maps, plans and drawings of places in other parts of the Dominion, particularly the provinces of Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, collected by J. Ross Robertson (1908), at first glance seems of interest only to researchers in Toronto but if you wanted something on Nova Scotia and are in Ontario, the Robertson collection at the Toronto Reference Library might help you.

Archives and Libraries[edit | edit source]

Unfortunately most maps are not listed in books, but exist only in the catalogues of archives and map libraries. We can begin to find these by looking at the websites of likely institutions to see if their maps are listed. Choose the institution you want by using two criteria: first, ones near you that you can use; secondly, ones known to have interests in the area you want. The University of Waterloo Map and Design Library, for instance, has a website which gives access to lists of their maps and also invites internet queries. Website

The British Columbia Archives has a ‘Maps’ section on its homepage, which leads to a cartographic records search facility and also to digitized maps of particular interest to family historians. Website.

Many institutions have begun digitizing maps, which simplifies access for everyone. If you are unsure how to begin searching for the maps you need, consult your local public librarian for advice, and look at a directory of archives in your area.

Roads and Rivers[edit | edit source]

Looking at a contemporary map of the area where your family lived can help. Begin with their residence and go outward in ever-expanding circles. Look at the roads and rivers. Does the road lead somewhere logical, which the family would use as their place to go shopping, pick up their mail and, usually, go to church? Is there a church of their denomination there?

Keep in mind that rivers were great barriers in the early days. There might be a ferry and then a bridge, but if the town was only a mile away and the river intervened, the family might go three or four miles to a different town because it was easier. It is possible to find out if there were ferries or bridges in the area. Many local histories have discussions of bridges and bridge building, and there may even be books about them:

  • Elwood H. Jones.Intermittent Ambition: Bridges Over the Otonabee Since 1825. (1991)

There is also information about ferries:

  • Elizabeth Hastie.Ferries and Ferrymen in Alberta. (1986)

Directories[edit | edit source]

To discover what churches existed in an area at a certain time, the best idea is to look at a directory. The county or district directories usually would list what denominations had churches in a town, and with the knowledge you already have about your family’s connections, you can choose where to start looking for your information.

The most logical place to find directories of an area is in local libraries. However, the Library and Archives Canada has an extensive collection of these. They have been listed inCanadian Directories, 1790-1987: a Bibliography and Place-Name Index, by Mary E. Bond (National Library, 1989). It has about 1200 entries for historical directories, but the real boon is the place-name index (21,500 entries) which tells quickly where to find the village you want. This three-volume set is available in most public libraries across Canada, all academic libraries, and reference libraries elsewhere.

Circuit Riders, Modern Churches, and Merges[edit | edit source]

What if you cannot find a church of the denomination you want near your family? There is a chance that they relied on a circuit rider, and finding those records may be much more difficult.

There is always a chance that your relations had to rely on the services of a different denomination if there was no church for them nearby. Perhaps they still thought of themselves as Methodists but attended a Presbyterian church. Have a look at records of churches in the area whose theological ideas were similar to your relations, just to be sure.

Once you have found the church, you then need to find the modern equivalent. Many nineteenth century churches have disappeared, either because the population which kept them alive moved away or because their denomination made changes which affected them. Many merged with neighbouring congregations.

The most important of all these changes was the union in 1925 of the Methodist Church of Canada with most of the Presbyterian churches in the country, to form the United Church of Canada. (The Presbyterian churches which did not join this union became the Presbyterian Church in Canada.) The various branches of Methodism and the Congregationalists had already merged before this, and later the Evangelical United Brethren (itself a merger of the Evangelical Association and United Brethren in Christ) joined the United Church. The result is that the United Church is the largest denomination in Canada, with churches in most towns. However, in many places where there were two or more of these kinds of churches, they joined together. The records for them all will be accessed under the modern name of the congregation.

So, if you lose your church between 1870 and 2000, ask locally to see if it still exists under another name.


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.