For genealogy and history buffs, a new collaboration between the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is bringing more than a century’s worth of church records within reach of the nearest Internet connection.
The organizations Tuesday unveiled the beginnings of an online archive of sacramental records for Boston’s earliest Catholics.
D. Brenton Simons, the society’s chief executive, said the project will assemble the largest collection of American Catholic genealogical records online. The archive is expected to grow into a searchable database of more than 10 million names and include information about people who worshiped at 154 parishes.
“This is a first,” Simons said during a news conference at the society’s Back Bay headquarters. “This is truly a gift to Boston and to the world.”
Ryan J. Woods, the genealogical society’s chief operating officer, said the archive is expected to unearth stories about people whose lives weren’t documented in civil records because they were born at home or their families didn’t report key milestones to government authorities.
“It may be the only written document for a person,” Woods said.
The collection from the Boston archdiocese includes records of baptisms, marriages, confirmations, and other sacraments performed between 1789 and 1900, officials said.
“The sacramental records of the Archdiocese of Boston are essential to us to understand our past, and our present, and our future as a church,” said Auxiliary Bishop Robert P. Reed of Boston. “What these volumes contain are evidence of an individual’s faith, and this is something that’s really internal and intangible.”
Many of the volumes were compiled by hand by early clergy, who wrote in Latin, French, German, Italian, Polish, and later English as they recorded the names of people who received sacraments, their addresses, those who witnessed the events, and other details.
Some records preceded the establishment of the diocese of Boston in 1808 and many volumes had deteriorated to the point where ink had faded, pages had become brittle, and in some cases, electrical or duct tape was used for hasty repairs, said Thomas Lester, the archdiocese’s archivist and records manager.
He contacted the society about preserving the records in March 2015, a few months after he started working for the church. As part of the project, the society is performing conservation work on some volumes.
“It was immediately evident that this collection was important, a lot of the books were in poor shape, and some immediate action needed to be taken to do something about that,” Lester said.
The project launched with digital scans of records from four of the oldest parishes in Boston and a mission in Providence, said Sam Sturgis, digital collections administrator at the society. The oldest parishes include the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Our Lady of Victories.
The records are at AmericanAncestors.org . People who aren’t members of the society will be asked to sign up for free as guests, officials said.
A companion website, CatholicRecords.AmericanAncestors.org , has been launched and includes a history of the Boston Archdiocese, a timeline of the early church in Boston, information about the effort to put parish records online, and an instructional video on browsing the archive.
Eventually, researchers will be able to search the collection by name, officials said.
Also Tuesday, the society announced the establishment of the Historic Catholic Records Fund to help raise $1 million to pay for the project, which is expected to take three or more years to complete depending on fund-raising.
Before the project came to life, people looking for sacramental records had to contact the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center in Braintree or seek information from individual parishes, which in many cases have documents from 1941 to the present, according to the archdiocese’s website.
Last year, Lester said, his office received upward of 1,400 inquires for records and about 200 people visited the archdiocese’s library.
Simons said he’s been trying to make these records widely available since he went to work for the society.
“For 23 years I have begged people to try to make this happen,” he said. “We were just overjoyed.”