Civil records are the first collections perused by researchers. They are (relatively) easy to access at the Archive offices and Town Halls (Dimarheion): Male Registers, Town Registers, School Records. Election Registers (lists of men eligible to vote in the late 1800’s) are online. I am grateful that so many have survived invasions, occupations, natural disasters and civil war.
Fortunately, these records do exist. Unfortunately, they primarily enumerate males. Daughters, wives and sisters are almost invisible. Young girls may be found in school records (only if they attended), and Town Registers which list entire families.
There is one compendium, however, that is an “equal opportunity” collection: church records. Women as well as men were baptized, married, and died. Their footprints are in tandem with men’s as they walked the path of life. Thus, records in churches hold priceless information and that will fill in the gaps of a family structure.
During my trip to Sparta this July, I was finally — after three previous attempts — able to access and view the Birth, Marriage and Death books in churches of three villages. The doors were opened in various ways:
- a friend, who is a psaltis (cantor) in one church introduced me to the priest, explained what I was seeking and why, and arranged a meeting
- a newly-found cousin was friends with the priest of another church and made an a appointment for us to meet;
- one priest whom I had visited called another and asked him to allow me to view his church books.
Local people are the key to obtaining access to village church records!
A stranger who walks into a church and asks to look at old books may be dismissed with the wave of a hand and the words, “we do not have any.” They were [pick one] burned, or destroyed by the Nazis, or lost in a flood, etc. Priests are very protective of these records and rightly so — they have information about the living as well as the dead, and it is their responsibility to ensure that their parishioners and their families are not compromised in any way. However, that does not mean that you cannot access them. It does mean that you need someone to pave the way for you — someone whom the priest knows and trusts.
Every village in Greece has at least one church. When villages were settled, the first building erected was the church, as it is the focal point of every community. Most villages, even the smallest ones, have several churches; my ancestral village of Agios Ioannis, Sparta, has eight! However, only one or two are used for Sunday worship. Others were constructed to honor a patron saint, or as family chapels. A village priest will officiate at all the churches in his parish, holding services in each on alternate Sundays or on a rotating basis.
To commemorate a Saint’s Day, a special liturgy is held in a church that bears that Saint’s name. For example, on July 26, I attended a service in honor of Agia Paraskevi in the church which bears that name, located in Theologos, Laconia. This Saint’s Day is the only time that services are held in the Agia Paraskevi Church.
What Can You Expect to Find? Examples of Village Church Books
Each church is different. There is no uniform date of genesis for any records. In the books I examined, most started in the early 1900’s; however, one baptismal book had a few entries from 1868! Generally, people will be able to find records for their grandparents’ or possibly great-grandparents’ generation.
This book of baptisms begins in 1913; column headings are date of baptism, name of infant, name of father, maiden name of mother; name of godfather and residence; place of baptism; name of priest.
This book of marriages begins in 1913; column headings are date of marriage; name, age and residence of groom and his father’s name; name, age residence of bride and her father’s name; name and residence of best man/bridesmaid; name of priest.
This book of deaths also begins in 1912; columns include the date of funeral; name, age, residence and occupation of deceased; name of priest.
The priests whom I visited allowed me to look at the church books and take digital images of some pages where my family name appeared. This meant that I had to be able to read my surnames in old Greek script!
How to Prepare for a Visit
This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit your ancestral village and be able to view church records. Be prepared! Priests may be busy and your time may be limited.
- Make a list of every surname in your family who was born, married, or died in the village.
- Ask someone to write these surnames in Greek script — then to write them again in “sloppy” handwriting. You need to be able to recognize the names you are seeking.
- If you know a relative in the village, advise him/her of the dates you will be visiting and request that they contact the priest in advance to ask his permission for you to view the books, and to give him the exact day you will be there.
- If you do not have a relative in the village, find one when you arrive. It’s easy! Greeks are very communal and everyone knows everybody else in the village. Just go to the platea (village square) and ask the locals where the “Papageorgakos” family lives. If you ask in a kind manner, someone may offer to take you to the house and even introduce you. Be sure you have candy or cookies to bring — a sweet offering that will touch the hearts of your relatives.
- Bring a letter of introduction from your local priest. It will open doors for you. My cousin, Father Eugene Pappas, is the Priest at Three Hierarchs Church in Brooklyn, New York. He wrote a letter on official church stationary, introducing me, explaining that he and I were working together on our family history, and asking permission to view the books. I brought several copies of this letter, and gave one to every priest. Each of them read it carefully (sometimes twice!) and they asked to keep a copy for their Archives. After reviewing the letter, they had no hesitation in showing me the books.
I understand that accessing village church records is not easy. There is a trip to take, connections to make, a language barrier to overcome, and luck to be had. However, it is doable. I wrote above that I had tried three times to gain access to these books but, until this year, I had been unsuccessful. The keys to success are preparation and persistence, and–you must have a local contact who can introduce you to the priest.
The rewards are worth the effort. Seeing the baptismal record for your grandparent, or the marriage record of your great-grandparents, will leave you speechless. You will be ever grateful, and your confidence level will soar. If you can do this, you can do anything!