Now What: Following Orders

Now What: Following Orders

Answers for the beginner, the befuddled and anyone hitting a brick wall.

Following Orders

Q. The godmother of my father and his brothers was a nun. I believe she was a friend of his parents, or even related to them in some way. I don’t know her order, or if she was an Anglican or Catholic nun. Is it possible to trace a nun? If so, where do I start?

A. Records of family members-such as nuns, priests and religious brothers-are often gold mines of family history. Because they didn’t have children, they’re more likely to be in close contact with parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, leaving letters or other personal papers. And the religious order’s biographical records usually include family history information.

Start by learning the denomination-Catholic or Anglican-of the church where your father and his brothers were baptized, then find out if that church has any information on the nun. Otherwise, assume that the woman you’re seeking was a Catholic nun, since more women joined Catholic orders than Anglican. Nuns could belong to a number of religious orders, and as with secular women who married, they changed their names. A nun generally takes on a religious name when she joins an order, and it’s this name you’ll find her listed under in records such as censuses.

Unfortunately, to learn much about your religious relative, you’ll need to determine which order she belonged to. Start with family stories and look for home sources such as obituaries, funeral cards, letters and diaries. In an article in The Irish at Home and Abroad (available at libraries with Irish-American genealogy collections and the Family History Library, Kyle Betit suggests you try to learn names of religious orders whose members served in the family’s hometown, parishes and schools, as well as orders other relatives joined.

Also look for resources that give the nun’s name followed by initials, such as OSB for the Order of St. Benedict or SSJ for the Sisters of St. Joseph. Read up on the history of women’s religious orders in George C. Stewart Jr.’s Marvels of Charity: History of American Sisters and Nuns (Our Sunday Visitor, out of print).
From the February 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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