Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Looking for church records at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Hancock, Maryland. Oh my!

I have no lovely trip photos from my visit to St. Peter's Catholic Church to use here so I'll pop in something scenic at the end to spruce it up. Instead I have quick snaps of index cards and a register page. If you're crazy-wild about genealogy, and some of you are, you'd probably just rather see the dusty records:)

Cousin Joseph whom we met because of an AncestryDNA match was a deep well of information about our shared ancestors and friends who inhabited the area around Magnolia, West Virginia. He was the one who told me about St. Patrick's Catholic Church just across the wide Potomac River on the Maryland side in Little Orleans. He also explained that the oldest records for that church were not at the church because it was a mission church. That means that that services - and records - were supplied by a circuit priest who traveled to a couple of satellite churches. That's still the case even today and the priest from St. Peter's in Hancock MD visits St. Patrick's and does the ritual on Saturday evening then returns and celebrates at St. Peter's on Sunday. It really must be difficult, if not impossible, to keep that schedule in the deep heart of winter! And that arrangement has been going on for at east 150 years, as far as I can tell, back when he was making his way on horseback. Can you imagine?!

Before we knew for sure the story of St. Patrick's in Little Orleans across the Potomac River from Magnolia, Mom had always speculated that it must have been a circuit rider who performed baptisms and marriages for all the Catholics in the area. Cousin Rich emphasized in an email not too long ago that these ancestors of ours were Irish Catholics and would probably have made whatever journey needed to get children baptized and the young folks wed. It was probably only a matter of time before we acted on our hunch and found where our ancestors worshiped, but Cousin Joseph pointed us right at it.

I had talked to the parish administrative staff a couple of times before the visit. I could tell that they were very willing to help but also very busy. I noted the hours the office was open and then checked their location on maps so we knew where we were going. I also got crystal clear in my mind what I was after and ranked them in importance so that no time would be wasted.

Originally Cousin Rich said that he might meet us there but then that didn't work out for him. So I got a list of what he was looking for too. Now I thought I was set.

The one thing I overlooked was directions on where the church office was. Silly, really. After knocking on a ridiculous number of doors, I stood outside and called the office number I brought with me. Of course the correct door was the very inviting one that entered into the kitchen... and right in front of me.

Once inside I was directed to the index files. Some fastidious and caring volunteers had transcribed all of the old registers and typed up index cards with all the information provided in the original entries. In this case the index was very thorough and correct as far as I could tell. Unfortunately, I did not find our Farrells. But I did find some other O'Farrells that we know aren't our folks but are fun to follow as a side entertainment. I carefully pulled the cards for any records that might need further investigation and marked their location in the file to insure easy and correct return. Then they were carefully placed on the big dining room table that was part of the office and photographed  using both my camera and phone. The phone pic were immediately send to Cousin Rich for back up and his perusal.

I chatted up the assistant who was helping me and asked if I could just look at the old registers. Sure, she said, and out they came from the big safe where they were held. I was thrilled! Don't know what it is but I love looking at old books like this. They were in rather fragile condition and needed to be handled very gently or they might come apart any moment. She ended up bringing out four in all and we thumbed through sample pages. She showed me entries by a priest who did all his accounting in Latin. Too bad I couldn't read a thing. And there was another priest who mostly scrawled in a big lose hand. His were the most frustrating of all the entries. The entries I liked best were just short of calligraphy and tidily elegant.

One hears about these old parish registers and the priests who wrote in the big books. Some, it is said, drank to keep the cold away and make the job rest easy on the bones. I couldn't help guess if it might be the scrawler, the Latin scribe or the fastidious calligrapher who might have been fond of a little spirits to warm on a cold night?


Above, a register page.
Below, a sampling of index cards.
One of a hundred thousand fields in Maryland, this one just across
the Potomac River from Paw Paw West Virginia.



  1. Lucky you to be able to see and touch those old books. A church historian in eastern Ohio did some research a few years ago in the old ledges because I couldn't read German. She sent me copies, a few with translations. Those index cards would be a great blessing.

    1. Aren't those old books magical? And you got translations!
      Right, Nancy, those index cards were good and very accurate.
      Hope that you're having a happy summer!