Wisconsin Church Records

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This entry was originally written by Dawn M. Knauft and Carol L. Maki in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
Wisconsin sil.png
the Wisconsin Family History Research series.
History of Wisconsin
Wisconsin Vital Records
Census Records for Wisconsin
Background Sources for Wisconsin
Wisconsin Maps
Wisconsin Land Records
Wisconsin Probate Records
Wisconsin Court Records
Wisconsin Tax Records
Wisconsin Cemetery Records
Wisconsin Church Records
Wisconsin Military Records
Wisconsin Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Wisconsin Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Wisconsin Naturalization
African Americans of Wisconsin
Wisconsin County Resources
Map of Wisconsin

In 1661, Father René Ménard, born in Paris in 1605 and the first Jesuit sent from Canada to Wisconsin, offered the first mass in the state in 1661. Beginning in 1687, the missions became almost nonexistent in Wisconsin because of problems with the natives and the British government in control.

Father Bonduel wrote of Green Bay, 'The Catholics of this little French colony lived sometimes ten, twenty, and thirty years without seeing a priest.' Marriages and baptisms in the state were often officiated by missionary priests, resulting in large numbers of Catholic records in Wisconsin either being lost or sometimes located in repositories in Quebec Province, Canada. Tracing Catholic families in Wisconsin could require searching French-Canadian records. Some of the oldest Catholic marriage and baptism records for Wisconsin are in the 'Mackinac Register' in Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (see Background Sources for Wisconsin).

When the American flag first flew over eastern Wisconsin in 1816, the Catholic religion again took a firm hold among the French settlers in the state. European immigration and American migration brought other religious affiliations, but the heavy German, Irish, and Polish settlement in the state provided for continued numbers in the Roman Catholic denomination. Missionary clergy for other denominations in the state frequently took their records with them as they traveled from place to place. Therefore, although the search for church records in Wisconsin should begin with the local churches, helpful material may also be found in denominational archives and headquarters.

The most widely represented Protestants in Wisconsin were the Lutherans, the first faithful of that group who came from Germany and Scandinavia. Despite divisions, dissensions, and reorganizations within the Lutherans, they remain a religious force in the upper Midwest.

Smaller numbers of Methodists, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists also settled in Wisconsin. In 1834 the first Baptist Church was established in the state by Brotherton Indians on the east shore of Lake Winnebago.

The Wisconsin Historical Records Survey Project of Madison published the Directory of Churches and Religious Organizations in Wisconsin in 1941 and Guide to Church Vital Statistics Records in Wisconsin in 1942. In addition the project has numerous publications for specific denominations. Extensive microfilm collections of church records in Wisconsin are available through the FHL. The Wisconsin Historical Society and Area Research Centers also have a variety of church records including microfilm and original records.