The only existing record

St. Patrick's Church in Lowell. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a volunteer at NEHGS, my current assignment is to proofread and potentially correct the indexed records of the Massachusetts: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston Records, 1789-1900 collection. If you have taken a look at this database, you’ll know that the handwriting in the records varies from “very clear” to “indecipherable.” We have even made use of a “Transcription Challenge,” where we post names from the scanned record book pages and ask users what they think the handwriting represents. Not too surprisingly, the suggested names vary quite a bit amongst themselves.

Contributing to the confusion is that many of the given (first) names in the collection are expressed in Latin form. In other words, the name “Guillimus McCarthy” represents “William McCarthy” in English. However, as we have gone about creating guidelines for converting Latin to English, we’ve seen “Guillimus” spelled in 39 different ways, all of which are believed to represent “William.” So, when we see any of the 39 versions of “Guillimus,” we make the index entry “Guillimus (or other variation), William.” This way, either spelling will be found by our website search engine.

My current assignment is to proof and correct the transcribed records from the parish of Saint Patrick in Lowell, Massachusetts.

We do the same thing with surnames, if the original spelling is clear but seems unusual. A current example is “Whoolihan,” which we enter as “Whoolihan, Hoolihan.” The goal is to give the person doing a search the best chance of finding the record. Then, the searcher can decide if it’s the “correct” record.

My current assignment is to proof and correct the transcribed records from the parish of Saint Patrick in Lowell, Massachusetts. This is a challenging assignment, as the handwriting tends more toward the “indecipherable” end of the spectrum. When such a name appears, I sometimes resort to looking at the Massachusetts: Vital Records, 1841-1910 database.

Attempting to deal with a number of “indecipherable” names (none of which are Latin) in the Saint Patrick birth and baptism records for 1862, I decided to look for individuals with similar surnames, given names, and birth dates in the Massachusetts vital records (VRs) for 1862 Lowell.

The Massachusetts VR birth records for Lowell in 1862 consist of 757 entries on pages 164–81 of record volume 151. I downloaded this set of records from (which includes full dates) and compared them to the 371 birth records from Saint Patrick’s parish for the same year. Allowing for minor variation in the surname, given name, and/or complete date, I only found 139 matches. In other words, only about 40% of the births recorded in the church were also recorded by the town.

When we began the Historic Catholic Records Online project in November 2016, we knew that there would be cases where the “church records may be the only existing records for some individuals.” Now that we have digitized well over 455,000 records, it seems there are even more cases than we realized.

Sam Sturgis

About Sam Sturgis

Sam was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees in Psychology from Eastern Michigan University and worked as a Human Factors researcher in automotive safety for 13 years. He entered the field of commercial software development in 1983 and acted as software developer and development manager at Wang Laboratories and The Foxboro Company. Sam joined the NEHGS staff in 2005. Sam's interest in genealogy began shortly after moving to Massachusetts, when he and his family chanced upon the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, during a vacation on Cape Cod. There he discovered that he is a descendent of the Sturgis family that settled on Cape Cod in the 1630's. Sam and his wife Gail live in Medway, Massachusetts. They have two grown children: Katie, a Registered Nurse in Wrentham, and David, a software developer in Somerville.View all posts by Sam Sturgis