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

June 20, 1909: A City is Born

The Spanish revere their titles and history, and Cariñena is no different. This community of some 3,500 residents has the look and feel of a small village, a “pueblo”, in the Aragon countryside. There are no supermarket chain stores, no shopping malls, no traffic lights, and no busses. The core of Cariñena existed inside a protective wall that has been replaced by a tranquil tree-covered area (“paseo”) to walk – the full journey around can be done in some twenty minutes. I think my subdivision is bigger than Cariñena!

City sign in Plaza Alta

But Cariñena was rewarded by King Alfonso for its loyalty when on June 4, 1909 the City Council received notification from the governor of Zaragoza that a day earlier the Minister of the Interior issued the following Royal Order:

“His Majesty the King has deigned to issue by this Ministry the following Royal Decree – Wanting to give a test of my Real Appreciation to the Villa de Cariñena, province of Zaragoza, for its historical importance and adhesion to the Institutions; I come to grant you the City Title. Given in the Palace on June 3, nineteen hundred and nine – Alfonso – The Minister of the Interior – Juan de la Cierva y Peñafiel -“

You’ll find this proclamation hanging in the town hall, restaurants, and taverns of Cariñena

Shortly thereafter the City Council made preparations for a ceremony and proposed that the Plaza Alta be given the name of Alfonso XIII, that Calle del Cordero be renamed Tejón y Marín, and that Calle de las Siete Esquinas be renamed Marqués de Villafranca.

On June 20, 1909 Cariñena, decked in flags and pennants, received the governor and other dignitaries who arrived by train and paraded to Plaza de España for speeches, placing new signs on the renamed streets, and certainly a bit of wine that accompanied dancing in the Casino.

Sign on Calle Mayor

Fortunately, the City retains its village charm and soul. When you visit you’ll feel it instantly as you walk the streets and enjoy the sights and sounds. Oh, and you’ll appreciate it when you ask for a glass of Particular garnacha and hand over less than two Euro. Have the meat plate in La Mazuela and another glass of wine and you’re on your way for less than $10. Enjoy the village prices and save the city trips for later. Zaragoza and Madrid will wait for you. Just one more reason to visit la ciudad de Cariñena!

Quisiera una copa de vino tinto frio, por favor…garnacha Patricular!


Al aprender español no solo aprendes una lengua, aprendes toda una cultura

I can’t memorize this language I’m trying to learn. Word lists are not working. Yes, I can read or understand a few hundred written words but my ear is bad. Recently I’m taking another approach: comprehensible input. I’m watching a lot of YouTube where the point of the video is to learn the language but the instruction is delivered by listening, watching, and reading. No memorization, no need to talk right now….the theory is that to speak, one must have the words in his or her brain and have heard many good examples of how those words are used. I’m listening to the words and watching the actors and the story…I’m learning meaning with all my senses. I recognize many of the words already, but I’m trying hard to push back the urge to translate them in my head, but instead concentrate on the story. And this brings me to the headline: to learn this language I’m learning that I must pay more attention to the people and the culture. Spanish words were not created to mimic english words. Spanish words express spanish thoughts in a spanish way.

Rabbit Hole: The Council of Trent

Where does this go?

Studying our family history reminds me how little I actually know about European history and even (ahem) the Catholic Church. Yes, I was an altar boy, I attended catechism, and I always took home good report cards from school but I find the exploration of family records is frequently interrupted so I can research some topic I’ve stumbled upon. Recently I read a comment about parish registers and the Council of Trent and I thought (again), shouldn’t I know more about this? And so I’ve taken dives into dozens of rabbit holes to answer what is often a simple question. Here we go.

Rabbit Hole – noun – one in which the pursuit of something (such as an answer or solution) leads to other questions, problems, or pursuits

Merriam Webster online Dictionary

Today’s topic involves constant stumbling into the term “Cinco Libros” or “Quinque Libri” in latin. They’re church records.

Quinque Libri

Below is an example photo I took while researching in Cariñena. Inside the cover of one of the parish registers is the following:

Title page of a parish register in Cariñena

Cinco libros – ok, I get it: “five books” of the parish. And here’s another with “quinque libri” in latin:

The binding label of one volume

So off I went, looking for the origin of “cinco libros.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to go too far to fill in the gaps in my understanding. Quickly my searches led me to facts about the Council of Trent which my friend Inma recently mentioned in her blog about The Matriculas (parish census records that I will write about in the future).

Cinco libros de la iglesia in the records index

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent. What was that? I was familiar with the term but I had no idea what it was and why it mattered to me. Encyclopaedia Britannica has a detailed article explaining it, but I’ll save you a trip down that rabbit hole.

Throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church, there have been periodic conferences of ecclesiastical dignitaries and theological experts who convene to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice. The Council of Trent was the 19th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church and it was held in Trent, Italy from 1545 to 1563. There were many problems for the Church to address, for example the Protestants were contesting several practices and the Church was facing another fracture. One lesser-known but significant decision made at Trent in 1563 was a directive that formally required each pastor maintain records of baptism. Subsequent decrees reinforced this edict, notably that of Pope Paul V in 1614, which made multiple parish registers obligatory. Priests were required to have five distinct parish registers:

  1. baptisms
  2. confirmations
  3. marriages
  4. deaths
  5. a census or general account of the state of souls in the parish

Interestingly, it appears this record-keeping was also important to ensure that the relationship between a bride and groom could be accurately established in order to prevent close relatives from marrying each other. The Church considers the registers the necessary “proof” that should be used to declare a marriage legitimate.

Council of Trent

So much of the history of our Velez family comes directly from the Cinco Libros in the parishes of Havana and Cariñena. Without these records, we’d have no idea where we came from. Through them I learned that:

  • Grandpa Sully’s father, Silvio, was baptised in Havana
  • Silvio’s grandfather was the famous Cuban poet, Ramon Velez Herrera
  • Ramon’s grandfather was Roque Velez who was born in Cariñena, Spain

…which led me to this in the Cinco Libros in Cariñena:

Baptism record for Roque Velez

This was the first record I located when I first visited Cariñena and it was exactly where it should have been, recorded on 17 August 1757, one day after his birth. Records for Roque’s father, Miguel, continued to help build the path back to Jusepe “Madrid” (as he was called) where my hunt continues today.

The Council of Trent dealt with many serious issue for the Church, but the relatively obscure decision to require improved record keeping in parish registers in “cinco libros” has benefited our family and other families interested in researching their genealogy around the world.

And so there you go, we emerge from this rabbit hole but others are waiting. Do you feel a little smarter now?

The Santa Catalina Convent

About 5 km East-Southeast of Cariñena sits the ruins of the Santa Catalina del Monte convent that was built in about 1425. This Franciscan convent played an important role in the area for the church as well as the local population due to its extensive library and the hospice it supported in town. During the Spanish War of Independence, the convent was abandoned and then destroyed by the French in 1808.

Map of Cariñena showing the convent to the east

The convent is important to our family because there are many references to family members having been buried there, although exactly where at the convent remains unclear, but perhaps in the floor of the chapel on the site. An example entry appears below:

En 2 de Nobiembre de 1694 murio Maria Polo Recibio los sacramentos de penitenaria ….se enterro en Sta Catalina del monte hija de familia

Here’s Sean checking out the ruins during our trip:

Sean at Santa Catalina Del Monte

The vineyards approach the convent from all directions and there’s this feeling that everyone has forgotten about the place. There are no signs, no fences, no headstones, and it is unclear exactly how the facility was laid out. Additional research is on my to-do list, especially investigating the rumor that a tunnel runs from the convent to the parish church in Cariñena!

Recently, a friend flew his drone over the ruins and sent it to me:

If you have trouble playing the video go here:

Your trip to Cariñena should include a stop at the convent – it’s quite a feeling to be standing there, seeing Cariñena in the distance.

Trip Report: 23 Days in Spain

23 days.
Dozens (?) of glasses of Garnacha.
1100 photos of family records.
1200 miles on the roads.
One convent, two churches, and a wedding.
A million smiles.
And so much more.

I’ve been meaning to sit and write this quick note but it’s gotten away from me. Patrick, Sean, and I headed out in late June for Reagan National airport and some 24 days later we returned. In between were some incredible days exploring Cariñena, Zaragoza, Madrid, Porto and the roads in between.

I’ll get to the point: I have hundreds of records to sort, catalog, and transcribe. I will save you a bit of mystery: it looks like our oldest Velez ancestor came to Cariñena from Madrid in about 1680. And I managed to get enough records that I should be able to document the entire Velez family from then until recently. Yes, we have cousins in Cariñena!

So stay tuned as I update the records and family tree information. In the mean time, enjoy some photos from our trip this past summer!

So you’d like to visit?

You, too, can visit Cariñena and walk the streets, drink the wine, enjoy the food, and celebrate La Fiestas with just a little preparation.

When should you go?

You really want to visit during one of the annual fiestas when there’s music, wine, food, bulls, and other cultural activities are happening. Visit the official web page of the town hall and follow the links to the details on the las fiestas:

  • Fiesta de San Valero – 29 January celebrating the patron saint San Valero
  • Romería a la Virgen de Lagunas – On Easter Monday this fiesta celebrates a nearby sanctuary with a procession through the city
  • Fiesta de San Isidro – Celebrated on the Sunday closest to 15 May with traditional dress
  • Fiesta de San Cristóbal – Celebrated in July but the actual dates of this lively 3-day fiesta can vary from year to year
  • Fiesta del Santo Cristo de Santiago – is a week-long fiesta with a focal point on 14 September. This mind-numbing fiesta is celebrated all day and all night for a week with parades, music, food, bull fights, bulls running in the streets, and celebrations at the churches
  • Fiesta de la Vendimia – is a weekend event conducted by the local wine industry celebrating the grape harvest and, to the outsider, can be confused with the Fiesta del Santo Cristo de Santiago because it frequently is celebrated a week before or a week after that fiesta. All the vineyards have special events and tents of wine surround the city. The fountain at the town hall is filled with red wine!

How do you get there?

You can fly to Madrid and rent a car and drive northeast 3 hours. Or you can fly to Barcelona and drive west for 3 hours (Madrid is a little closer). Both airports have high-speed trains running through Cariñena and nearby Zaragoza does have an airport served by several airlines. I rented a car at Avis at the airport in Madrid for 3 weeks and paid about $400.

The 3-week rental you can have for $400

Where should you stay?

There are two hotels in Cariñena (I haven’t stayed at either) but there’s a wonderful Airbnb host with two spacious condos on Calle Mayor less than 100 yards from the town square and fountain.

Ana Cristina operates Casa Pallarés which easily sleeps 7 guests in 4 bedrooms (6 beds) and 2 baths. The full size kitchen is well-stocked, there’s a living room, and clothes washer (a window in a utility room gives you access to a clothes line). A balcony gives you a perfect view of the bulls running up and down the street or you can quietly enjoy your glass of wine.

Ane Cristina has a second condo on the top floor which is a little more modern and has some great views from the many windows, but there’s no balcony. This one sleeps 6 guests in 3 bedrooms (5 beds) and 1 bath.

Bottom line: stay in the middle of town and enjoy the quick walk to every restaurant, bar, grocery store, and church! Ana Cristina is an incredible host who will make every effort to ensure you have a great visit.

View from Casa Pallares – bulls in the street

How long should you stay?

We visited for 4 days of La Fiesta de Santo Cristo de Santiago on our first trip. It wasn’t enough for me because I wanted to spend days in the church archives doing family research.

Cariñena from the southeast

My second trip was 3 weeks long. That was awesome. For many of you that is probably too long unless you’re continuing my family research and scouring records or hunting relatives. Cariñena reminds me a lot of visiting Denver, Colorado: a big mountain to the west, and a high-desert plain that isn’t terribly attractive unless you’re seeking that terrain.

Los “mallos” de la Hoya de Huesca

However, a couple of hours travel in each direction can take you to beautiful sandy beaches or luscious green mountains. Los Mallos, above, is about 90 minutes north. There is a lot to see in Spain and, frankly, the boys preferred the buzzing metropolis of Zaragoza, just 20 minutes north, with its busy streets, beautiful sights, amusement parks, malls, and the other things they wanted to see and do. They won’t understand why I preferred staying on Calle Mayor until many years from now.


So pick a fiesta and spend a few days in the village. See the church where our ancestors were baptised and married. See the ruins of the Franciscan convent. Stop in and tour the many bodegas and sample their wines. Visit the nearby towns, especially Muel, and shop their stores while exploring their incredible forts and ruins. Plan to spend a couple of days in Zaragoza and then see other parts of Spain. Go to Madrid or Salamanca! Head to the beaches!

Our Trip To Cariñena – September 2017

In September 2017 Tammy and I traveled to Cariñena for La Fiesta de la Vendimia, completing the round trip from Cariñena, to Havana, to New York, and back to Cariñena in only 242 years!

In December 2016 I received copies of baptism records for Jose Ramon Velez Herrera, our famous Cuban poet bisabuelo, and his cousin. In the details of the baptism certificate I learned that Roque Velez was his grandfather and that he came from Cariñena. Jackpot!  This trip had three purposes. First, I wanted to find proof that Roque Velez had indeed come from Cariñena. Second, build upon that foundation and find out how far back I trace our Velez family. Third, experience the town.

Each September there are *two* related festivals for La Vendimia. One is the Fiesta de la Vendimia de Cariñena run by the wine industry and it’s usually a two-day weekend kind of event. Think wine, wine, and more wine (they fill the fountain “La Fuente de la Mora” in the town square with red wine).

The second is a week-long religious festival for Santo Cristo de Santiago. This festival runs almost all day and all night every day of the week for 7 days. Each day brings parades, music, bullfights, bulls running up and down the streets, food, and performances. If you’re planning to go see Cariñena for these festivals, be certain you’ve sorted out which is which so you’re not disappointed.

Before we traveled, I researched the church and sent the mandatory letter to the Archbishop of Zaragoza requesting permission to access the archives which was approved in hours by email.


Tammy and I opted for the week-long festival and I quickly booked Casa Pallarés on Airbnb run by Ana Cristina. This turned out to be the most important, and best, decision we made for this trip.  Ana Cristina was very responsive to emailed questions in the weeks prior to our arrival.  She emailed me the fiesta program and gave me advice on visiting the church. Her apartment was right on Calle Mayor, a one minute walk south of Plaza España, where the city hall and fountain are located. Lesson: having a caring human being on the ground at your  destination makes for a fantastic trip to a new destination far from home.

We flew in to Barcelona, rented a car from Enterprise, and we were on the highway for the 3 hour drive to Cariñena. Ana Cristina met us in town and showed us to her beautiful 4 bedroom apartment.

The balcony gave us a safe place to watch the “toro en fuego” events where the pissed-off bull, adorned in a flaming headset, chases the partying crowd at 2AM.

The trip went quickly and it met all three objectives:


Havana baptism record for Ramon:

Cariñena baptism record for Roque:



If you’d like details on visiting Cariñena, drop me a note.