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Searching for Catholic Marriages in New York City, Part Two

The second article of this two-part series describes what a researcher is likely to encounter tracing the marriages of these Manhattanites.


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This is the second of a two-part article on researching Catholic marriages in New York City. Part One explores New York state marriage laws in the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, comparing 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. Part Two, examines marriage records in Manhattan, comparing information between civil and Catholic marriage records, explores what non-compliance with civil record-keeping can mean to researchers, and suggests methods for successfully researching the records.

Marriage Records in Manhattan

Marriage records are usually a very good place to start your research. These are often the earliest vital record kept in a county. Early returns often list only the names of the couple, the witnesses and the official performing the ceremony. Later records will usually include the ages of the spouses, places of birth, their parents' names, occupations, race and marital status. For instance, an ancestor might have married in 1859, creating a simple record without much information. Then, he might have married a second time (possibly in a different location) and the new marriage record may provide much more detailed information. In the United States a single wedding ceremony is performed, satisfying both the interests of the state and requirements of the Catholic Church. Even though a single event has taken place, the information recorded varies greatly, depending on the record keeper or the time of the event. Both the church and the state may record the marriage details. The earliest civil marriage records for Manhattan date from 1847 at the Municipal Archives. The earliest Catholic marriage record is c. 1819 at St. Peter's Church.

Department of Health Marriage Records

The NYC Health Department kept the only civil marriage records across the city through 1907. Marriage indexes, the marriage registers (also known as liber books), and the marriage certificates exist on microfilm. They can be accessed at the NYC Municipal Archives or the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. The Municipal Archives web site is The FHL catalog can be viewed at its web site on The NYC Municipal Archives has the Department of Health marriage records from June 1847-1848 and July 1853-1937 on microfilm. There are indexes for Manhattan marriage registers from 1873 through 1888, arranged alphabetically by the first letter of the groom's surname. Indexes are available for all Manhattan marriage certificates between 1866 and 1937 at the Municipal Archives.

In New York City, the Register of Marriages was a two-page spread listing the following information: Number, Date of Marriage, Full Name of Groom, Residence (Number & Street), Age, Color, Occupation, Husband's Birthplace, Name of Father, Name of Mother, Number of Husband's marriage, Full Name of Wife, Residence (Number & Street), Age, Color, Occupation, Wife's Birthplace, Name of Father, Name of Mother, Number of Wife's marriage, by whom married and the official position of the person performing the ceremony, and when recorded. Multiple marriages were recorded per page in the register.

The Health Department of New York City began issuing individual marriage certificates starting in 1866 which listed names of the parties, residences, ages, status, occupation, maiden name of bride if a widow, places of birth, parents' names, number of marriage, person performing the wedding, his official station, address and signature, and names and signatures of witnesses. The information typically can be found with one marriage per certificate.

Manhattan sent copies of the marriage certificates to Albany. However, the NYC Department of Health also continued to maintain a wedding register book recording similar information in a single line entry, until 1888. While the index from 1888 survives, only the registers themselves exist for 1866-1887. However, the numbers on marriage certificates and the numbers in the marriage register DO NOT correspond. For example, Terence McKeon married Mary Connor on 27 Oct 1867. Their marriage was issued, certificate number 6247; the marriage register line number on page 167 was # 13. This one wedding was recorded in two different ways by the NYC Department of Health, on 29 Nov 1867. This duplication of information can be very helpful when a certificate is challenging to read. It is possible that the certificate had faded over time or the clergyman recording the certificate had poor penmanship. The marriage register was a separate recording by a different person. If the event took place between 1866 and 1887, it may be possible to clearly make out a maiden name or other fact in the marriage register when the marriage certificate is illegible.

City Clerk Marriage Licenses

The Office of the City Clerk first issued marriage licenses and received its own completed marriage certificates (on the reverse side of the license) in 1908. Until 1937 a couple could have a marriage record in the NYC Health Department records and the City Clerk records or both!

A marriage license and a marriage certificate are separate and distinct documents. A marriage license states that the appropriate authority has found no grounds to prevent this couple from marrying and so a marriage may proceed. A marriage certificate states that a couple did marry on a specific date but it is possible for a marriage license to exist for a wedding that never took place. For example, one of the parties may have died before the ceremony or changed his/her mind.

Marriage licenses recorded information similar to that on marriage certificates. Included was an affidavit, often filled out by the couple themselves, listing the full name, color, residence, age, occupation, place of birth, name of parents, country of birth of parents, and number of the present marriage. After filing the affidavit, the City Clerk would rewrite the information on the license form, granting permission for the clergyman to perform the wedding. After the ceremony was performed, the clergyman would fill out the certificate on the opposite side of the license, have the witnesses sign it, too, and return it to the Office of the City Clerk.

The certificate numbers from the Health Department and the license numbers from the City Clerk's office do not correspond because they were created for two different documents filed by two different civil authorities. For instance, Timothy Buckley and Christina Riordan applied for their marriage license on 1 Jun 1929 and were issued license number #12809 by the City Clerk. They married 4 Jun 1929 and their Certificate and Record of Marriage was received by the NYC Department of Health on 11 Jun 1929. This document was issued certificate number 13307. The IGG web site lists the Health Department certificate numbers, so be sure to request the correct document with the correct numbers when ordering a document from the NYC Municipal Archives.

The Office of the City Clerk license provided unparalleled detail because it also asked about previous spouses and, if there was a divorce, details were listed. A question on the affidavit about the place of birth often elicited a more detailed response about location of birth than just a state or country name. My Irish-born maternal grandparents listed Cork, Ireland as place of birth in their 1929 marriage license affidavit. My Manhattan-born paternal grandparents listed the exact street addresses of birth on their 1919 marriage license application.

Since 1938 only the Office of the City Clerk has issued marriage licenses and recorded returned marriage certificates. The licenses from 1908-1929 and their indexes are available at NYC Municipal Archives.

However, the indexes at NYC Municipal Archives are not in complete alphabetical order. The first two letters of a name are used to sort the records and each few months a new index volume begins. It is best to have an approximate date of marriage to expedite the search in these records. More details can be found at Municipal Archives' web site, Later marriage licenses can be obtained from the City Clerk's office provided the marriage took place at least 50 years ago. More recent marriages can only be obtained by the couple or with their permission. For details visit the City Clerk web site at

Marriage Records in Catholic Parishes

Canon law required priests to keep a sacramental register including marriages. Catholic marriage records did not usually contain much information before 1900. The names of the bride, groom, witnesses and the priest were listed along with the date of the wedding. There will also be notes in the margins regarding unusual marriages where the spouses were related or where one of the parties was not Catholic. If a researcher currently obtains just a certificate, these notations will not be included. It is crucial to always request full notations when writing to a Catholic parish. If the couple were related or were a mixed marriage, papers had to be filed with the bishop. It is possible that additional information may survive about these couples in the chancery of the diocese.

Catholic marriage records can provide details about an ancestor's faith if they entered a mixed marriage. The specific denomination or religion of the non-Catholic may be listed next to his/her name in the register. These details will never show up in either civil marriage records or census records.

The parish register may have complied with the canon law of the day but was insufficiently detailed to comply with the marriage laws of the state. It is uncommon to find more than the names of the couple, witnesses and priest recorded before the 1900s. New York marriage statutes required the clergyman to list the residence, age and condition of the couple in the marriage register.

A few baptisms were recorded in the marriage records. Some were scratched and noted that they were moved. Others were not scratched. A researcher should consider checking the baptismal records for marriages that have proved difficult to find.

After 1900 marriage registers in a Catholic church may provide much more information. The later registers may have listed the names of the bride and groom, ages, residences, their parents' names, where baptized and when, the names of the witnesses, the priest and the date. It is possible to discover where a person was baptized from their marriage record in these later records. This can be very useful identifying a place of origin, if the ancestor was born in another country. The baptismal entry is supposed to identify where a person married or took religious vows. Again one must request full notations to get the extra information. Since Catholic marriage records before 1900 offer scant details, it has been a huge loss to genealogists that civil registration was not universal in New York City. Collateral research is more essential than ever searching Catholic immigrants in New York City.

What Details Are Missing from Parish Marriage Certificates?

My great-grandparents, Joseph Cassidy and Bridget Benson, were married at St. Gabriel's Catholic Church on 18 May 1892. Despite two searches of the index, no civil record of their marriage has been found. Their church certificate mentioned only their names, witnesses' names and the name of the priest and date.

In contrast, Joseph's brother married in Ireland. Patrick Cassidy's marriage was recorded both with the parish and the government. Irish civil marriage records listed considerable information: when married, the names and surnames of the couple, age, condition, profession, residence, father's name and surname and his profession. The record would also note if the father was deceased at the time of the wedding.

The civil marriages in Ireland have been indexed and an entry found for him in 1877 revealed their city of origin was Newry. These civil registration indexes save a lot of time finding vital records in Ireland after 1863. Patrick married Ann Murphy on 7 Apr 1877 at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Newry, County Down. Their ages were recorded as "Full." He was a bachelor, she a spinster. They resided in Newry but a specific street address in not listed. Their fathers were Michael Cassidy and Patrick Murphy. All three men were laborers. The priest was Bernard O'Hagan. The registrar recorded the marriage on 18 May 1877.

Other marriages in my research also failed to be found in the civil records. Joseph Cassidy was married three times in New York City. The first wedding took place at Immaculate Conception on 25 Nov 1878. There was no civil record for the Cassidy-McKeon wedding. Youngest brother, Michael Cassidy, married Joseph's sister-in-law at Immaculate Conception on 4 Jan 1882. There was no civil record of this Cassidy-McKeon wedding, either. Joseph's brother-in-law, James Benson married on 23 Jun 1881 at Holy Cross and, again, there was no civil record.

Other NYC Catholic marriages from the period between 1880 and 1906 did not show up in the civil records. These weddings took place in different parishes across the city and in different decades. This indicates that the lack of compliance reflected more than just a few priests who were delinquent in their civic duties.

Milton S. Hershey, founder of Hershey Chocolate, married Catherine Sweeney, in the rectory of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Despite performing a wedding in the most important parish in the archdiocese, the priest did not deem it necessary to report the event to the civil authorities, as late as 1898.

It was surprising that Catholic priests in Ireland would follow the civil laws of their country (since 1864 when such marriages were required to be registered) but their American counterparts were less compliant, even despite that the laws of New York required them to do so as early as 1847.

The children of Joseph, Patrick, and Michael Cassidy left a completely different set of marriage records between 19091921. Six of these eleven children reached adulthood and married. Five of the six first-cousins appear in the IGG Marriage Index. A City Clerk marriage license was filed for the one cousin who did not have a Department of Health marriage certificate. The names of both parents are listed on all these records along with a birthplace, residence, and occupation. Civil registration of marriages had become standard for this family by the early 1900s.

Successfully Searching for Catholic Marriages in Manhattan

Searching Catholic ancestors in Manhattan presents a challenge. Unlike the civil records of the NYC Department of Health, there is no centralized collection of sacramental records. This includes marriage records from the nineteenth-century, crucial to most genealogical projects. One has to determine the parish where a wedding took place and when, in order to write a letter to the parish in question. Family tradition, the US Census, city directories, and vital record certificates can help determine in which parish a marriage occurred. Fees vary, but $25 is not unheard of to cover the cost of a search. If the marriage record is not found one must write again, to the bordering parish, and so on.

Currently, very few of the sacramental records in the Archdiocese of New York have been microfilmed. Most records exist only in their original book form. (One can hope that they are in better condition than the Laws of New York books I viewed to determine the marriage registration requirements from 1847-1907. Many of the pages crumbled a bit despite my best efforts to be gentle. These books were at a university library and not an archive where one might be expected to wear gloves.) The web site for the Archdiocese of New York is

The case of my great-grandmother, Catherine McGinn, and her siblings demonstrate the benefits of searching an entire family instead of just your direct-line ancestors. Catherine married twice, first in 1888 to John McGuigan in Clogher, County Tyrone. Later in 1903, at age 43, she married Francis Gormley at Holy Cross parish in NYC. The earlier marriage record listed that her father was Patrick McGinn, a farmer from Newtownsaville but did not reveal her mother's name.

The second certificate listed only the basic limited information of a Catholic marriage record. However, it established that she used the Anglicized version of her late husband's surname, Goodwin. In 1905, when the Gormleys' only child was baptized, the name of mother was listed as Catherine Goodwin. The priest at St. Raphael's may have inquired what her name was "before the marriage" and not what was "her maiden name." In Catherine's case, those two questions would result in two different answers. Catherine's brother married in the Bronx in 1902 at age 39. Owen McGinn's Department of Health marriage certificate disclosed that their mother was Alice McWilliams. The mother's name was extracted on the IGI as Alice M. Williams. Researchers should keep this in mind when a surname does not instantly come up in an index search. Searching for Owen McGinn's marriage certificate by writing to Holy Cross and St. Raphael proved fruitless. It was only because there was a Department of Health certificate that his wedding was located using the IGI and the IGG bridal index. It would have taken a long time and many dollars before I considered checking marriages in the Bronx.

Bridget McGinn, like her elder sister, married twice. Her first marriage is a good example of a marriage that occurred but has not been found in any Catholic register. There was no NYC Health Department record filed after the wedding, either. According to her son's baptismal and death certificates in 1902 and the family's 1915 NY State Census enumeration and her 1920 Office of the City Clerk marriage license affidavit, Bridget was the wife of Patrick Mulcahy.

Fortunately, like her siblings, she married later in life and filed a civil marriage record in NYC. Her second marriage, at age 53, to John Meade provides much information. The marriage record at Ascension Church revealed that she was baptized in Clogher, County Tyrone and the names of her parents. The Office of the City Clerk's license revealed that she was a widow and again listed her parents' names.

Searching a family tree is not the same as baking a batch of cookies. There is no set sequence to each search. As researchers we do not come to information in the same order as our distant cousins searching the same families. Starting from what we know may bring us to the correct census or extra marriage record sooner than a third cousin. The three McGinn siblings left an adequate paper trail to track them back to Ireland. Researchers need to examine all possible leads because the extra information may solve a persistent research problem.


In considering why parish priest failed to register marriages performed in their parishes, some suggest a priest may not think he had to register a sacrament with the city. He did not register the baptisms there, why should matrimony be any different? I have to wonder how many Catholic marriages went unrecorded altogether in this time period. I am confident it is a small number, but if a researcher has to write to dozens of parishes spending $25 per request, that is an expensive mistake. Indexing these registers would be a time saver for researchers, parish secretaries, and the Municipal Archives. Unfortunately, nothing can be done to change the fact that many Catholic marriages were not recorded in the civil records of New York City, and this lost genealogical information caused by non-compliance cannot be regenerated. More than likely other religious leaders did not fully comply with the laws of New York, and Catholic priests in other American dioceses may have neglected to turn in copies of their marriage records to the municipal offices. However, the researcher must keep in mind that the index available at the IGG web site is a great tool. It should be a first step because if a wedding is found there it will be lead to the civil marriage. Ultimately, the civil record will identify the parish where the marriage occurred. If the wedding is not in the index before 1908, then it will be more difficult to find. Using the Catholic Directory to identify what parishes served our ancestors' neighborhoods, a genealogist can identify the most likely locations of their marriages. The Catholic Directory identifies what year a parish started, its address, and if the parish where its registers are held has closed. This book is available at public libraries and a Catholic parish office near you.

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.

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