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The Keeping of Vital Records
in the Austrian Partition

by Jonathan D. Shea, Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 1992 issue of Pathways and Passages.

The understanding of administrative decrees and rules on how vital statistics were to be kept helps the family historian to determine what type of information he or she may hope to find in such registers. To impart such an understanding is the intent of this brief sketch of such registers in Austrian Galicia.

Basic changes in the form and content of vital statistics registers in Galicia were outlined in an imperial decree issued by Emperor Joseph II on February 20, 1784. At this time the old format of keeping vital statistics registers which had predominated in pre-partitioned Poland, was suspended. The old method of recording births, deaths and marriages had been established by the Church in Rome in 1714. The 1784 regulations decreed that "each pastor is to keep three separate registers, that is, for marriages, births and deaths." These registers were to be written in Latin and the events for each village were to be recorded separately by village. This was a fundamental change from the old method of keeping all the records from all the villages of the entire parish together. Additionally, the title of the baptismal registers (libri baptisatorum) was to be changed to birth registers (libri natorum). This may seem to be a minor adjustment but it was in fact significant. It reflected the fact that Catholic priests were to function as civil registrars of vital statistics for all non-Catholic Christian denominations, as well as for Jews.

A columnar format was also decreed as a part of the reform. Columns specifically enumerated in the instructions included: year, month, and date of the child’s birth; house number; name of the person baptized; sex; status (legitimate or illegitimate); names of both parents and their religion; names of godparents and their occupations.

The decree of 1784 further stated that only the registers kept by the Catholic priests were to be considered official state documents. At this time, record books kept by Protestant and Jewish congregations were considered to be private. In 1849 Protestant clergy were also given status as civil registrars with the same full legal rights to act in this capacity as Catholic priests. Jewish record keepers were granted titles as vital registrars in July of 1868.

The 1784 decree made Latin the official language of record-keeping for all three Catholic rites (Roman, Greek and Armenian). In the second half of the 19th century, as a result of a growing Ukrainian nationalist movement, provisions were to allow record-keeping in Ukrainian in Uniate parishes.

Along with these general instructions on the form and content of the records, numerous decrees and regulations governed the making of changes and additions to such records. For example, a decree issued in Lwow in October of 1836 warned vital record keepers that if an error occurred in the recording of a name, date or other important item in the records, all additions and corrections had to be approved in writing by the Provincial Administrator’s Office. When such permission was granted, it was forbidden to erase or cross out any item in the original records. Any alterations were to be made separately in the margin or on a separate piece of paper which became part of the official record. A series of decrees in 1844, 1890 and 1895 provided detailed specific information to record keepers. Any falsifications discovered made the perpetrator subject to severe punishment in a court of law.

An 1888 decree reminded vital statistics registrars that the books were to be carefully conserved and were not to "leave the parish offices under any circumstance." This undoubtedly was a result of teachers "borrowing" the records to ferret out school-aged children to insure they were attending school.

Certain other changes are also worth noting. In the beginning of the 1900’s priests were allowed to not the names of the grandparents of each child baptized to insure that each individual was properly identified. Undoubtedly this was necessary in villages where the same surname repeated frequently. In 1825 a decree was issued advising registrars to add the name of the midwife present at birth. In 1850 the Bishop of Tarnów, Josef Grzegorowicz, advised record keepers that to insure maximum accuracy in recording data in the registers, all information should be cross-checked with information in the parish census (taken in all Galician parishes in the 19th century).

Other civil regulations affecting the recording of data included the 1886 decree which state that birth registers were to contain only children who were to be considered regular live births or "developed stillbirths." This, of course, excluded very premature deliveries or other circumstance which did not comply with the above. In the case of baptisms performed by lay persons-permitted by the Catholic Church when death was imminent-Church regulations required that such babies who survived were to be baptized later in an official ceremony. However, poorer families, wishing to avoid payment of church fees and other financial obligations, frequently ignored the regulations. This practice was common enough to generate an imperial decree by Franz I in 1913, especially directed to Galician priests, that in such cases the child was to be entered into the birth register but the column requiring the names of godparents left blank until the time when an official ceremony was performed. Other practices by the people further generated more ecclesiastical and civil decrees vis-а-vis entries in church registers. In some cases, residents of villages which were closer in distance to a parish church other than their own had children baptized in an adjacent parish. In 1886 the Ministry of Internal Affairs provided detailed procedural instructions for such cases. The pastor of the neighboring church was to enter the baptism and birth in his register but was prohibited from assigning the entry a document number. He also was forbidden to issue any duplicate certificates based on these types of entries. Within eight days of the baptism, a long verbatim copy of the entry was to be sent to the parish of residence. The pastor of the parish of residence was then to incorporate the entry into his records and assign it a document entry number. Only he was authorized to issue legally valid copies. In the Diocese of Tarnów, the bishop in 1857 suggested that pastors keep separate registers for these "extraterritorial" baptisms. Similar regulations governed children born in hospitals or other institutions and baptized by chaplains. Entries of their baptisms were to be officially recorded in the records of the parish where the hospital was located, even though the baptism was performed by the hospital clergyman.

A complicated and cumbersome series of regulations also governed the recording of births and baptisms involving children of non-local military personnel. A series of regulations passed by the Ministry of Military Affairs in the years 1884-1890 attempted to resolve all questions as to who was to enter such births in which register. These regulations supplemented others passed in 1869 and 1877. In short, if the military facility had over a thousand soldiers and had no resident priest, the recording of births was the responsibility of the local pastor who was to keep separate "military" registers. If a clergyman was assigned to the military units, then the responsibility for recording vital records fell upon him. If less than a thousand persons constituted a military facility then the local priest was responsible for this duty but had to submit these records on a quarterly basis to the military chaplain for the entire district. Additionally, the Galician dioceses obligated their record keepers to send copies of these records to non-military civil authorities as well.

The problem of births out of wedlock was also accorded much attention. Regulations in 1784 instructed record keepers "not to enter the name of the father into the birth register since such notations, based on the statement of the mother, are based on uncertain and unprovable facts, and furthermore, the entry of the name would provide no legal advantage to either the mother or the child." The only time the father’s name was to be recorded was if he himself acknowledged paternity. This regulation was ignored as another imperial decree was issued in 1787 addressing the same topic, stating "the person who can be registered as the father has to be well known to the godparents and who acknowledges the child as his and furthermore demands that his declaration be entered into the official record." Further regulations were issued in 1914, which would seem to indicate a continued lack of conformance by record keepers. The legitimization of a birth out of wedlock, as can be imagined, was governed by a labyrinth of state regulations, requiring sworn statements in the presence of two witnesses.

In addition to these regulations, a series of directives and rules were passed to insure the careful protection and preservations of the records themselves. Regulations of 1784, issued by Emperor Joseph II, directed bishops to review the record keeping practices in each parish during official pastoral visits. Additionally, country officials were directed to do the same. In the 1830’s the central government in Vienna also "jumped on the bandwagon", so to speak, regarding the issue. For example, in March 1830 civil officials demanded that record keepers of all faiths assign page numbers to each page in a volume and a statement to be entered into the register as to the number of pages it contained. An official seal and signature was to accompany these statements.

The Austrian civil officials, interested in the registers for tax and military obligation purposes, required that duplicate copies of registers be sent to the Imperial Chancery by the end of February each year. In the case of Galicia this was modified and two copies of such records were to be sent to the dean of each deanery. The copies were checked for accuracy with the original. One copy was retained and the other sent to the Bishop’s Consistory. Up until 1836 the necessity of forwarding duplicate registers applied only to birth and marriage records. After 1836 duplicates of death registers were to be sent as well. Jewish registers, according to a decree of the ministry of Internal Affairs dated December 6, 1873, were to be sent to the starosta of each country. In 1884 the Bishop of Kraków, Albin Dunajewski, reminded record keepers of the obligation of forwarding these duplicates to the proper authorities, thus we may speculate that the record keepers were not doing so in a consistent manner.

Another interesting regulation of March 20, 1803 states that the Austrian authorities required that record books be kept in the church sacristy and not in the rectory, to protect them from fires. In the case of a fire, pastors were instructed to do all that was humanly possible to save these records from destruction. A diocesan guidebook from the Archdiocese of Lwow in 1913 discussed this topic, stating that pastors indeed did take good care of their records. Of 258 parishes, only 4, established before the 18th century, did not have any records dating from that time. Furthermore, it was added that 146 parishes possessed registers from before the end of the 18th century; 40 parishes’ records dated from the 19th century; and the remaining parishes in the Archdioceses, all established after 1900, had 20th century documentations. Invariable the holdings suffered after the occupation of the territory by the Soviets.            Questions and Comments to Matthew Bielawa
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