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  • Writer's pictureColleen Murray

New work on Old problems

Updated: May 31, 2021

Photo courtesy of Avacados via Flickr Creative Commons

Ontario Church records

A few years ago, when I was researching some ancestors in Sullivan, Grey County, Ontario, I tried to piece together where to find their church records from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I did manage to find a few of them, but the challenges involved made me put the project on the back burner until recently.

One of the biggest challenges with my Protestant ancestors is that they did not consistently identify with one denomination. They often identified as Church of England, but sometimes Presbyterian or Methodist. Adding to the confusion, in 1925 many Presbyterian and Methodist congregations voted in join the United Church. If a congregation voted to change, then their records, even those made before 1925, would be found with the United Church. But if they elected to remain Presbyterian, their records would be found with the Presbyterian Church. Its taken time with old maps and local histories to try to determine what churches were nearest at the time. Some of these events may not have even happened in a church, as sometimes roving circuit riders performed baptisms or marriages, and their records may have been filed in distant districts. Though my ancestors lived in Sullivan County, throughout their lives, they had a lot of contact with neighbouring Bruce County, adding the further possibility that some of their church records could be found there.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives has some useful finding aids, listing what congregations they hold records for and the years covered. The challenge is knowing the town that your ancestor would have visited for church, and then considering whether any amalgamations of records may have moved your records to a different congregation. Once settling on the closest churches, I then had to consult local histories to see if those churches had chosen to join the United Church or not. One of the closest Presbyterian churches -Desboro- voted to join the United Church.

The United Church Archives’ collection is detailed on the website, and though this is a catalog of many different archives in Ontario, you can choose to search just the United Church’s archives. You can try searching by different place names, based on the towns nearest your ancestor. Again, maps were important in deciding what names to search, and again, many of the records have been organized by minister, or the name of the church where the records ultimately ended up, making it tricky to decide if you have found all the possibilities that could relate to your family. Ultimately, the United church records in the Desboro area don’t appear to have early baptisms and marriages filed with them. Possibly the records are filed with a neighbouring area, or a travelling minister or may have been lost. It isn’t ideal to start a course of borrowing reels of microfilm via interlibrary loan without having a good sense that you are on the right track, so the search continued.

According to my great grandfather’s civil marriage record in 1907, he and his bride were Presbyterian at the time, and were married by Rev. D. Currie. According to a local history I found, a D. Currie was the minister at the Zion Presbyterian church in Peabody, Grey County at some point.[1] Peabody isn’t as close to my ancestors’ land as Desboro, but it appears possible that the marriage occurred at this church, or may at least have been recorded in their books. The local history additionally says that Peabody joined the United Church in 1925 and though as a Presbyterian Church it had been grouped with Keady and Desboro, as a United church is was reorganized into the group of Elmwood, Crawford and Lambash. Unfortunately, the United church only has Zion Church baptisms for the years in question, and no marriage records at all. Although this discovery won’t help me find the marriage I’m looking for, it might help me find baptisms for other people of interest. According to the local history, the Desboro United church joined the Chatsworth Charge in 1957. There are records in the United Church Archives catalogue for Chatsworth, and though Desboro is only mentioned in the description as part of an earlier Methodist minister circuit, this still seems like the only lead I have for records of the correct time frame. Unfortunately, none of the records I looked at in the catalog are among those that have been microfilmed, and thus would need to be researched onsite in Toronto or through a hired researcher. The archives themselves will consider short queries. I emailed them a few weeks ago to see if it is likely that the marriage record survives, and am waiting to hear back.

The church records that I have successfully found for these ancestors were in the Anglican Church archives, located at the Verschoyle Phillip Cronyn Memorial Archives in London, Ontario. I visited a few years ago and found baptism, marriage and confirmation records. Like the Presbyterian and United archives, it was necessary to know the names of possible towns and parishes that I wanted to search. Amalgamations had also happened, and for example, records for my area (Sullivan) were found with records from Chatsworth, even though the baptism was performed by the Anglican minister of Sullivan. The Anglican Archive, at least at that time, did not have a catalog that the public could search, meaning that I was asking the archival assistant to search under a variety of place names as they occurred to me. In retrospect, I should have arrived with maps and lists in hand, but I had less experience in archival research at the time. Although I was very pleased to find some records, I am still haunted by the idea that I may have missed some by not asking the right questions or picking the right town names.

Ultimately, Canadian church records are challenging to use because very few are digitized or even microfilmed. Others (like those of my local Catholic church) are basically locked down due to privacy concerns. It is sad to think that so many church records of extreme value to historians, genealogists and church researchers are so difficult to access, and aren’t being preserved in a digital format that would protect them as well as improve access. My hope is that FamilySearch is able to digitize some of these Protestant church records in the same way that they digitized many Ontario Catholic Church records a few years ago. Religious archives don’t have the resources to answer numerous queries or to digitize their own records, but do have a mandate to preserve, so partnering with a group like FamilySearch would be a win-win for all.

[1] Sullivan Historical Society, A History of Sullivan Township 1850 to 1975, (Desboro, Ontario: Sullivan Historical Society, 1975), 74.

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