Investigating Records in a Parish in Spain

What worked for me

Baptismal – Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

I can not begin to describe the overwhelming experience of walking into the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church in Cariñena and putting my hands on the baptismal, where my ancestors were likely baptized over two hundred years ago, as I followed closely behind the parish caretaker up the narrow staircase to the door securing the archives.

Maribel happily unlocked the door and revealed the archive. She gave me a few simple instructions and locked the door as she left. And there I was.

Door to the archive

The agreement was that I would stay put until she returned to let me out. She gave me her mobile number and disappeared to her tasks. Many churches probably have their own Maribel, the volunteer who works tirelessly cleaning floors, unlocking doors, collecting donations, and ringing the bell during mass. The parish priest was busy taking care of parishioners of a couple of area churches so my request for access to the archives fell on Maribel’s shoulders, but she was very willing to help me out any way she could.

Before Your Visit

OK, let’s get to the facts:

(1) You want an ally in the town where you’re visiting. In my case it was Ana Christine, my Airbnb host. She was very responsive to my questions and helped me plan each detail.

(2) You probably need some formal permission from the local church or diocese. I told Ana Christine what my plans were and she quickly shot back an email, “I saw the parish priest, you need permission from the Archbishop to see the archives.” So, I found the web site for the diocese of Zaragoza and sent them a letter.

Where to write for a church in Zaragoza

I drafted a letter, saved it as a PDF and sent it to the Secretary of the Delegacion Episcopal de Patrimonio Cultural. I received a reply in less than 24 hours by email with an approval.

(3) Contact the parish priest and arrange for the logistics of the visit. Father Cano (then the “sacerdote” in Cariñena) had many area duties and would appear shortly before afternoon mass and depart just as quickly to repeat the rituals in another nearby church. Do not expect prompt replies via email and good luck trying to get someone on the phone. So, get started early on this.

Got Old Bay?

(4) Take care of Maribel. I’m from Maryland where Old Bay seasoning can be requested from virtually every restaurant for any meal without question. This classic seasoning is sold in large beautiful cans and so I packed cans of Old Bay seasoning and Old Bay Peanuts in my bag as tokens of appreciation. Lots of fish and other seafood is served across Spain and Maribel loved it (at least she said she did) when I explained it came with me from home. Anabel is a volunteer and if she wasn’t willing to help me, I would not have been able to easily access the archives.

(5) Research what is in the archive. You must absolutely review the information here to prepare. When I read that guide I discovered that the holdings of the church archive in Cariñena had been cataloged in the following:

(Many thanks to Inma who tracked down a copy for me)

Working in the Archive

(1) Be prepared with low tech and high tech research tools. In Cariñena I had considerable freedom in handling and obtaining copies of records so I was free to use my iPad (no flash) and some notes in my logbook. However in the visits to La Seo de Zaragoza for other records (such as Las Matriculas), all personal bags are required to be locked up in a locker and researchers are limited to pen and paper. Copies of the records I desired were ordered at the front desk.

(2) Prepare your equipment for ease of use. Here’s what it looked like for me:

Working in the archives in Cariñena

I used an iPad mounted to a tripod and a bluetooth shutter controller that I kept on my wrist. This allowed me to adjust and hold the delicate book while simultaneously taking a photo of the page I needed.

(3) Keep a diary or log book of some sort and keep notes even if all your work is in the photos. This came in handy later when I was piecing together my photos and completing the indexing and transcriptions.

The logbook helped me review my work later

(4) Create an index of the records obtained. I created a spreadsheet of every book and record I obtained on my first visit to keep with my original photos. On my second visit, I was able to use the index to quickly figure out which volume and folio I’d probably find a record I was looking for. This was a timesaver.

(5) Use cloud services like Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive to back up your photos each evening. At the end of my trip I had all the photos on my iPad but I also traveled home assured that I had a backup copy in my Google Drive (actually, Google Photos). Ana Christine’s Airbnb had great wifi and I was able to synch up my work immediately after my visit.

(6) Preserve your integrity so you’re recognized as a respectful researcher. Each day I demonstrated to Maribel and Ana Christine (who escorted me in and out) that my bag was empty – that I was taking nothing with me. I wanted to cover my bases in case someone discovered a book missing after my visit. They didn’t understand, but I insisted they check my bag. You won’t have that issue at the archives in the cities, where the process is much more formal. At the Seo in Zaragoza, for example, I had to register as a researcher and present my passport so that my archive requests could be logged. Backpacks and cameras were required to be locked up in lockers they had near the information desk. Be a respectful researcher and take care of the treasures you handle; observe the rules and watch how other researchers interact with the staff and handle records.

(7) Make a donation to the church. It’s simple, send a note of thanks to the priest and send a small donation to the church. I use Xoom, a service of Paypal. It was easy and I felt it was the least I could do to thank this church for keeping family records around for a few hundred years and letting me have access to them.

I hope this helps you plan your trip to your family’s ancestral origin to explore the treasures in the archives!

Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Cariñena

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