I wonder how many native New Yorkers looked to the Catholic Church for proof of their identity. If you are a native New Yorker, unmarried, not a parent, worked at the same job for 35 years and never learned to drive, you may not have an official identity. And to make it more interesting, what if your mother delayed naming you at birth. This happens a lot, according to NYC officials. “The focus on immigrant identity hides the number of native New Yorkers who don’t have identity papers. Many mothers delay naming their children,” said an NYC official who requested anonymity. As a genealogist trying to prove a client’s identity, my first thought was to go to church—in this case, the Roman Catholic Church.
That is how I handled my 60+ years old brother Sidney’s search for his official identity papers. His birth certificate stated his name as “Male Smith.” My mother’s maiden name, our father’s name and the date of birth was listed. Apparently our mother waited awhile before naming us. (My original birth certificate name is “Female Smith!” Our race is listed as “Colored.”)
Finally, we were able to find Sidney’s original Baptism records! (Insert a happy dance here!) A special thank you to Mia Parker of Harlem’s All Saints Roman Catholic Church. I made many calls to All Saints, our childhood church. But, I was turned away at first. I was told that the person who searches old records only works one day per month and no one knew that person’s name! By chance on my fifth call I was connected immediately to Mia. She was so caring and helpful. Mia conducted a search and located the old church register book that contains records dating back decades! There was a small glitch with the priest’s name. The handwriting was unclear. But once that was settled, they were able to reissue my brother’s new Baptism certificate. I told Mia that she is saving my brother’s life because without identity papers, he cannot find housing, access municipal services, travel or even buy flu medication!
On Sidney’s Baptism record, his full name is stated, parent’s name, mother’s maiden, godparent’s names, priest name, and addresses of all. In addition, I noticed in the last margins of the Baptismal Register’s page is a date and place of Sidney’s Confirmation, another sacramental rite that he received. Most importantly, the newly issued Baptismal certificate is imprinted with the raised stamp of authenticity of the Roman Catholic Church!
But, this is not the end of the story. The next step is to pair this official Baptism certificate with his “no name” birth certificate and re-submit to the NYC Office of Records for a ‘correction.’ There is a small fee ($40) to request a “corrected” New York City birth certificate to be re-issued with Sidney’s name on it. Wish us luck!
This experience was a good reminder about the wealth of genealogy information that can be found in Roman Catholic Church records. I ran across an article that referenced the “three R’s” of searching Catholic Church records— registers, rites & rights and requests. This article focuses on US Roman Catholic Church records. When researching Catholic churches in other countries, you will find that accessibility and procedures may vary.
“Roman Catholic records offer a wealth of information for genealogists. They are particularly useful when official civil records of key life events (birth, marriage or death) are unattainable or unavailable. Tracing these records for your Catholic ancestors can sometimes be challenging, but worth the work.” Click here for the three “R’s” for research success, on the archive.com.