Catholic Church Diocesan Records

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Colonial Spanish Borderland Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Colonial Spanish Borderland Research
Catholic Sacramental Records
Civil Legal Documents
Military Records
Catholic Church Diocesan Records
Spanish Land Records for the United States
Locating Colonial Records of Genealogical Value
Colonial Records of Texas
Colonial Records of New Mexico
Colonial Records of Arizona
Colonial Records of California
Colonial Records of Florida
Colonial Records of Louisiana
Colonial Records of the French and Spanish in the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi
List of Useful Resources for Colonial Spanish Borderland Research

This article originally appeared in "Colonial Spanish Borderland Research" by George R. Ryskamp, JD, AG in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


The dioceses (bishoprics) of the Catholic Church generated a variety of administrative and canon law documents, as did the colleges, or central headquarters, of the various religious orders. Each college or diocese will have personnel records of the monks or secular priests who served within that jurisdiction, generally providing the birthplace and parentage of the individual cleric. Records such as marriage dispensations, ordinations of priests, censuses of communicants, tithing payment records, and records of bishop's visits may be found in the diocesan archives for the particular diocese to which a parish belonged when the record would have been generated.

Marriage dispensations can prove particularly valuable to the family historian. Under Catholic canon law, a number of impediments to marriage may be dispensed with or forgiven by the bishop, including relationships within the fourth degree of consanguinity (blood relationship) or affinity (relationship by marriage) as well as spiritual relationships such as a godparent. In addition, if an individual came from a residence not within the diocese, a dispensation was required. There are also dispensations that do not relate to marriage records, including a number that may be required for an individual to receive the priesthood. An excellent discussion of those records and detailed analysis of the parts thereof can be found in Index to the Marriage Investigations of Diocese of Guadalajara, Provinces of Coahuila, Nuevo León, Nuevo Santander, Texas, Volume 1: 1653'1750, which contains marriage dispensations for the state of Texas and related states in Mexico for the period of 1653'1750.<ref>Raúl J. Guerra Jr., Nadine Vásquez, and Baldomero Vela Jr., Index to the Marriage Investigations of Diocese of Guadalajara, Provinces of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Nuevo Santander, Texas, Volume 1: 1653-1750 (Edinburg, 1989). See also Raúl Guerra Jr., Nadine Vásquez, and Baldomera Vela Jr., Index to the Marriage Investigations of the Diocese of Guadalajara, Provinces of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Nuevo Santander, Texas, 1751-1779, Vol. II (San Antonio, 1997).</ref> A general discussion of diocesan records is found in Chapter 11 of Finding Your Hispanic Roots.

A marriage dispensation record generally outlines the relationship of the individuals involved, in many cases extending backward into the third or fourth generation (to a common great-grandparent), with extensive genealogical data. In those cases where there is a relationship by affinity with a deceased spouse, that spouse will also be identified and the date of death and burial provided. Where the petition is for dispensation because the groom is from outside the diocese, the year and place of birth will be given as well as information concerning the arrival date and even the ship taken to the New World. Although the ultimate dispensation was issued by the bishop and, therefore, these records are contained in the diocesan archives, they are intensely local in nature, generally involving families who have resided in a given locality for several generations. Although somewhat difficult to use because of the length and variety of each document as well as the general lack of indexes to the records, the treasure of information found in a single marriage investigation makes the search well worth it.

Diocesan records are both extensive and available to the public. For example, the archdiocese of Durango, begun in 1606, has an archival collection of 1,120,000 pages'three percent from the 1600s, thirty-two percent from the 1700s, and fifty-nine percent from the 1800s. The entire collection has been microfilmed by the Rio Grande Historical Collections, held at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Jack Calligan has published two volumes transcribing New Mexico dispensations in the collection.<ref>Rick Hendricks, ed., and John B. Colligan, comp., New Mexico Prenuptial Investigations from the Archivos Históricos Del Arzobispado De Durango, 1760-1799 (Las Cruces, N.M., 1997).</ref>

Records of the diocese of Guadalajara have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah. Marriage dispensations and some other documentation for the decade during which the diocese of Louisiana and Florida was in existence are available on microfilm at the University of Notre Dame. A guide exists for the twelve rolls of microfilm, as well as an index prepared by Elizabeth Gianelloni. Most of the colonial records for the dioceses of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, and Hermosillo, Sonora, have been lost. The few remaining records from the diocese of Hermosillo, Sonora, have been filmed as part of the University of Arizona Film Collection #811. The following descriptions identify the geographical areas of the dioceses to which the modern-day states within the United States belonged during their history as part of the Spanish Empire and/or the Mexican Republic.<ref>Peter Gerhard, The North Frontier of New Spain (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 19-22, online at</ref>


The missions in Arizona were under control of the Jesuits from 1731 to 1767. Following the Jesuit expulsion from the Spanish Empire in 1767 until sometime after 1780, the missions were run by Franciscans from the Franciscan college at Queretaro, Mexico. From 1780 to 1868, the area of Arizona was part of the diocese of Sonora. It should also be noted that during the time period when the area was under the control of missions, the Bishop of Durango made a number of attempts to obtain control of this area. It is possible, therefore, that during the time period 1731 to 1780, there may be Church records concerning Arizona in the diocesan archives of Durango.


From the founding of San Diego in 1769 until 1779, California belonged to the diocese of Guadalajara, when it then became part of the diocese of Sonora until 1836. At that time California was divided into two dioceses: San Diego and Los Angeles.


Both east and west Florida, including what is now the Gulf Coast area of Alabama, belonged to the Santiago de Cuba diocese from 1565 until 1787, when the Havana, Cuba, diocese was created. It remained part of the Havana diocese until 1793 when the diocese of Louisiana and Florida was created. Florida then continued in that diocese until the 1803 transfer of the Louisiana area to the United States. From then until sometime between 1810 and 1821, depending on which part of Florida remained under Spanish dominion, the area belonged to the diocese of Havana, Cuba.


Louisiana was part of the diocese of Quebec, Canada, from 1659 to 1771. With the transfer of Louisiana to Spain, including the entire Mississippi River Valley and the West Florida parishes on the Gulf Coast up to and including parts of modern-day Mississippi, Louisiana became part of the diocese of Santiago de Cuba from 1771 until 1787. As with Florida, Louisiana became part of the creation of the diocese of Havana, Cuba, in 1787 and remained part of that diocese until 1793. From that time until 1803, it formed part of the diocese of Louisiana and Florida. Parts of the Gulf Coast that made up the West Florida parishes and what is now the present-day Gulf Coast area of Mississippi became part of the diocese of Havana, Cuba, in 1803 until takeover by the United States.

New Mexico

From its founding in 1598 until 1620, New Mexico belonged to the diocese of Guadalajara, Mexico. With the creation of the diocese of Durango in 1620, New Mexico became part of that diocese, where it remained until 1850. It should be noted, however, that in many cases the thousand miles of distance between Durango and Sante Fe caused diocesan affairs to be handled at a local level, resulting in a number of records typically found in the diocese, including marriage dispensations, found in the records of the modern diocese of Sante Fe instead. It should also be noted that, in the early years, the missions of New Mexico were under control of the Franciscans.


From 1703 to 1777, Texas was part of the diocese of Guadalajara, and from that date until 1836, it belonged to the diocese of Linares. Likewise, the portion of Texas south of the Nueces River retained by Mexico until the war with the United States ended in 1848 also belonged to the diocese of Linares. The El Paso area was not originally part of the Spanish province of Texas and Coahuila but formed part of the province of Chihuahua until 1840. It formed part of the diocese of Durango from 1620 until 1846.



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