Hunt for ancestors begins at archives door

They may not have it, but they will try to help you find it.

Described by the Primate, Archbishop Michael Peers as “a great well of stories”, the General Synod archives is the official keeper of the national church’s corporate memory. Its holdings comprise records and papers of the national church and its staff, committees, councils, boards and commissions.

Yet some of the more common requests phoned in to the archives include many for searches for parish records: baptismal, marriage, confirmation and burial records. Many of these inquiries are from people doing genealogical searches, seeking to identify ancestors.
Baptismal records and copies of baptismal certificates are also required by those wishing to marry a Roman Catholic. In some provinces, like Quebec and Newfoundland, the baptismal certificate served as the birth certificate, so often Anglicans are seeking a copy of a baptismal certificate to prove their age for pension purposes.

The national archives also continue to receive calls from former residential school students looking for school records, sometimes in a quest to gain Aboriginal status or as part of the legal process if they plan to sue for mistreatment at those schools.

In many of these cases, the national church archives does not hold the items sought, but will refer the caller to those who likely do — a diocesan archive or government agency. Residential school records, for instance, are held at the Indian Affairs archives, part of the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa.

“Our role in the General Synod archives is to refer people with genealogical inquiries to the appropriate Anglican repository,” says Terry Thompson, the national church archivist. “So, we need to know which diocese the records are likely in so we can help that person get in touch with that diocese’s records.”

The archives has seen increasing numbers of calls from amateur genealogists in recent years, possibly because of the growth of the Internet and the ease of entering surnames and relatives into search engines.

“Family history is one of the biggest amateur sports,” says Ms. Thompson, “and it’s growing.”

Take the diocese of Ottawa for example. In the year 2000, it recorded more than 2,200 contacts from the general public: 683 visitors to its archives, 1,096 phone calls and 529 letters and e-mails.

Many initial inquiries can be answered quickly, says diocesan registrar Fred Neal, thanks to the diocese’s vast database. Since 1989, it has been entering clergy and parish records into a computer system so that it can instantly advise a caller if the diocese holds a document. The database, which is an index of all baptisms, marriages and burials between 1779 and 1960, holds some 600,000 names. Privacy laws prohibit the release of much of the more recent information, but the archives can locate most living clergy and provide searchers with current parish information. 

If a caller requests more information than the database holds, the diocese charges a fee: $40 per hour for a researcher’s time and a flat $20 fee for each transcript or copy of any document.

For example, says Mr. Neal, a caller might ask if the diocese holds her grandfather’s baptismal certificate. The database may confirm that the man was baptized in 1913, but if the caller asks for information beyond that, for instance, for names of the godparents or the specific date of the baptism, a researcher will have to retrieve the certificate.

As registrar, Mr. Neal is responsible for certification of any documents, including baptismal certificates, which are occasionally acceptable for personal identification.

Many of the dates and names of ancestors accessed from the church’s archives can then be used to further a genealogical search, says Mr. Neal, who was the diocesan archivist from 1989 through 1998.

Along with current diocesan archivist Glenn Lockwood and the various volunteer workers who handle many of the searches, Mr. Neal refers researchers to other archives and sources of information like land records, passenger lists for trans-Atlantic ships and census information.
The diocese has also indexed certain parish registers from three dioceses which border Ottawa: Algoma, Ontario and Montreal.

A few general rules for genealogists:

  • There are genealogical societies in every province and most major cities which can advise on starting a family history;
  • The General Synod archives (contact information below) can help to determine which diocesan or government archives might hold certain documents, or outside archives may be contacted directly if you have already identified them (links for government and provincial archives can be found at the bottom of this page and diocesan archives can be found in this website’s diocesan archives page.)
  • If a family tree takes someone back to England, most English parish records are kept in county records offices. General Synod archives can refer you to the correct county records office but Ms. Thompson warns that archival searches in England are costly.

Ms. Thompson recommends that researchers call or e-mail the archives with their inquiries. The national church archives, which are open to the public, may be accessed by appointment only:

Terry Thompson
416 924 9199 ext. 279
[email protected]

Some genealogy links:

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