Church Records in Greek Villages

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.

Interior of church at Charisio, Laconia

Village Churches

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:

  1. 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
  2. a newly-found cousin was friends with the priest of another church and made an a appointment for us to meet;
  3. 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.

Agia Paraskevi, Theologos, Laconia, July 26, 2017. Interior of church, Saint Paraskevi, a delightful visit with my Zaharakis cousins of Theologos.

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.

Baptismal Record


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.

Marriage Book

This book of deaths also begins in 1912; columns include the date of funeral; name, age, residence and occupation of deceased; name of priest.

Book of Deaths

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.

  1. Make a list of every surname in your family who was born, married, or died in the village.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Letter of Introduction, Father Eugene Pappas

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!


Research and Remembrances, Part 3

Research at the Mitropolis of the Greek Orthodox Church, Sparta

I had spent months preparing for this research trip, and I was anxious to visit the Archives and the Mitropolis of the Greek Orthodox Church with my friend, Gregory Kontos. We had decided in advance that our first stop would be the Mitropolis to search marriage and other church records. Thinking ahead, I had asked Father Eugene Pappas, a “cousin” on my mother’s line (we’re still trying to pinpoint our common ancestor) to write a letter to the Bishop of Sparta, asking permission for Gregory and me to conduct research at the Mitropolis at a specific date and time. In addition, Gregory’s father had called the Bishop who had known Gregory’s grandfather.

Letter from Father Eugene to the Bishop of Sparta, requesting permission for Gregory and me to research

Letter from Father Eugene to the Bishop of Sparta, requesting permission for Gregory and me to research

The groundwork was laid. Early on a Monday morning, Gregory and I approached this stately and beautiful building that rises majestically in the midst of the busy city.

The Mitropolis of the Greek Orthodox Church, Sparta

The Mitropolis of the Greek Orthodox Church, Sparta

It is one thing to think about doing research in a religious institution, but it is quite another to actually be there. Gregory and I felt somewhat intimidated as we knocked on the door, but that escalated to total intimidation when it was answered by a somber faced priest with a long beard and piercing black eyes. His floor-length black robe and round cap added to our anxiety level. This was not like walking into the local library and asking for help! Thank goodness Gregory was with me! He explained in Greek who we were, and immediately the priest smiled and invited us in. Our letter to the Bishop had been received and we were expected. With great relief, we followed the priest into a beautiful waiting room ringed with icons, paintings and mosaics.

Waiting room of the Mitropolis, Sparta

Waiting room of the Mitropolis, Sparta

Shortly, we were cordially greeted by a man who told us that the Bishop had received Father Eugene’s letter and that we were welcome to review the records. He handed us the Bishop’s written response. It was both exciting and unsettling to have this document — just think, the Bishop now knows my name!

Letter from Bishop of Sparta-permission to view records 001

Letter from Bishop of Sparta giving us permission to view records

We were invited into a spacious, comfortable room with a large conference table. Our host brought us a plate of chocolates and water. He asked which books we wanted to review, and graciously brought us any that we asked for. The Mitropolis has books of marriage records, but not baptismal or death — those are kept by the local churches. Although I work with historical documents at the National Archives and the Maryland Archives, I was still awed to see these precious registers. Turning their fragile pages, I wished with all my heart that these records could be made available to the thousands of people who are seeking to their Spartan roots.

Mitropolis (4 Carol)

I wished I could have read these records! The old handwriting was just too difficult for me.

As hard as I tried, I was extremely disappointed that I could not read the old handwriting. I was occasionally able to decipher first names but the rest of the script was beyond my limited abilities. Realizing quickly that I would be of no use to Gregory, we came up with a plan. He would read the records and when he came to one I needed, I would take the digital photo. I gave him the names and approximate marriage dates for my great-grandparents. Because just a few first names were used in the late 1800’s (mostly the names of saints for males and a derivative for females) they were easy to recognize. Gregory found it was quicker to scan the pages by looking for first names.

Gregory finds the marriage record of my great-great grandparents, Panagiotis Nikolaos Papagiannakos and Aikaterini Eliopoulos.

Gregory finds the marriage record of my great-great grandparents.

I was thrilled when he found the marriage record for my great grandparents, Panagiotis Nikolaos Papagiannakos and Aikaterini Eliopoulou, married December 22, 1867!

Line #371 – 1867, December 22. Panagiotis Giannakos, resident of Alaimbey, Sparta, married Aikaterini, daughter of Efstatios Eliopoulos of Sikaraki. Their first marriage. Agios Dimitrios Church. Priest: Panagiotis Mouhtaras. Witnesses: Athanasios Moukasis and P. Smyrlakos.

Line #371 – 1867, December 22. Panagiotis Giannakos, resident of Alaimbey, Sparta, married Aikaterini, daughter of Efstatios Eliopoulos of Sikaraki. Their first marriage. Agios Dimitrios Church. Priest: Panagiotis Mouhtaras. Witnesses: Athanasios Moukasis and P. Smyrlakos.

As you can see, the condition of these old registers is heartbreaking. The pages are crumbling and tattered. It truly frightens me to think that, without digital preservation,  the priceless information contained therein will be lost to future generations.

As we perused the registers, I concluded that they must be copies of originals because the same ink and handwriting would be found on several pages, then it would change. I wondered if the Mitropolis received records from the churches and then transcribed the information. These marriage registers listed the date of the marriage, name of groom, name of bride, occasionally the bride’s father’s name, the names of witnesses and the name of the priest. There was a column for notes, but it was usually blank. I also wondered if the original church records had more information, such as the names of the parents.

The books are kept chronologically by year and the data is not sorted by village. This is both good and bad:  good because if you don’t know the exact village of your ancestor, you can browse chronologically and look for your surnames; bad because if you do know the village but you’re not sure of the year, you have to read pages and pages of names until you find your ancestor.

Occasionally, a priest would stop in and ask how our work was going. When he saw the excitement in my face and voice as I said in my broken Greek that Gregory had found the marriage record for my great-grandparents, a smile crossed his face. After four hours, Gregory had found a few records with my surnames. Because we could not search a specific village, we realized that it would take many hours (perhaps days) to look through all the registers. We decided to leave, thanking our gracious guests for their help and cordiality.

I left with a deep appreciation for the kindness and respect that we were granted. The clergy allowed us to enter their hallowed building and trusted us with their books and records. I will be ever grateful to them.

Next… on to the Archives!

Someday — in Greece!

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Ann Barsi when I gave a presentation about to an Italian cultural group. She has spent 40 years extracting church records in her husband’s village of Pieve di Controne in Italy. These records go back more than 500 years! Ann has just published a book about the history of the area which includes genealogies of all of the original families. Anyone with roots in this village can email her and receive a family tree going back 10-12 generations!

I just had to write Ann’s story. Her work fills me with inspiration and her ability to access these records fills me with longing to be able to do this work for my Greek ancestors. With the help and enthusiasm of Gary’s cousin, David, we have done a similar work — we have been able to trace my husband’s Czech maternal line back to the 1600’s, also through church records in the Czech Archives.

It is possible to learn to read these old records in a foreign language. Ann did it, and I am learning to do it in Czech with David’s help. Truly, it is not impossible to build an ancestral line generation by generation, going back hundreds of years. The only impediment is lack of records.

It is clear to all genealogists that access to religious records is a key component in successfully compiling accurate family trees. Whenever I have written to a Diocese in Greece to ask for information, I have received an immediate and courteous response. Their desire to be helpful is unquestioned and gratefully acknowledged. The problem lies in the fact that we cannot browse the records. We can ask for a specific birth or marriage information, but oftentimes this is unknown. Thus, having the capability to look, page by page, through the records is critical to success. Currently, this is not possible.

Our Jewish friends have a poignant phrase, filled with hope and joyful anticipation — someday in Jerusalem. I will never lose hope that someday I will be able to access church records to find my family through the centuries — someday in Greece!

I hope you enjoy reading about Ann’s work. It was a joy for me to interview her and write this article: Pieve di Controne.