St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Chatham, Northumberland County, New Brunswick, may be the most ethnically and religiously mixed-up parish I have ever researched for an Irish family. Known as “Chatham Parish,” its records (1838-1899) are indexed and digitized as part of the “Acadia, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1670-1946,” on Ancestry.com. The lessons I learned from a page-by-page search for my targeted Irish family both amazed and confused me.
Chatham drew varied ethnic groups, with the Irish and French Canadians being among the largest. It was tough to rely on the index as the originals were complex. There were smaller pieces of paper inserted in the binding to reflect dispensations to marry, notices signed by non-Catholic spouses concerning their children’s religious upbringing, and of people requesting proof of their baptism so they could be married elsewhere.
Then there were the records of people converting to Catholicism; the assumption being in preparation for marriage. In most cases, they were absolved from heresy and conditionally rebaptized. The exception seemed to be the Lutherans from Scandinavian countries. They were absolved from heresy and received on a profession of faith.
So what did I learn? Religion was not necessarily clear-cut in these areas of diverse immigration. Sometimes who was the Catholic party was not always clear-cut. The fluid nature of church membership was not confined to the Catholic parish. It also occurred in the Protestant denominations.
For example, my targeted husband and wife were listed as Catholic on their marriage. They were married by a Baptist minister, with the witnesses being Presbyterian. Depending on the censuses, the wife was listed as Catholic or Presbyterian. I finally proved she and her husband were at least from Catholic families, and they had one child christened by the Chatham Parish priest. The rest was up for grabs. Her second marriage was to an Anglican in the Anglican Parish. For the wife, the censuses revealed her father was born in England and her mother in Ireland. Perhaps another mixed-marriage!
My most important lesson was to be very careful with church records and always look at original registers rather than relying on an index. If I had only relied on the index, then I would have missed the entire context of what the Chatham Parish was all about.
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