California Church Records

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This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford, Thelma Berkey Walsmith, and Nell Sachse Woodard for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the California Family History Research series.
History of California
California Vital Records
Census Records for California
Background Sources for California
California Maps
California Land Records
California Probate Records
California Court Records
California Tax Records
California Cemetery Records
California Church Records
California Military Records
California Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
California Archives, Libraries, and Societies
California Immigration
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Ethnic Groups of California
California Gold Rush
California County Resources
Map of California

California has always been a place where East met West in religious and philosophical areas. Its beginnings as a Spanish colony and its annexation to the United States all had religious overtones. It was founded by the Roman Catholics who established the early Spanish missions, and it was occupied by the Mormon Battalion after the Mexican-American War. California has become the home of all forms of Catholicism (Roman and Eastern Rite), Protestantism, Orthodoxy, Mormonism, Judaism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Sikism, and Islam. The mix of beliefs also gives rise to new forms of religion, uniquely blending both East and West.

Spanish missions have played a central role in California's religious history. Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan, raised the standard to his sovereign on 2 June 1769 and began the trek that led him the length of the state of California. He founded a string of missions that would lead the state in the settlement of the vast uncharted land and the conversion of its natives. About a third of the total missions built were founded by Father Serra. Microfiche of some vital records from the missions is available at the FHL.

Today the Roman Catholic Church is served through twelve dioceses. The policy of record preservation is different within each diocese, as some have archives where records are deposited and others have individual parishes that retain their own records. Each diocese has a website with links to individual parishes, making the search for parish registers easier than previously.

  • Archdiocese of Los Angeles (covers Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties): 3424 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010-2210
  • Diocese of Fresno Archives (covers Fresno, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Mariposa, and Tulare counties): 1550 N. Fresno St., Fresno, CA 93703-3788
  • Diocese of Monterey Archives (covers Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz counties): P.O. Box 2048, Monterey, CA 93942
  • Diocese of Oakland (covers Alameda and Contra Costa counties): 2900 Lake Shore Ave., Oakland, CA 94610-3697
  • Diocese of Orange (covers Orange County): P.O. Box 14195, Orange, CA 92863-1595; 2811 E. Villa Real Dr., Orange, CA 92867-1999
  • Diocese of Sacramento (covers the twenty Northern California counties of Amador, Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sutter, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo, and Yuba): Pastoral Center, 2110 Broadway, Sacramento, CA 95818
  • Diocese of San Bernardino (covers Riverside and San Bernardino counties): 1201 E. Highland Ave., San Bernardino, CA 92404-4641
  • Diocese of San Diego (covers Imperial and San Diego counties): P.O. Box 85728, San Diego, CA 92186-5728
  • Diocese of San Jose (covers Santa Clara County): 900 Lafayette St., Ste. 301, Santa Clara, CA 95050-4966
  • Diocese of Santa Rosa (covers Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma counties): 320 Tenth St., Santa Rosa, CA 95401

The Episcopal Church arrived in California from its earliest days as a U.S. possession, and all current dioceses were carved from the original Episcopal Diocese of California. Today the state is served by six dioceses whose websites have links to parishes:

  • Diocese of El Camino Real (covers Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties): Trinity Cathedral, 81 N. 2nd St., San Jose, CA 95113
  • Diocese of Los Angeles (covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties): The Cathedral Center of St. Paul, 840 Echo Park Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90026
  • Diocese of Northern California (covers south of Sacramento north to the Oregon border): P.O. Box 161268, Sacramento, CA 95816-1268
  • Diocese of San Diego (covers Imperial, Riverside, and San Diego counties and some of Yuma County, Arizona): 2728 Sixth Ave., San Diego, CA 92103
  • Diocese of San Joaquin (Northern boundary south of Sacramento; Southern boundary south of Bakersfield; Eastern boundary Nevada border; Western boundary west of Interstate 5): 4159 E. Dakota Ave., Fresno, CA 93726-5227
  • Episcopal Diocese of California (covers Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, and Southern Alameda counties): 1055 Taylor St., San Francisco, CA 94108

The United Methodist Church is served through the two conferences in California which manage its affairs. The conference can be contacted for information on records and for contact information on local congregations. The two conferences are: California-Nevada Conference, P.O. Box 980250, West Sacramento, CA 95798-0250, and the California Pacific Conference, P.O. Box 6006, Pasadena, CA 91108-6006

The Presbyterian denomination in California is served by two synods, each of which is comprised of several presbyteries, and within each presbytery are several congregations. These synods include:

  • Pacific Synod (presbyteries in Berkeley, Petaluma, Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton, and Visalia counties): 8 Fourth St., Petaluma, CA 94952-3004
  • Southern California and Hawaii Synod (has presbyteries in Los Ranchos, Pacific, Riverside, San Diego, San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Santa Barbara counties): 1501 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90017-2205

There is a large collection of Presbyterian registers on microfilm at the FHL. These collections include congregations from all branches of Presbyterianism; however, not all Presbyterian records for California are deposited at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia or on microfilm at the FHL. For older records, contact the synods for additional assistance.

Another large denomination for California, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), has played a pivotal role in the state since its earliest days. Mormons came to California ports as a migratory approach to Utah and served the early U.S. Army in the Mormon Battalion. Mormon colonies such as San Bernardino were meant, initially, to be an extension of the Mormon Zion webbing out from Salt Lake City. Some could not resist the appeal of the gold rush and found themselves separated from the main body in Utah. Others came to California as settlers and 'gold missionaries' to earn money to take back to Utah to help buy necessities. Mission, congregation, and family genealogies for all California activities of the Church are at the FHL.

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church has had a presence in the state since 1859. From its early days it formed church-related schools and health facilities. Records are kept with one of four local conferences or with the local congregations themselves. Information on the church, its history, and its records can be found in the Del E. Webb Memorial Library, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA 92350

Jews have been in California, migrating from elsewhere in the United States as well as from Europe, since the gold rush days. The legacy of their presence can be seen in the number of Jewish record collections as well as historical and genealogical societies. A good place to begin the search into California Jewish ancestry is Jewish GenWeb The website has links to all of California's Jewish Genealogical Society branches including societies in Los Angeles, Orange County, Palm Springs, Sacramento, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area society.

The San Francisco Bay Area society has links to websites and repositories for Northern California with Jewish interest The Los Angeles society website has links to Southern California synagogues, cemeteries, and mortuaries The society members also publish the journal RootsKey. Historical and genealogical collections of the Los Angeles society are housed at the Los Angeles Family History Center of the LDS Church (see California Archives, Libraries, and Societies).

There are no centralized repositories dealing with church records in California. Scattered records can be found in genealogical publications, the DAR compilations (see page 13), and on microfilm. Three comprehensive articles about church records can be found in the Summer, Fall, and Winter 1990 issues of Southern California Historical Quarterly, published by the Historical Society of Southern California, 200 E. Ave. 43, Los Angeles, CA 90031. Entitled 'Archival Sources for the History of Religion in California,' Part 1 is subtitled 'Catholic Sources' and was compiled by Monsignor Francis J. Weber; Part 2, 'Jewish Religious Sources,' is by William M. Kramer and Norton B. Stern; and Part 3, 'Protestant Sources,' is by Eldon G. Ernst.

The Spanish missions have played a central role in California's religious history. Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan, raised the standard to his sovereign on 2 June 1769 and began the trek that led him the length of the state of California. He founded a string of missions that would lead the state in the settlement of the vast uncharted land and the conversion of its natives. About a third of the total missions built were founded by Father Serra.