Frequently Asked Questions for Researchers
How do I determine where records for a given community may be kept?
The Catholic Church is organized geographically. Each diocese and archdiocese administers and preserves the records associated with the parishes and communities within its diocesan borders. Because diocesan borders can change over time, it can be difficult to determine diocesan responsibility, particularly in historical or inactive missions or parishes. One method in determining the responsible diocese for a given community is to locate a Catholic parish within that community or a neighbouring one. The parish’s website may be linked to the diocesan website. Otherwise, contact the parish by phone or email; they will have the contact information for the responsible diocesan office.
For a general map of Canadian dioceses, see the website of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops: https://www.cccb.ca/the-catholic-church-in-canada/interactive-map-of-latin-dioceses-eparchies-and-ordinariates
Who should I contact at the diocesan level for records requests and research inquiries?
The bishop or archbishop has ultimate authority over the diocesan archives. The bishop and the vicar general have “ordinary power” (conferred by their office), as per canon law, to oversee the archives. This authority may be delegated to the chancellor as part of their duties. In many cases, a diocese or archdiocese will have an archivist or archival staff who oversee the daily operation of the archives. The archivist is generally tasked with answering research requests and should be the primary point of contact for researchers. Contact information for the archives can generally be found on the diocesan website.
What types of records are held in the diocesan archives?
A diocese or archdiocese is only one type of Catholic entity. Religious congregations keep records of their own members and activities in their own archives. These are separate from diocesan archives. Diocesan archives may have correspondence and other materials relating to religious orders in connection with activities within the diocese or service within a parish, but it can be limited.
Residential Schools and Indigenous missions were frequently staffed by members of a religious congregation; records of their activities would be housed in the archives of the order, and not necessarily in the diocesan archives.
Diocesan archives are governed by a collection mandate, a statement that determines the types of records that are stored in the archives. Each diocesan archival collection is unique but generally consists of administrative documentation, correspondence, financial records, and other documents related to the operation of the diocese that are no longer in regular use but are deemed to have lasting legal, administrative, or historical value. Sacramental information may be stored in the archives, but this information is also the domain of the individual parishes. Records relating to schools may also be stored in the archives, but the extent of such records varies between dioceses.
Why can’t I find a specific record?
Collection mandates determine what is kept in the archives and what is kept in the individual parishes, while the offices of the diocese determine what is sent to the archives. This occurs in accordance with a records retention schedule. This document determines how long certain types of records are kept as active records and at what point, after they are no longer active, they are either sent to the archives or destroyed. Some types of records are kept permanently, such as financial statements or committee minutes. Other records are kept only for specified periods of time. Records that are to be kept permanently are transferred to the archives.
There are several other conditions wherein records are removed from the archives or destroyed. Records may be deaccessioned (removed from the archives) if they are deemed not relevant to the diocesan body. Such records are generally sent to other, more appropriate archives to be included in their collection. Fire, flood, and insect damage may also necessitate removal of records from the archives. In some cases, such as the destruction of a school or parish, the records may have been destroyed before reaching the archives. Ultimately, the archival collection of a diocese will contain some gaps. Contacting the archivist may help in identifying alternate sources of information.
What other restrictions may be placed on records?
Archival records are often bound by access agreements. These policies outline who can have access to a given set of records and under what circumstances and whether the records can be published or reproduced. This is common with records connected to Indigenous communities or specific diocesan offices that dictate access conditions upon transfer of materials to the archives.
This is also common in cases where diocesan archives are held in public institutions. The archivist will inform you if requested records have any special access restrictions. Records may also be subject to provincial and federal privacy legislation. If a record or set of records contains personal information, it can be accessed only under the conditions outlined in the legislation or with a signed release of information from the subject of the record.
If I am looking for information on a specific Residential School, where is a good place to start?
Information on Residential Schools can be found in several places.
Library and Archives Canada has a large collection of records relating to Residential Schools: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx
There has been a nationwide effort to consolidate records relating to Residential Schools at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba: www.nctr.ca. An increasingly large collection of records, photographs, and other documentation has been digitized and is available online. Dioceses and archdioceses have sent copies of relevant records to the NCTR to be included in that collection. Additional records that have yet to be digitized can be accessed by contacting the NCTR at NCTR@umanitoba.ca.
The NCTR also has an interactive map of Canadian Residential Schools: https://nctr.ca/records/view-your-records/archival-map
Where else can I look for records of First Nations/Métis/Inuit genealogy or community history?
Here are some suggestions:
- Provincial genealogical societies
- Independent genealogical centres
- Government of Canada resources
- Archival collections of community organizations or groups that historically provided social services
- Archives of congregations of women and men religious that served in the community
- Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government archives
- Band council or Indigenous government archives