I have been reading many posts and queries with the same subject: is it really possible to have access to the Italian parish records? Are they public? Can anyone have access to them? What if the priest says “no”? Is he allowed to refuse people to search into the books?
These were my questions, too.
Here is what I learnt by asking, reading… and also by experience.
The law states clearly that the records must be accessible to people who are asking to search their own family, or for any other kind of study. The Catholic Church is conscious of the inestimable historical value of the archives they are preserving, and they set rules to allow people to have access to their books unique content.
This means that no priest should refuse anyone to search their family history into the old record books. If he does, the reason might be:
- Maybe he is not well aware of this rule. And actually, this is something that relates very little with his job: he should take care of the spirituality of people, he is not supposed to be an archivist!
- Maybe he is timorous of having unknown people handling precious old records because if there’s a damage, he would be responsible. Rather than risking or wasting time helping, he might as well refuse the access with an excuse.
- The following comes from my own experience: in the small villages that are so common in Italy, the parish archive might actually be… In the priest’s house!
The books might be public, but they are stored in a private place.
During my last research I went to a very small town, phoned the priest and went to him. He was very kind and lead me to the archive, that was in his studio/living room, but he told me he had a flu and needed to rest, so he disappeared in his bedroom.
While I was searching the records in his living room, I could hear him coughing and sneezing in the other room. Like an old, ill grandpa. But he was a stranger, instead… and I was in his house!
I did not feel comfortable at all! And he surely was annoyed and disturbed by my presence…
All this is to say: whichever priest you meet – aware or not of your right to sit on his sofa and scroll “his” books – you should approach him with gentleness and respect, making him feel sure that you are not the kind of person who could drip hot coffee on an ancient book, or tear a page apart to bring it home. Phone or visit him in advance, explain your needs and agree together for a date and time for the search that fits both of you, so you can be sure he will be there to unlock the door.
If you crash against the rudest priest ever and there is no way he will show you the books you are longing to read, do not desperate: many books should have a duplicate stored in the Diocese Archive. The procedure to get to them might be more formal and bureaucratic, but you will not depend from the priest’s mood.
P.S. there are limits to the accessibility of records if you are searching within 70 years back from now – for privacy reasons – and if you intend to publicize the records to make money out of it, for example if you are planning to write a book with family histories of a certain place.