By Fiona Fitzsimons
Perhaps you’re familiar with a few of the common documents used for ancestry research, like marriage, baptism, burial, and electoral registers. But sometimes, hidden at the end of a register, you may find an unexpected piece of social history. One example of a source that may provide surprising clues about your Irish family tree is churchings.
Churchings were a traditional ritual in Catholicism that involved blessing mothers after recovery from childbirth. Around four to six weeks after having her baby, a mother would go to the church for a ceremony of purification and thanks for the safe delivery of her child.
In your family history search, you may find evidence of the practice of churching at the end of a church’s baptismal records. Let’s take a deeper look at this traditional ritual and its role in Irish history.
Dating from the early Christian ages, the Catholic Church practised the rite of churching, commonly called the churching of women, as an act of purification and thanksgiving of women after the birth of a child.
The ceremony marked the end of the ‘green month’ of the woman’s confinement. It represented her resumption of normal domestic life and sexual relations with her husband.
At the time, churching was considered a pious and praiseworthy custom by members of the Catholic Church. Additionally, childbirth was seen as dangerous for both mother and child during the period when this tradition was in practice.
So, the churching of women was seen as a way to give thanks for a successful delivery. It was also considered a process of cleansing the mother’s body of any impurities contracted during childbirth.
At the Reformation, Non-Conformists rejected churching. But remarkably, the Catholic and Anglican churches continued the practice into the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
For generations, the practice was universal at all social levels. In fact, even Queen Victoria was churches.
The churching of women usually took place around forty days after the delivery of a baby, when the mother had taken the time she needed for recovery from childbirth. On that fortieth day, the mother dressed in her best clothes and wore a white veil for a ceremony at the church.
She was presented to the officiating priest in front of the whole congregation. Then, he sprinkled her with holy water in the shape of a cross. The mother brought an ‘accustomed offering’, originally a length of cloth known as a chrisom.
The chrisom was a piece of white cloth placed over the child’s head at baptism to stop the consecrated oil (chrism) from rubbing off. Later, the chrisom became the child’s christening robe. If the child died within a month of baptism, the cloth was used as a burial shroud.
By the 19th century, this custom degenerated to presenting a white cambric handkerchief. The accustomed offerings became a fee paid in cash. In theological terms, the offering was a tribute due to God, not a fee.
In Ireland, all fees that the people paid the clergy were a source of political conflict. One observer wrote:
“The Proctor had always as sharp a look out for my mother’s being in the family way, that he may get the Churching money, as he had for the coming young of their sheep and pigs, or any titheable commodity.”
The decline of the churching of women began in the early 19th century. The tradition had all but died out by the end of that century. Reasons for its decline may have included:
Despite its decline, the churching of women remained a significant part of Irish social and religious life until the early 20th century.
In Ireland, the churching of women was an important part of social and religious life for centuries. The last churching rituals in England and Ireland occurred around the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Catholic Church officially dropped the practice of churching in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. However, some more traditional Catholic cultures still practice the ritual to this day.
You can find evidence of churchings among the Church of Ireland registers, often as an addendum in the baptismal register. For example, St Werburgh’s in Dublin has a combined register of baptisms and churchings from 1789 to 1802.
However, these records aren’t published on the Irish genealogy website. So, it may take a little digging to uncover churching records related to your Irish family history.
A few records other records of Irish churchings that we’ve worked with include:
Evidence of churchings in Catholic registers is harder to come by. It usually survives in baptismal registers as notes written in the margins or above the line, as is the case in Kilbrogan RC in County Galway.
If you’re interested in tracing your Irish heritage, the churching of women may be an unexpected yet significant part of your research. Evidence of a churching ceremony may be the missing link you need to pinpoint new branches of your family tree.
At the Irish Family History Centre, we can help you find records of churchings and other events to trace your family’s history. Our genealogy experts are here to guide you through the process and help you uncover your Irish roots. Contact us today to get the support you need to trace your Irish ancestors through the generations.