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Searching for Catholic Marriages in New York City, Part One

Many researchers can trace their family tree back to the island of Manhattan. A large number of these ancestors were Catholic immigrants of the nineteenth century. This article describes what a researcher is likely to encounter tracing the marriages of these Manhattanites.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Kevin Cassidy
Word Count: 2543 (approx.)
Labels: Birth Record 
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I was surprised when my request for a marriage certificate to the New York City Municipal Archives received the reply that my great-grandparents' marriage was not in their records. Their 1900 United States Census enumeration stated that they had been married eight years and that their only son was born in August 1893. When I finally obtained the church marriage certificate from a family member, I sent it along with a letter asking the Municipal Archives to check again. Their second correspondence stated that an additional search had been done and the marriage was not recorded in their records. The letter also mentioned that it was common for Catholic marriages to go unrecorded with the city in the nineteenth century.

What percentage of Catholic marriages in New York City parishes went unrecorded with the civil authorities? I decided to conduct a case study of the degree to which New York City parochial marriage records overlap with the municipal records of marriages, with the information available to me. I focused on Manhattan since that was where my families had lived in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Until 1898, New York City and Manhattan were synonymous for the same municipality. The island of Manhattan remains in the Archdiocese of New York. The state laws regarding marriage from 1847-1908 would apply.

This article, divided into two parts, reports this case study and its findings. In Part One, I detail what the state marriage laws were in New York in the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century. I also compare names from Catholic marriage records to the corresponding Department of Health records and determine what percentage of Catholic marriages went unrecorded with the civil authorities. In Part Two, I describe marriage records in Manhattan, comparing the information provided on civil marriage records to their Catholic marriage counterparts and detail what non-compliance with civil record-keeping means to researchers.

New York State Marriage Laws

New York State is one of the few states that did not begin recording marriages shortly after the creation of the counties. Therefore, marriage records in New York begin late compared to the other original thirteen states.

New York first required marriage records to be kept in 1847. By 1849 most communities had ceased recording these events. This first statute required that records be kept but not, apparently, to be turned into the city.

In New York City, civil record-keeping of marriages began again in 1853. A marriage was recorded in a one-line register listing the details of the nuptials.

Chapter 75, Laws of New York, Seventy-Sixth Session, Passed 2 Apr 1853

§1. "It shall be the duty of the clergymen … who perform the marriage ceremony in the city of New York, to keep a registry of the marriages celebrated by them, which shall contain, as near as the same can be ascertained, the name and surname of the parties married; the residence, age and conditions of each whether single or widowed."

§2. "The city inspector of the city of New York shall keep a record of . . . the . . . marriages . . . reported to him."

§5. "Every clergyman . . . solemnizing a marriage, and reporting the same in accordance with this act, shall be entitled to demand and receive for the same from the parties, the sum of at least one dollar, out of which he shall pay the fee for recording such marriages."

§7. "Every person who shall neglect or refuse to comply with or violate the provisions of this act, shall forfeit and pay for each offence the sum of fifty dollars, to be sued for and recovered in the name of the mayor, aldermen and commonalty of the city of New York, and the penalty when recovered shall be paid over, one-half thereof to the corporation of the city of New York, and one-half to the party making complaint thereof."

  • It is clear the law required every clergyman performing weddings in New York City (only Manhattan before 1898) to keep a marriage registry with specific detailed information.
  • In 1888 the state placed a burden on the bridegroom to also report the wedding and gave a thirty-day time limit to record the marriage with the city.
  • In 1897 the fine increased to $100 per omission and marriages had to be recorded within ten days!
Chapter 742, Laws of New York, One Hundred and Thirtieth Session

§ 8. Marriage licenses.-"It shall be necessary for all persons intending to be married to obtain a marriage license from the town or city clerk of the town or city in which the woman to be married resides and to deliver said license to the clergyman… who is to officiate before the marriage can be performed."

§ 12. Clergyman or officer violating act; penalty. "If any clergyman . . . shall solemnize or presume to solemnize any marriage between any parties without a license being presented to him . . . as herein provided . . . shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction shall be punished by a fine of no less than fifty dollars nor more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year."

  • In 1907 the marriage license statute required to the couple to obtain a license before the wedding.
  • The clergyman was not to marry people without a license.
  • He faced fines between $50-$500 and a year in prison if he was convicted.
  • The person performing the wedding was still responsible for returning the license with the certificate information filled in and signed on the back of the license after the ceremony to the Office of the City Clerk.
  • This law went into effect on 1 Jan 1908.
The statutory language reveals the state's intent to collect health information on births, deaths and marriages. Death registration was easier to coordinate and ensure compliance. The NYC Department of Health found that a limited number of cemeteries and funeral homes were a manageable group of offices to enforce compliance.

Marriages and births were another matter. Births could take place in any residence or hospital in the city. Weddings, likewise, could take place in the home, church or city hall. This inordinate number of locations made the enforcement of vital record registration laws difficult for both births and marriages. Many of these events were not filed with the NYC Department of Health, despite the prospect of prosecution and fines facing the physicians, clergymen and family members failing to comply.

How Many NYC Catholic Wedding Were Recorded with Civil Authorities?

Exactly how many Catholic weddings went unreported with the NYC Department of Health is unknown. Since the Archdiocese of New York has not allowed microfilming of its sacramental records, the number of such marriages is not going to be discovered in the near future. Chicago and several other large dioceses have allowed the Genealogical Society of Utah to microfilm their historical sacramental records. There are no plans to microfilm the sacramental registers in the New York archdiocese.

There also is no central index available to direct a researcher to the correct parish for a marriage certificate. Parishes may have an index in their own registers but there is no plan to bring those together in a single list.

Research Methodology

Three Manhattan Catholic parishes did have their sacramental registers microfilmed: Sts. Cyril and Methodius, St. Raphael, and St. Clare. These three parishes have been consolidated and are currently known as Sts. Cyril and Methodius/St. Raphael.

The New York City Health Department published marriage indexes from 1888-1937. The published marriage indexes are organized alphabetically by the surname of the groom only. Card marriage indexes also exist. For Manhattan brides, the card indexes cover 1866-1937 and for Manhattan grooms, the card indexes cover 1866-1910. The Italian Genealogical Group (IGG) is in the process of entering the marriage indexes into a computer database at its web site at www.italiangen.org. This searchable index includes brides from 1866-1937 for Manhattan and grooms from 1895-1897 and 1908-1936 for Manhattan.

Since the Office of the City Clerk began to record marriages in 1908 and these records are not online in either index or record form, I decided to search only through 1908. This was the first year a priest would have had two options to record the marriage with a civil authority. A NYC Department of Health marriage certificate may not have been filed by the clergyman but he was still in compliance with the statute by returning the marriage license issued by the Office of the City Clerk with the appropriate signatures in the certificate form on the back of the license. I decided to include the first year of possible dual registration to see if a marked jump in compliance occurred.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius did not open until 1913. While St. Clare opened in 1903, I chose to not include its records in my research because I decided that an additional six years of marriages from an adjacent parish would not improve the sample quality. With these limitations and the recognition that using only one parish for my case study is not a large enough sample to be scientific, I proceeded.

The available marriage records for St. Raphael begin in the late summer of 1886. I made photocopies of the 143 pages in the register covering from 1 September 1886 thru the end of 1908. There were 1,508 weddings recorded in this 22 1/3 year span. The number of weddings per year ranged from a peak of 104 in 1890 to a low of 32 in 1908.

I checked the list of brides found in the St. Raphael's register starting in 1886, against the IGG bridal index to see if a civil document had also been created.

Some of the writing on the microfilm copy was hard to decipher. I did the best I could searching surnames by "contains", "ends with," "starts with," and "sounds like" to make sure I did not miss any brides in the Health Department index. This searching tool is found at the web site run by Steve Morse, at www.stevemorse.org. Dr. Morse's web site has a search engine for the IGG marriage indexes which enables searches with only part of a surname.

I also used the International Genealogical Index (IGI) found at www.familysearch.org as a secondary resource to check common names and surnames to make sure the index citation was for the wedding in the St. Raphael records and not one of a person with the same name marrying a different person.

For instance, Catharine Ahearn married Thomas Boylan at St. Raphael's on 5 Jun 1892. There was a Catherin Ahearn in the IGG bridal index for 1892. The grooms are not indexed for this period yet so I could not cross reference the groom's index in 1892 as I was able to do for weddings from 1895-1897 and in 1908. The NYC Department of Health issued certificate #6206 for the 22 May 1892 marriage of Catharin Ahearn.

To make sure that this was not the same couple I checked the IGI and found that the May 1892 wedding was between Catharin Ahearn and George Meckesey. This established that there were two different weddings and the St. Raphael's Ahearn wedding was unrecorded with the municipal authorities.

Research Findings

The results were very surprising. As you see below, it was not until 1894 that any St. Raphael marriages were recorded with the civil authorities, and then only 27.6 percent of total number of marriages performed.

1886 - 0/29) = 0% (last 4 months of year only)
1887 - 0/92 = 0%
1888 - 0/92 = 0%
1889 - 0/92 = 0%
1890 - 0/104 = 0%
1891 - 0/80 = 0%
1892 - 0/85 = 0%
1893 - 0/88 = 0%
1894 - 21/76 = 27.6%
1895 - 61/85 = 71.8%
1896 - 43/76 = 56 6%
1897 - 28/63 = 44 4%
1898 - 37/73 = 50.7%
1899 - 23/56 = 41.1%
1900 - 33/43 = 76.7%
1901 - 42/48 = 87.5%
1902 - 44/55 = 80.0%
1903 - 25/50 = 50.0%
1904 - 16/48 = 33.3%
1905 - 24/43 = 55.8%
1906 - 29/53 = 54.7%
1907 - 25/45 = 55.6%
1908 - 29/32 = 90.6%

Out of the total of 1,508 weddings listed in the marriage register at St. Raphael's, only 480 were also registered with the NYC Department of Health; this is a mere 31.8%. During the first 7 1/3 years not a single one of St. Raphael's weddings was recorded with the city.

Less than a third of these marriages were recorded in the NYC Department of Health records that provide the detailed information every family history researcher seeks. At $50 per omission (and later $100 each), a judge could have assessed quite a large total of fines against the twenty-six different Catholic priests serving St. Raphael's from 1886-1908.

Fortunately, as time progressed the percentage increased. From 1886-1893, the rate of compliance was zero. Six hundred sixty-two (662) weddings were celebrated and none was registered with the NYC Department of Health. From 1894-1900, 246 out of the 472 weddings (52.1%) celebrated at St. Raphael's also were registered with the city. From 1901-1908, 234 out of 374 (62.6%) weddings at St. Raphael's were recorded with the Department of Health.

In 1894 only 27.6% of the St. Raphael's marriages were also reported to the NYC Health Department. Yet, beginning in 1895 the percentage increases from 71.8% to a high of 90.6% in 1908. There are five years in the final range where the percentage is below 51%; 1897, 1898, 1899, 1903 and 1904. In 1907, the number was 55.6 %, so there was indeed a 35-point increase of civilly reported marriages in 1908 at St. Raphael's.

Another interesting discovery was that for 76 weddings, the date of marriage recorded in St. Raphael's register differed by a few days to even a month from the corresponding date listed in the civil marriage record. Some of the discrepancies may have resulted from clerical error on the part of the priest, the civil servant, the indexes, or even the current researcher tabulating these results.

Another possibility might be that the couple celebrated two weddings. A Protestant minister might have civilly recorded a mixed marriage performed by him in New York City. Only one of the weddings with conflicting dates had the notation, matrimonia mixta (mixed marriage), suggesting marriage to a non-Catholic.

A final observation concerns 12 weddings that were not entered in the parish register at the time of the marriage. Twelve letters were added to the register between 1912-1943 concerning marriages that had been celebrated at St. Raphael's between 1895 and 1906 but were not in the marriage register. Four of these missing weddings had been recorded with the state. The other eight missing marriages raise the frightful possibility that a certain number of weddings were never recorded either with the parish or the city.

I do not know why these letters were sent to the pastor. Possibly they concerned a pension application, insurance benefits, or a second marriage. If someone had not notified the parish, these marriages would forever have been unrecorded in any register, secular or religious. It is possible that the priest simply forgot to register a marriage in his own sacramental records and did not send in a copy to the NYC Department of Health.

Having established the disconnect between parish records and the civil register, Part Ywp of this article examines marriage records in Manhattan, comparing information between civil marriage and Catholic marriage records, explores what non-compliance with civil record-keeping can mean to researchers, and suggests methods for successfully researching the records.

See also, Searching for Catholic Marriages in NYC, Part Two.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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