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Pages of the Past: My First Time Seeing Church Books in Person!

German church records, known as Kirchenbücher, are amazing resources for filling in your family tree. With information on births, marriages, deaths, and more – sometimes complete with juicy life details! – , these are the first sources you’ll want to look for when you cross the pond over to Europe. 

In my years as a genealogy translator, I have translated thousands of church records for clients. From precisely-organized column-records to the messiest of scrawled handwriting in paragraph church records, I’ve seen it all. That being said, I had never had the chance to view these centuries-old records in person. Previously, I’d only worked with digital copies of church books online, with my clients sending these documents to me from databases such as Archion and Matricula. 

But now that was about to change…and I was so excited.

We recently went to see my husband’s immediate family in Austria, and I realized that now was my chance to page through these amazing books in person. I told my Austrian mother-in-law about my desire to do so, and she said, “Oh, I can contact Sabine*, the church secretary, and see if we can come by sometime soon.” 

Now this contact was very important. From my years as a genealogist, I knew that you don’t just show up at a German/Austrian/Swiss church, requesting to see the church books at that very moment. You first need to make an appointment – one, because the church and/or rectory will not always be open, and two, because it is more polite than just showing up demanding to see your ancestors’ information!

My situation was a little bit easier, as we had “village connections”. My husband’s grandmother still goes to that same church, and, as I mentioned, my mother-in-law knew the secretary. She phoned her up, and we got an 8 a.m. appointment for Friday of that very week. I was so excited!

If you don’t have village connections – which most people likely do not – simply google the name of the church, click on their website, and look for the “Kontakt” (contact) button. Write an e-mail explaining who you are and that you would be very grateful to see your ancestors’ church books while you are there. Deepl.com will help with translations if you need them (just keep in mind it is machine translation, so it may not be perfect. I always recommend doing a German machine-translated request first, followed by that same request in English underneath). I’d also recommend making the appointment before you leave for your trip, so you have ample time to receive a reply and confirm the appointment.

Since I had never viewed church records in person before, I wanted to make sure I was doing everything right! As Friday approached, I asked you, my wonderful Germanology community, for some advice on going to see church books in person. I knew that many of you had done so already, and I wanted to take advantage of your expertise. Was there anything in particular I should do or say?

Luckily, you all jumped to the rescue. Nancy Brueshoff Youngberg, Tim Blymire, and Deb Thalner gave me these insightful tips, which I carefully wrote down in preparation for my visit. I think they will help you too if you ever get the chance to go to your own ancestral church:

Tips for Visiting Your Ancestor’s Church from the Germanology Community

  1. Have a list ready of the ancestors, dates and locations you know will be found in those books.
  2. Ask permission to photograph any pages – don’t assume you can. 
  3. Photograph the cover of the books, the spine, and the first page that give details of what is included in that book, THEN photograph any specific pages in the book. Now you have a way to track what you found. 
  4.  Once on your ancestor’s page, make sure to first photograph the entire page before doing any “close ups”. This allows you to see the headings of the columns and a larger handwriting sample of that specific pastor.
  5. Photograph the indexes of the book, with the list of names and page numbers, for future research.
  6. Have a portable battery for your cellphone in case your phone dies.
  7. Look for other family names in the indexes (siblings, in-laws and wider married family names) and photograph those pages as well
  8. Ask questions about village history and see if possible relatives still reside in the village.
  9. Make a monetary donation to the church as a thank you.
  10. Most of all, enjoy the moment and have an awesome time!

What great tips! As this was my husband’s hometown and church, I would be looking for his ancestors (I hope I can make it up to Monschau, Germany to see mine someday!). Luckily, the two of us had made a family-tree poster for his grandmother as a birthday present a few years before, so I pulled out the image file on my computer and wrote down the names and dates we had listed there. We had found this information on Matricula, so I also wrote down the source information listed from the website (book type, volume, page number, etc.) 

A snippet of my husband's family tree that we had researched using Matricula

As 8:00 on Friday morning approached, my husband, mother-in-law, and my two-year-old son made our way to the church (can never start them too young, right?!) For some reason, I was a bit nervous! As we walked past a 500-year-old farmhouse on the way to the church (complete with grazing cows and chickens), my husband started telling me all about the history of the village’s first building. Normally, I would find this fascinating, but I was too nervous about being late for our meeting, so I only listened with half an ear as I hurried the ambling group along. (Side note: my toddler’s new phrase since living for a month in an Austrian village is “Smells like cows”. And, as pretty as it is, he was right.) Luckily, we made it to the rectory right on time, and Sabine greeted us as we walked through the door. Showtime! 

After the introductions and a bit of get-to-know you small talk, it was time to get started. “Which books would you like to see?”, Sabine asked me in German. 

“The baptismal book of 1784-1806, the baptismal book of 1819-1859, and the marriage book of 1835, please”. Going into the cabinet – right there in the office, which surprised me a little bit – I think part of me was imagining that we’d be going into the depths of a cave-like cellar! -, Sabine dug through the paper-wrapped books, looking for the ones I requested. The first two matched up with the dates I had found on Matricula, but the marriage book for 1835, listed as a separate book online, ended up being part of a larger volume. After realizing that and locating the appropriate book, it was time to get to work. 

The books were kept in a storage cabinet in the rectory office - not in the depths of the church basement!

“Would you like to go sit down at the table outside and look at them by yourself?” Sabine asked. “Of course!” I eagerly replied. She got me set up at the table with the books, my husband got my son set up with some Sesame Street on a nearby chair, and I sat down to work. 

What amazing books! As I carefully paged through the brittle pages, the brown ink of time jumped out at me, filling me with awe. What a special gift to be able to touch these pages in person. As I spotted “1797” written across the page, I had to make myself stop and think, “Someone wrote in this actual book, that I am looking at with my own eyes right now, 227 years ago.” Incredible.

Using my prepared notes, I then began looking for my husband’s ancestors. I started with the most fun one – the farthest-back ancestor we had documented: Mathäus Leikermoser, born in the very year I was looking at, 1797. Mathäus was my husbands 4x-great-grandfather, born in the very same village as my in-laws live in today. In fact, the entire family lived at the same address – Laiter 12 – for centuries, making it very easy to verify that they were the correct family as we searched for more and more family members.

So fun to look closely at all the entries!
Mathäus, born in 1797, is the last entry on the page! His parents were Joseph and Anna Maria, and he was Catholic and legitimate.

After excitedly showing my husband his great-great-great-great grandfather, it was time to look for the other entries. Karl, Mathäus’ son and my husband’s 3x-great-grandfather, was born in 1838 – which would have made Mäthaus 41 years old when his son was born. Interesting! I switched to the correct book – Taufbuch (Baptismal Book) 1819 – 1859 – and looked for the index in the back. 

One thing to note: most indices in church books are alphabetical by letter – BUT not necessarily alphabetical underneath that letter. I found the L’s – looking for Leikermoser – and located Karl on the second page. I also found a number of additional entries for Leikermoser at Laiter 12, and made a note to look at those entries as well! The headings on the below page are “Name”, “Town and House Number”, “Month and Day” (of birth), “Year” (of birth), “Volume and Page” (where the entry for that person is located). 

The "L" pages of the index for the Baptismal Book of 1819-1859

After locating Karl on page 79 and marveling at his entry, we then spent the next twenty minutes or so looking at the Leikermoser family through the various books. We found the marriage entry of Mathäus (the four times-great-grandfather and Karl’s father) to Katharina in 1835, three years before their son Karl was born. My husband surmised that 38 years old was rather late to get married for the first time, and sure enough, in the marital status column of the record, we saw that Mathäus had been a “Witwer” (a widow) at the time of this marriage. Interesting! More research would need to be done to find the name of his first wife. 

My mother-in-law asked if we could look up her family as well (We’d been looking at my husband’s paternal line before). Sure enough, by going to the index under the correct letter, we found their names – and used the “Seite” (page) column to find out which pages their entry were on. She was excited to see her family too!

As our time ran out, I took all the pictures I wanted, and then reluctantly told Sabine that we had finished. I could have spent hours with those books, but whenever we are in Austria, our schedule is a bit packed, and we had a train to catch later that morning. So we thanked Sabine profusely for her time and expertise – she can read the old handwriting too! – and said our goodbyes. After making a small donation to the church, we were on our way – it had been an amazing morning. 

Have you ever seen your ancestors’ church books in person? Let us know about your experience in the comments!


Want to learn more? Check out the free video training Seven Things You Need to Know About German Church Records or see all articles about church records here.


*Name changed to protect privacy. 

13 Responses

  1. I am thrilled for you!!! What a tremendous experience for someone with the skill to read the pages of those precious books. I think it’s even more wonderful that your husband’s family has lived in the same town, on the same street for generations!!! Wow…. that is something rare to find today. All the best to you and your family! Thank you for sharing the details with us. Very special.

  2. What a great experience and blog post!

    I was interested to hear how you identified your husband’s ancestral home with an address. Did you have to use a historic map? Is the house still standing?
    I have a number which I believe to be my great great great grandparents’ address and hope to be able to identify the location of the house and perhaps see it if it is still standing after at least 200 years. I’m going there next week!

  3. I, too, was lucky enough to see and search original records in Canton Schaffhausen, Switzerland. The records I wanted to see were in the state (canton) archives. A distant cousin smoothed the way for me by arranging my visit in 2014, taking me the first day and introducing me to the archivist, who was so very helpful. I had the luxury of spending two days there and the archivist was available to answer questions and or translate when I was confused.

    There were separate books for births, baptisms, marriages and births. The earliest birth registered for my family was 1733. Depending on the record, sometimes the births and deaths of all the children would be listed on the marriage page.

    Now those records are online, but I was so very grateful that I had the opportunity to view them in person when I did.

  4. Wow! After spending hours and hours online looking at my German ancestors’ church records, I would love to be able to touch the actual books. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. What an interesting article about how a professional, keen researcher spent a morning of her holidays. Memories came flooding back of a morning spent in a church in Affaltrach Baden Württemberg Germany viewing in the Kirchenbuch the entries for the marriage of my great grandfather Johann Christian Siegele to Christiane Magdalena Kettner in July 1863, the month before they emigrated to Australia. I also viewed the marriage entry of the parents of Christiane Magdalena and the birth entry of Christiane Magdalena.
    I was only permitted to photograph the sections of the pages that showed the entries of my relatives. I too could have spent much longer researching and discovering but it did not happen as this visit to the church was organized by my friend as a surprise for me as a small section of a very busy schedule. Perhaps if I was more prepared, a list of useful questions could have helped further research in relevant sections of these wonderful books.
    However, the materials collected and the memories of visit the church, played a useful basis of the development sections of books later written on my return to Australia.
    The friend who organized this visit was the host father of my daughter when she visited Germany on a student exchange some 33+ years ago. It just happened that host family lived in Weinsberg some seven kilometres from Löwenstein where my forefathers lived prior to emigration of my great grandfather to Australia. So, with help from this good friend many family links were rekindled as a result of my daughter’s exchange visit.
    Pictures I would show you but IT skills are a problem . A direct email address would help.
    80 year old keen researcher and writer and one fingered typist.

    1. Hi Ian – I received your e-mail with the photos, thank you! How amazing that you also got to see the church books, especially as the entry was only a month before they emigrated to Australia. What a special record to see.
      And how nice of your friend to surprise you with that visit! But I can understand how it would have been nice to prepare for it too. But still, a sweet idea!
      Wow, what an amazing coincidence that your daughter’s host father lived so close to where her/your ancestors lived. Gives me goosebumps!
      Thank you so much for sending the photos and your story – I loved reading it!

  6. In August of 2001 I visited the Pfarramt in the village of Retzin in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, in the area between the city of Löcknitz and the Polish border near Szczecin (Stettin). I had arranged the visit with the pastor, traveling there from Marburg after attending a chemistry conference. For two days I poured through the old church books for the villages of Sonnenberg, Lebehn, and Kyritz, looking for ancestors and relatives in my Radue line. My mother’s grandfather, Ferdinand Radue was born in Kyritz in 1834. It’s a “ganz klein Dorf”, as the pastor described it, of less than a dozen houses. People in all three villages attended the church in Sonnenberg. As I recall, there were three separate volumes altogether, going back into the 1600s. None had been microfilmed at that time; don’t know about their status now. Photography was not permitted, so I had to take extensive notes on everything (but I did sneak one photo of my great grandfather’s birth record). Each afternoon the pastor, who did not speak any English, brought me some cookies and juice for refreshment. On the second day, he took me across the street to tour the small 700 year old church building. Of all the churches in the six or seven surrounding villages, it had the shortest steeple. It had been badly damaged by artillery fire in WW II, and there wasn’t money after the war to rebuild it as it originally was. It did still have a magnificent baroque altarpiece. The pews were not original, as those had been used to make coffins near the end of the war. It was a most remarkable two day experience.

  7. I loved your description of looking at these books. I remember the moment I became interested in genealogy while looking at a digital image of a baptismal record in the mid 1800s. I was firmly hooked on family research by the time I got to document images from the 1500 and 1600s.

    Just one thought, not meant to decrease your joy but rather as a note to other researchers, that very neat book with the 1797 records *might* be a later copy. Copies were made from local parish books and sent to a bishop’s office, if/when a local copy could no longer be located a copy of the one at the bishop’s office/archive could be made and sent back to the parish. Also, clerics would make a ‘new’ copy when the original book was on the verge of falling apart – sometimes the older version was then sent to the archive. I found an example of this when I was able to find (between the images on Ancestry.com and Family Search, one unindexed) three versions of one German kirchenbuch. The apparent earliest version was also the least legible with entries on a slant, some entries written in disappearing ink while others were still clear, entries partially crossed out or corrected, edges of pages mangled or with water/insect damage, etc. Still no guarantee it was ‘the original’ but it certainly had the hallmarks of being a contemporaneous record book with each new cleric ‘signing in’ and completing the entries during their tenure. What I came to think of as the ‘next’ copy was neater although it was not done entirely in one hand – but the changes in handwriting did not correlate to time changes in clerics, so likely there was just more than one scribe who had completed the copying. The third copy (perhaps late 1800s?) moved the information into a preprinted book format. ALL three versions were interesting – the earliest had margin notes that were not always copied forward into the middle book; it also had tallies by a cleric of plague deaths. The latest copy added new margin notes about some parishioners or their family members who went to America and died in x year in y location. As it didn’t include the earliest margin notes I suspect it was created from the ‘middle’ copy rather than the original book and perhaps done at the bishop’s office/archive level. One of the most interesting aspects to me was that the scribes of each book appeared to standardize (modernize?) some of the fore- and surnames to match what was in general use in their era. Given the tumultuous history of Europe it is wonderful to find any of this information surviving but, in some cases, there may be an even earlier version that may, or may not, hold another bit of information.

    To be able to see and look through these books of any era would be amazing – what a great experience you had – thanks for sharing it.

  8. Amazing, Katherine!! Interesting that they aren’t doing any preservation steps with the books. I look forward to touching mine one day!

  9. Not for my German ancestors, but I have researched from the original parish baptism/marriage/death books at the Slovenian Catholic archives in Ljubljana. Scans of most of those books are now on Matricula. However, most parishes there still hold their “status animarum” books, and pictures from those books from my ancestors’ parish (Podzemelj, Slovenia) were extremely valuable for my research.

  10. My mother was Austrian, born in Hofkirchen, my grandfather Hartkirchen…actually Schaumburg in the Foerster Haus, when my great grandfather was the forester. They moved to Schwanenstadt where my grandfather was the town veterinarian. I am fortunate to have my mother’s and my grandparent’s Ahnenpass that had to be filled out after the Anschluss to prove they didn’t have Jewish blood (more than 1/8th). Unfortunately, for my family history research my grandfather only entered as far back as required. All entries had to be authenticated. A wealth of information…..names, birth dates, place of birth/marriage/death and especially the church and parish, as well as register number. The Kurant script is definitely challenging, luckily there are still some relatives that could read most of it! Purely by accident when I was researching on Ancestry recently, I found that the church records have been digitized so I have been able to locate many more ancestors that are not in the Ahnenpass without struggling to decipher! Happy days!

  11. This is fantastic Katherine. I have researched both my father and mother’s paternal and maternal families lines from Germany. I often find myself looking at FamilySearch.org, Matricula and Archion images late at night! One helpful tool I have found is that on some records there exists a Family Register Number in the far right column of some records for that particular family. It is typically a Roman numeral number or simply a number. Note this number and scan other record pages as sometimes you can find siblings much easier.
    Thanks for sharing and Happy Hunting!

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