MSS-035-Canon Law for the Genealogist

Episode 035-July 7, 2015 Let’s say that you have studiously worked your way through episodes 13, 22, and 27 on dissecting baptism, marriage, and burial records. You’re now able to pick out the information you need about your ancestors in each of these records. So you think you’ve won the battle, until… Record in Latin …either you come across that odd record that has something totally unique in it and you haven’t got a clue what it means, or you get back to the 17th century and come across one of the parishes where the priest decided to write the records in Latin. This episode will cover solutions to both of those problems.

French-Canadian News

Franco-American Centre, Manchester, New Hampshire

July 20-24: Register your child now for Kids Camp de Jeunes, a camp for 6- to 12-year-olds to learn about French language and culture. Sessions include The Kitchen and French-Canadian Food, Make and Take Crafts, En-Plein-Air Watercolor Painting, FrenchTV/Short Movie, and Where in the World Are We?

French Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan

July 18: There will be a memorial service for those buried from Ste. Anne de Détroit at 3 PM at the Mt. Elliott Cemetery. Then at 7 PM, there will be a French Mass at Ste. Anne’s. In July of every year, Ste. Anne’s Church holds a series of Novena Masses to Ste. Anne celebrating the rich cultural diversity of the Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit. The French Mass is always held on a Saturday. Members of the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan enter the Church prior to the Mass, bearing flags celebrating their history in New France, Detroit, and Michigan. A reception will be held after the Mass with light refreshments.

Language Tip #35-Given Names in Latin

Just as you learn how to pick out information in French records, you can do the same in Latin records. We will first look at the different forms of given names in Latin.


The precise meaning of a word in Latin is determined by its ending. Just as in English where we add an S to the end of a word to indicate plural, endings are added to Latin words to indicate plural as well as other cases. The three cases most often used in French-Canadian records are the nominative case for the subject, the genitive case for the possessive, and the accusative case for a direct object. A change of ending changes the case and the meaning. To say, “The girl returned,” the word for ‘girl,’ the subject, is puella. In “the book of the girl,” ‘the girl’ is possessive, or genitive in Latin, and would be puellae. The AE ending indicates possessive. In “I saw the girl,” you would use puellam, the AM ending indicating direct object (accusative). In the baptism record below for François Crévier from the Cathédrale de l’Assomption in Trois Rivières, all three cases appear.

Baptism Record-François Crévier

Baptism record for François Crévier (from

Three Latin Cases in Baptism Record


Did you notice that the names in the record above did not end in A, AE, or AM like the word puella above? That’s because nouns belong in one of five declensions in Latin, and each declension has its own set of endings. The word puella as well as most female names belong in the first declension. That means all names in the nominative will end in A, in the genitive will end in AE, and in the accusative will and in AM. In Latin the word for Marie is Maria. If Maria owns something you would indicate that by changing the ending on her name to Mariae. And if her name was the direct object in the sentence, you would write her name as Mariam. Most male names belong to the second declension. Subjects in the nominative case end in US. The genitive ending is and I, and the accusative ending is a UM. So in the record above, where the priest says, ‘I [ego] Carolus Raymbault,’ he is the subject of the sentence and therefore uses the nominative case for the word Charles. He then says, ‘I baptized Franciscum.’ Since it’s a direct object, Franciscum is in the accusative case for 2nd declension nouns. François is the son of Christophe, so the father’s name, being the genitive case, shows possession and ends in I. Below is a table for both common female and common male names written in the three most common Latin forms that you will find in the records. Notice that the girl’s name Agnès and the boys’ names, Jean and Michel, do not follow the same pattern as the others. That’s because those names belong to the 3rd declension which, as you can see, has a different set of endings. French Female Names in Latin Male French Names in Latin If you want to practice on some actual 17th-century records in Latin, check out the parishes of Laprairie, l’Ancienne Lorette, and Trois Rivières.

Canon Law for the Genealogist

In previous episodes, we discussed dissecting baptism, marriage, and burial records. Once you know the format of one baptism record, you can usually manage to work your way through the others. For the most part, priests followed a template of sorts, filling in particular details within the boilerplate text. But what happens when you come across a record that has unusual information in it? How do you know what it means? How do you know whether you should follow up in a different record set? It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, that unusual piece of information could be exactly what you need to break through a brick wall, or at the very least to fill out the family story.

I met today’s guest, George Findlen, at the New England Regional Genealogical Consortium conference, in Providence in April. George is a retired college administrator who has volunteered at the Wisconsin Historical Society Library. He has both French-Canadian and Acadian roots. At NERGC, he gave a talk on how understanding Canon Law can help solve unique cases found in church records. This is not a method you would use often, but when it applies, it could be just the information you need to move forward.

In this interview, we discussed the following:

Early on, George realized that to do genealogy correctly, he had to thoroughly understand the records he was using, in this case, Roman Catholic parish registers. To thoroughly understand the church records, he had to understand Canon Law, the law of the Roman Catholic Church, which dictates what those who are faithful can and cannot do in the eyes of the church.

Canon Law goes back to at least 450 AD. Prior to 1917, these laws were scattered everywhere. In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted the laws of his land constructed into a simplified code. In 1916, a group of cardinals at the Vatican, extracted these church laws and put them in direct language following Napoleon’s model. It was also decreed that these laws would not be translated outside of Church Latin. This remained in effect until 1983.

In 1983, it was permissable to have an official translation of the laws into another language, approved by Rome. In 2001, Edward Peters completed a translation, in English, of the 1917 code for historical purposes. This translation is what the genealogist can use to understand the odd church record he comes across.


When you locate an odd record, first make sure you understand the terms used, such as consanguinity or affinity. These terms can be found in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 18 vols. (New York: Robert Appleton, 1907). The entire work can be accessed online at Clicking on a letter of the alphabet near the top of the opening screen will show all words starting with that letter. Thus, clicking on “A” will give you a list which includes “Affinity (in Canon Law,” and clicking on that will produce the article from the encyclopedia. At the bottom of each article is a list of sources used by the author of the article followed by the citation for the article in APA and MLA formats. The articles can confuse and even irritate modern readers. Nevertheless, they provide a window into the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church one-hundred years ago and more [per George Findlen].

Edward N. Peters, translator and editor, The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law in English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001). “Pio-Benedictine” refers to the codification having started under the papacy of Pius X and finished and promulgated under the papacy of Benedict XV. Canon 6 states that “The Code for the most part retains the discipline now in force.” Each canon identifies its 1983 version, lists other 1917 canons that relate to it, and lists references to documents in the Canon Law Digest (a periodical that is a compilation of official Catholic Church documents relating to that canon published since the issuance of the 1917 code). Peter’s short chapter on “Researching the 1917 Code in English,” pp. xxxi — xxxiv, is very helpful. If researchers get nothing else, this is the book to get. It costs $40 new, but used copies are available for $36. All French-Canadian genealogical societies should have a copy in their libraries [per George Findlen].

Commentaries on the 1917 code: The first, Dom Augustine [Charles Bachofen]’s, A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law, 8 vols. (Saint Louis, Missouri: B. Herder, 1918-1928), explains canons in terms of past canon law. The second, Lincoln Bouscaren and Adam Ellis’s The Canon Law: Text and Commentary, 3rd rev. ed. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Bruce,[1957[), quickly became the standard textbook used in Catholic seminaries and is a great aid for today’s researchers trying to understand how to apply a given canon. Serious researchers will want to consult these two works, found in the libraries of Catholic seminaries, many law school libraries, and major research universities [per George Findlen].

For details about the case studies covered in this podcast, see:

George L. Findlen, “The 1917 Code of Canon Law: A Resource for Understanding Catholic Church Registers,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 93 (June 2005): 126-147. This is the “research the resource before researching in the resource” resource. NGSQ editors squeeze articles into a limited amount of space, so the article is compressed. However, the article still manages to cover the subject in considerable depth and supplies readers other works to go to for more information. Genealogists who want to master how canon law can help them understand unique parish register entries should study this [per George Findlen].

You can search these resources in WorldCat to see if one is located in a library near you:


How to Find an Appropriate Canon

In The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, there is a 16-page Table of Contents. On the fifth page of the TOC you will find the third book on ‘Things.’ In the first part you’ll find the codes having to do with the sacraments. Find the appropriate section dealing with your particular record anomaly.


  • What is the anomaly about: marriage? burial? a punishment? Find an appropriate canon in the TOC.
  • Make sure the canon was in effect at the time the parish register entry was created by checking in the Codex Iuris Canonici Pii X Pontificis Maximi iussu digestus, Benedicti Papae XV auctoritate promulgatus praefatione, fontium annotatione… by Pietro Cardinal Gasparri, Neo-Eboraci [New York] : P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1918.
  • Read the canons, looking for information that explains or clarifies the record.


How to Contact George Findlen

You can reach George at findleng [at] gmail [dot] com. He welcomes all correspondence, especially from those who need help with an anomaly in one of their church records.



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6 comments on “MSS-035-Canon Law for the Genealogist

  1. Suzanne Boivin Sommerville

    Thank you, Sandra and George Findlen. I will be sure to obtain the Edward N. Peters book. My academic training through graduate school was in Catholic institutions, and I have read widely in New France sources; so I have some background already. This book will reinforce and provide specific canon law citations.

    George, you might enjoy my three-part “Rush to Judgment?” [2014 Version], especially Part 3, which includes a digital image and discussion of a marriage dispensation document beginning on page 6. After the article, I include Father John Sullivan’s transcription and translations of the document from Latin to French to English on page 12. It is an interesting case because the marriage is one between two individuals who are apparently first cousins but no dispensation is granted for any such relationship. Read it and ponder the mystery!

    For the full story, as much as it can be told from known records, begin with Part 1. See the left side of the page

    on the website of the French-Canadian Heritage Society’s web site at

  2. Cecile St John

    I have looked through Cannon Laws but did not find an answer questions that have long puzzled me. Using the PRDH I noticed that one of my husband’s ancestors is named multiple times as a witness/attendee in church burial records for persons to whom it appears he was not related. Was attendance of witnesses required by Cannon Law? Were some parishioners hired to be burial witnesses? Were they the gravediggers or the persons who covered the grave? Is there a resource that covers burial practices, other than Cannon Law?

  3. Suzanne Boivin Sommerville

    Yes, some parishioners were employed in the role of “bedeau” or sexton and assisted with burials. This is a pattern I have observed often. It has even been misunderstood by a historian who maintained that the presence of a certain man at several burials for Native Americans meant that he was probably intimately involved with Indian women, a guess that cannot be proven. The historian had no idea about this person’s duties as a “bedeau” for the parish, thus his presence at many burials for French and Indians alike. As for the requirement of witnesses whether related or not, inheritance and other legal issues would require confirmation of the death of an individual, a very practical concern that must not be forgotten.

    1. Cecile St John

      Thank you for this information. Now all I have to do is try to find out if this ancestor was a “bedeau.”

  4. Suzanne Boivin Sommerville

    François Leduc dit Persil was the first bedeau, sexton or verger, for the church of Ste. Anne du Détroit built in 1755, serving Father Simple Bocquet for many years and identified as a bedeau in the church register. Ignorance about religious, social, and other matters about New France can certainly lead to some very strange interpretations, as can cherry-picking examples.

    For my review of the historian who totally misunderstood who this man is, see

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