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A digital family tree grows in Boston

Molly Rogers of the New England Historic Genealogical Society worked with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to digitize their sacramental registers. The project includes burial records from the 1800s, as well as records of other sacraments such as baptisms and marriages, spanning the years 1789-1920.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

A massive genealogical project to digitize records from parishes in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston will expand its scope to the early 20th century, chronicling the lives of 10 million additional immigrants who maintained close ties to their ethnic communities amid the thrusts of assimilation.

Since its inception in 2017, the Historic Catholic Records Online Project has scanned and indexed documents dating from 1789 to 1900 for 154 parishes. The project is a collaboration between the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Boston Archdiocese

Cataloging the influx of immigrants who arrived from 1901 through 1920 will double the number of parishioners included in the online database, said project coordinator Molly Rogers.


“This might be the only place where [people] can find a record of their ancestor,” Rogers, of the genealogical society also known as American Ancestors, said by phone recently. “There are little bits and pieces in the records that can really bring details of your ancestor to life.”

The project’s initial phase, Rogers said, offered firsthand glimpses into the early wave of Irish, French-Canadian, and Italian immigrants who belonged to the archdiocese’s parishes in Boston and surrounding communities.

Rogers said the enlarged archival work covers more than 60 new parishes, with many congregants hailing from Lithuania, Poland, and Portugal.

The records evoke the personal and religious stories of people whose stories, and sometimes even identities, had been unknown. Many immigrants, unfamiliar with the customs or legal system of their new country, never appeared in the US census or other government registries.

Thomas Lester, archivist and records manager of the archdiocese, said that by the early 1900s, clergy began using more detailed templates — rather than blank notebook pages — to record religious milestones. Those sacramental documents usually specify a person’s home country, local address, age, and occupation, among other biographical details, he said.


A closer inspection of the records, such as identifying the sponsors of a baptism or witnesses at a wedding, can reveal tight-knit relationships bound by religious affinities.

“You can use that to trace aunts and uncles missing in your family tree,” Lester said. “You’re finding these stories of how they became involved in key moments of somebody’s life.”

Every month, the archdiocese delivers about 40 volumes to the genealogical society in the Back Bay. Some ledgers are small enough to fit in a person’s palm, while others measure 2 feet in length, Rogers said. Ten to 20 percent are falling apart, she said, their brittle bindings deteriorating with age and repeated use.

Rogers said she finds herself mesmerized by the penmanship — the words often written in Latin — preserved in these artifacts, which a volunteer must painstakingly decipher and accurately transcribe into spreadsheets.

“Sometimes, it’s this beautiful old-fashioned cursive that is so gorgeous,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s this illegible, scratchy handwriting that’s so hard to read.”

Kim Bonner, a self-declared “advanced amateur genealogist” and project volunteer, said that, by using the online database, she discovered that her great-great-grandparents were buried in a North Cambridge cemetery.

They emigrated in the 1850s from County Donegal in Ireland, where Bonner plans to travel this October. According to family lore, Bonner’s relatives were bootleggers, which she speculated might have spurred their flight.

During a recent volunteer shift, Bonner said she also stumbled across the name of a priest who is a distant cousin.


“It really is such a joy, given that on a personal level my family is there,” Bonner, of Concord, said in a phone interview. “You can actually find family as you’re flipping through the pages. It’s such an honor to be able to preserve it.”

Ellen Brewin recalled the laborious process of mapping out her family tree in the 1970s, when she would write letters to the archdiocese and ask for help searching parish archives. It wasn’t until the digitization effort, however, that Brewin managed to locate her great-grandmother’s baptismal records from the 1850s within 30 minutes.

“It was unbelievable — I just kind of had goose bumps,” said Brewin, 67, whose family has deep roots in Marlborough. “It’s amazing how all this is online. For these people, their church was everything.”

On the American Ancestors website, visitors can use a free guest login to view the scanned pages of sacramental documents, Rogers said. American Ancestors members can access an enhanced database to look for relatives by name.

In the past year, Rogers said, the databases garnered almost 20,000 page views, second only in popularity to the society’s search engine for Mayflower descendents.

“It’s an ever-growing well of information,” she said.

Alison Kuznitz can be reached at alison.kuznitz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlisonKuznitz.