When I started researching Portuguese genealogy, I ran into some problems identifying the exact parish I needed. The family I started researching said they were from a town (concelho) called Meda, in the district of Guarda. Meda is a small town. I had the great-grandmother's full name and approximate birth date, so we decided to start with the parish records to see if we could locate her. I looked up Meda, to see what church parish records existed and what had been microfilmed. Sure enough, Meda was listed and there were microfilmed records available to research. However, after some searching, I had not found anything. A family member knew something was wrong, because as far as she knew, her entire family had lived in Meda for years and years back. However, it was only after consulting a geographic dictionary and a Catholic parish map that we discovered there might be more to consider. Fortunately, we decided to consult our primary sources again, just to be sure, and contacted the extended family again that was still living in Portugal. It was only then that we realized that while the family was indeed from Meda, they were a part of a parish of a different name, called Poço do Canto, that was still within the jurisdiction of the concelho of Meda. This ultimately led us to some fantastic research on this family • they had lived in this parish for years, as had much of their extended family many generations back, and I am still working on their line because it has expanded so much! What would have been a very disappointing dead-end search turned out to be a gold mine in finding and connecting a family.
My experience demonstrated two very common challenges in dealing with genealogy research generally, and with microfilmed parish records specifically. When somebody indicates where they or their ancestors are from, either when telling someone else or reporting it on a document, they generally indicate the town or city, and not the parish. However, when researching Portuguese genealogy, it is the parish name that counts. A city or town will also have a parish, usually by the same name, but if a town is also what is called a concelho or municipality, it will have several parishes within its jurisdiction. This can cause a lot of confusion, and is what happened in the case of this family. The second problem deals with how microfilmed parish records are catalogued in the Family History Library. For Portugal, the records are organized by parish, then district, and then country, which is why on our first attempt we only found one parish listed for Meda, when in reality there are several located within the Meda concelho. Again, we thought we had the right parish because we had the right town, when in reality the right parish wasn't even listed by that town name in the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC). The cataloging system skips the town level, and goes to the district level instead; the 'Meda, Guarda, Portugal' church records listing in the FHLC, that we first started researching, is referring to the parish of Meda, not the town, and then the district of Guarda, in the country of Portugal. The parish we were ultimately seeking is catalogud as 'Poco do Canto, Guarda, Portugal', although it also resides within the concelho of Meda. When the family indicated they were from Meda, they meant the town (concelho) of Meda, not the parish of Meda.
This demonstrates how important it is to completely exhaust all primary sources, especially the memory and records of any living relatives, before diving into any microfilmed records. Additionally, you must have a general understanding of how local boundaries are organized in the country, and in turn how the microfilmed records are cataloged.
But what should be done if the parish name can't be located, and all you have is the name of the nearest town? As in the case mentioned above, we knew they were in Meda, Guarda. (Guarda is one of Portugal's 18 districts). For purposes of genealogical research, it is useful to know that each district is divided into concelhos, and then the parishes (freguesias) are grouped within the concelho. The district and concelho are the government boundaries, and the parish obviously refers to the church organization, within that concelho's boundaries. Were we not able to find out through family memory and records which parish to look in, we could have consulted each parish within the known concelho, looking for whatever known event, name and date (or approximate date), we had to start with. With this approach it is also wise to look for any last names that are the same as your relative, because many times immediate or extended family members live in the same parish, or in close proximity, and can be a clue to finding the main family member. For this kind of name-only search, marriage or baptism records are a better place to start, as death records may not yield as much information about family members, like listing parent and grandparent names.