The Virtual Genealogical Archive: making available on-line the parish and civil registers from Bucharest and Brașov county archives (Romania)

by Rafael Dorian Chelaru, Faculty of Archival Sciences,” Al. I. Cuza” Academy, Bucharest (RO)

Digitization work on the Bucharest © Collection Laurentiu Dologna

Acknowledgments. The results of the current research have been made possible through the project „The Virtual Genealogical Archive – a pilot project destined to the National Archives of Romania and third party users“, co-financed through the research programme ”Partnerships – Collaborative Projects for Applied Research – PCCA 2013″.

Getting started

In 2013, the Executive Unit for Financing the Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation in Romania – UEFISCDI (currently under the authority of the Romanian National Authority for Research within the Ministry of Research and Innovation) launched a national competition for collaborative research projects (PCCA), financed from public funds[1] and opened to all consortia joining public institutions (with research capabilities) and private companies. In June 2014, a consortium led by the Faculty of Archival Sciences at the ”Alexandru Ioan Cuza” Academy and including SIVECO Romania S.A. (a software company) was awarded a financial support of c. 280.000 Euros for developing an online database called The Virtual Genealogical Archive – a project pilot created for the National Archives of Romania and third-party users. The goal of the project is to create an on-line database and a website through which two archival collections of parish and civil status registers become accessible in digital format. The two collections, namely Bucharest Civil Status Collection and Brașov Civil Status Collection, are currently preserved and administered by the National Archives of Romania in the repositories from Bucharest and Brașov.

The project started in July 2014 and will end in September 30th, 2017.

Civil status registers in Romanian lands up to 1918 – a brief history

17th century parish register, Brasov county © Project database

As the two collections contain parish and civil status registers referring to communities and individuals that lived in two different historical areas of nowadays Romania, namely Transylvania and Wallachia, a brief introduction in the history of civil status recordings is needed to understand the context in which such documents were created.

In Transylvania, their beginnings can be traced after the Council of Trent (1542-1563), when the Catholic Church imposed to all parish priests the obligation to create and administer parish registers. The practice had already been adopted by some Protestant churches, its usefulness for continuously checking the religious conformity of the parishioners becoming evident. In the case of the Catholic Church, until 1614, these registers recorded only baptisms and marriages; afterwards, the Rituale Romanum stipulated the creation of five types of registers (or protocols): for baptisms (the date of birth being also recorded), marriages, burials, confirmations and a special register containing data related to the number of parishioners. The baptism and marriage registers contained special headings to record the names of the godfathers and the witnesses. Along with these registers, special forms for recording such data were also created. Later on, a new type of register was established, i.e. the ”register for good agreements” (in Romanian registrul de bună învoială), which recorded the pre-marital agreements concluded by the future grooms.

No need to say that not all parish priests stick to these dispositions regarding an otherwise tedious obligation; moreover, to enforce it through sanctions was not quite of primary concern for the ecclesiastic authorities. Therefore, keeping up to date parish registers was not a regular practice among the recognized confessions (religiones receptae) in Transylvania, the case of the Greek Orthodox Church being especially illustrative (the first parish registers compiled by the Orthodox church date back from 18th c.). The oldest parish registers compiled on the territory of nowadays Brașov county dates back from 1607 (Lutheran parish of Hosman), 1651 (the reformed church in Făgăraș), 1687 (the Greek-Catholic parish from Daia), 1784 (the Greek Orthodox parish from Orlat). The oldest extant register containing recordings of a Jewish community was compiled in 1835 for the village of Valea Lungă. The first printed parish registers in Transylvania were produced in 1784 in a printing house from Sibiu; however manuscript registers continued to be used until 1850s.

The languages used in these documents were Latin (for Catholics[2]), Hungarian (for Calvinists and Unitarians), German (for Lutherans), Romanian[3] (for Greek-Orthodox and Greek-Catholic communities) Armenian[4] (for Armenian communities). The Jewish religious authorities used either Hungarian, German and, of course, Jewish[5].

The state made its presence visible in this field only in the second half of the 18th century, when the Habsburg monarchs (Maria Theresa, Josef II) enforced the legislation regarding military conscriptions and established border regiments. Their efficiency relied heavily on a good recordkeeping of parish registers. Thus, the regulations regarding military conscriptions issued in 1773 and 1784 by the Imperial Chancery in Vienna provided also detailed instructions on how the priests of all Christian confessions should record births, marriages and deaths using special forms provided by the state. The clergy was also obliged to periodically report to the secular authorities on the demographic curbs of each parish (data on the increase or decrease of the population). Other regulations issued in 1770 and 1774 decreed that the safe preservation of the registers[6] was a legal obligation for all parish priests, who risked severe sanctions in case of disobey.

Thus, in the second half of the 18th c. the Austrian authorities in Transylvania strengthened their control over the process of recording and preserving the civil status data, not only by imposing this obligation to all ecclesiastic structures, but also by specific rules and procedures. Moreover, all the extracts and certificates regarding civil status data issued by the parishes[7] had juridical value in law courts, and every change in the civil status of a person, certified by the law courts, had to be recorded also in the parish registers. The compiling of conscription lists and demographic statistics for administrative purposes was also the responsibility of the clergy, who, eventually, was given a status very similar to that of the public servants. It is obvious that the main reason for which the state preferred to use the clergy was represented by the lack of sufficient administrative personnel able to comply with this task.

A stricter legal control over the parish registers was legislated in 1827 – law no. 23 imposed that every register had to be compiled in two copies, one of which had to be deposed at the archive of the local authority at the beginning of the next year[8]. Also, any change in the civil status data had to be recorded in both copies. In 1850, new headings were added in the format of parish registers: two headings for baptisms (for recording the alive/dead newborn and for legitimate/illegitimate births), one heading for marriages (for recording the status of the grooms as unmarried/widow) and one heading for deaths (for recording the cause of death).

In the context of the military defeats suffered by the Habsburg monarchy in front of Prussian armies, a law passed in 1868 and applicable also in Transylvania obliged the mayors to share with the local priests the responsibility for the correctness of the conscription lists and to check the identity of those who presented at the recruiting commissions. The same law stipulated that the parish priests had the right to choose the language used in compiling the registers and imposed new rules on the baptism of children born in Christian mixed families, rules which arose strong discontent[9].

However, imposing administrative constraints on clergy could not result in smooth cooperation between the two authorities and tensions arose especially when these constraints were enforced with sanctions. The ecclesiastic authorities often denounced illegitimate and abusive intrusions of the state in religious matters (especially in cases of baptisms) while the state officials pointed to the negligence of the priests in filling and administering the parish registers and the subsequent certificates. On the other hand, by the end of the century, the administrative apparatus of the local authorities had grown significantly and it was apparently ready to assume such responsibility. Therefore, the law issued in 1894 (and applicable since 1895 October 1st) established the civil status registers, which replaced the parish registers as documents of legal value. The authorities created within the existing counties (e.g. Brașov and Făgăraș, now parts of actual Brașov county) new administrative units (called circles[10]) for registering the civil status data, each unit being provided with a civil status office which had the task to fill and keep the registers in good order[11]. Each year, the sub-prefect of the county had the responsibility to check and seal every register. The registers were preserved in the communal archives.

The legal effects of the 1894 law lasted until 1918, when Transylvania became part of Romania.

In the case of Wallachia, there is no evidence of civil status registers before 1831, when the Organic Regulation (the first constitutional act of Wallachia) was adopted under the pressure of the Russian empire, which after the Treaty of Adrianople (1829), maintained military occupation of Moldavia and Wallachia until 1834. Russia was particularly interested in a long lasting domination over the two Romanian principalities, which could ensure a Russian control over the mouths of Danube, Europe’s main commercial hub at that time. To accomplish this, a modernization of the local administration and state institutions was needed and the introduction of civil status registers was a crucial part of this process. Previous attempts for introducing this practice can be documented in 1791 and 1828, when Russian authorities asked the Orthodox church both in Moldavia and Wallachia to introduce such registers, but with no success. A possible explanation lays in the fact that, unlike in the case of Transylvania, a multi-confessional region, where each church was especially interested in having a good control over its believers, in Moldavia and Wallachia the Greek Orthodox church had practically no competitors[12]. Moreover, the majority of the Orthodox priests were practically illiterate and this situation changed significantly only by the end of the 18th c. due to the efforts of some cultured metropolitans and princes who believed in the importance of education[13].

Following the dispositions of the Organic Regulations, the Orthodox parish priests from Wallachia begun to constitute and administer parish registers under the supervision of their superiors. Each year, the metropolitan see in Bucharest eventually collected all the registers with the help of the archpriests and stored them in special rooms located in its palace near Dâmbovița river[14]. The state administration did not interfere in this process until 1863, when the Office for Statistical Data (created in 1859 within the Ministry of Interior) was given the task to replace the metropolitan see in centralizing the registers. Each year, the Office for Statistical Data (OSD) distributed to all communes a set of sealed and certified registers, three for recording births, marriages and deaths and one for recording wedding agreements, each in two copies[15]. The city houses had to re-collect them until January 15th next year at the latest, so the parishes could no longer keep registers. The obligation to record the civil status data still remained with the priests from similar reasons as in Transylvania – lack of sufficient administrative personnel able to handle this task[16]. Moreover, the priests were obliged to issue civil status certificates in standard format, such as birth certificates, which were countersigned by the local civil authority and the OSD officer. Marriages could not be consecrated without the special attestation of the church (called peci), which proved that there were no legal impediments to prevent their conclusion[17]. Finally, the priests had to compile and deliver to OSD a statistical report for their parish each quarter of the year

In addition, the law of the communes (1864) established that the mayors had full legal responsibility regarding the administration of the civil status registers; it was followed by several instructions which detailed the procedures to be followed by the priests when filling the registers and certificates. However, as the significant number of complaints preserved in archives suggests, not all the priests did fulfill these tasks with due rigour – there were many cases when the civil status data where either not recorded correctly or many entries were corrected without proper legal caution. Finally, the Civil Code of the Romanian principalities, promulgated in December 1864 and in effect after one year, transferred the full responsibility of filling and administering the civil status registers to the civil authorities.

1867 death certificate_Bucharest

The provisions of the Civil Code were enforced and detailed in the instructions issued in 1866, which introced new procedures regarding the civil status registers. There were instituted four types of registers: births, marriages, deaths and agreements of marriages[18]. When writing (by hand!) a civil status act in the register, the officer had to leave a blank margin on each page where the name(s) of the person(s) were written for quick reference. This margin was also used for further annotations such as marriage, death (recorded on the birth certificates), divorces or the Romanian citizenship (recorded on the marriage certificates). These annotations were made by the civil status officers, who informed also the law courts to record them in copy no. 2 of the register.

In 1911, a new instruction on the civil status registers was issued (in effect starting from January 1912) – it introduced a new type of register for births with pre-printed forms to be filled by the officers. However, this type of register was used only to record legitimate births; the foundlings would have been recorded in the regular registers as before 1911.

Characteristics and significance of the collections

The Bucharest civil status collection includes 334 parish registers dating from the period 1832-1865 and 2095 civil status registers covering the period 1866-1912. Basically, there are 4 types of registers: those recording births, marriages, deaths and marriage agreements. From 1866 until 1881, the civil records for Bucharest follow the administrative organization of the city into 5 sectors designated with colors (red, blue, yellow, black and green), therefore in the Bucharest archives for each year in this interval there are at least five registers for every type of event and for each sector the civil records are numbered from no. 1. After 1881, the practice is abandoned.

Especially since 1866, the civil registers from Bucharest collection are rich in information not only on the vital data of the individuals, but also on their social and contextual milieu. Besides the basic data i.e. name, surname, place of the event, name of the parents/godparents, witnesses etc., the civil officers recorded also data on the parents of the newborn child/married couple or the witnesses of the event (usually their social status, profession, age, religion, address). The narrative style of most civil records before 1912, even if it uses a typical administrative language, adds more local flavor, turning the civil certificates into veritable micro-stories.

The Brașov county civil status collection hold 669 parish registers dating from 1639-1895, and 1570 civil registers from 1895-1968, all organized by communes. In the case of parish registers (libri parochiales, felekezeti anyakönyvek, Kirchenbücher), there are 6 types:

  1. matricula (recording births, marriages, deaths [19]);
  2. marriage agreement registers;
  3. confirmation registers[20];
  4. registers containing data referring to the number and status of the parishioners[21];
  5. family registers;
  6. ordination registers.

Archived in the Brașov civil status collection, one can also find also the minutes of the parish meetings concerning the status of parish population, the material contributions of the parishioners for the church, ecclesiastic ordinances, lists with children enrolled in the parish or local school[22], names of their teachers, data concerning vaccinations[23] etc. Matricula are sometimes filled with marginal annotations on various topics such as local weather, political and social events, epidemics and other news.

The importance of the civil status collections for researches in various disciplines is beyond doubt. Demography, genealogy, sociology, toponymy, onomatology, epidemiology, local history or family history are among the most privileged. As historians often said, the civil registers are in most cases the only documents which can shed a light in the intimacy of an ordinary individual that lived in the past.

There are several differences between parish registers and civil registers especially regarding the scope of vital data recording. The first difference lies in the balance between individual, community and territory. Parish registers usually cover very imperfectly a given territory – this is due to their scope focused mostly on the community of a parish (and parishes in Transylvania or Wallachia did not have precise limits on the ground). Therefore, in some cases, civil status events were recorded with great delay or even escaped recording due to the great distances between the parochial office and certain areas of a parish, especially in rural areas. On the contrary, the scope of the civil registers are mainly territorial: they include recordings referring to individuals living in a certain territory – provided that all civil registers would have been preserved, one can reconstruct the main stages of life for all individuals living on a given piece of land. However, almost no sense of community can be detected simply because those individuals recorded in the civil registers usually came from different social milieus and shared different religious affiliations and social profiles.

A second difference is given by the confessional scope of the parish registers – they recorded only those vital events which involved individuals sharing the same confession and which were marked by religious ceremonies. Given the fact that in the 19th c., before civil registers being established, the number of individuals who abandoned any religious affiliation becomes significant, their life events were hardly recorded in the parish registers. No need to say that in the civil registers there are recorded persons no matter their religious affiliation.

A third difference is given by the thoroughness of civil data recording, more likely to be met by the civil registers than the parish registers. This is explicable through the fact that, unlike in the case of civil status offices, whose main task was precisely civil data recording, the parish priests had many ecclesiastic duties among which keeping parish registers was one of the least important. Moreover, the parish priests were controlled not by state officials, but only by their ecclesiastic superiors, who proved to be more reluctant in chastising for errors in keeping parish registers than for other types of transgressions.

In the two types of registers the information is organized differently – while the parish registers record the births, marriages and deaths in a table format with a minimum amount of data, the civil registers contain the full transcription of the certificates issued for each type of event.

In the reading room of the Bucharest Municipal Archives, there are also available finding aids (in register format, compiled by hand), which offer a basic by name indexing for births and marriages corresponding for each year between 1866-1912. For Brașov collection, there are no available indexing aids with the exception of a basic inventory containing a short description for each register.

Project summary

Digitization work on the Bucharest © Collection Laurentiu Dologna

The project team realized the complete digitization of Brașov collection, the complete digitization of the finding aids of Bucharest collection, by name indexation of births and marriages for Bucharest collection, the configuration of database and of the project website (http://arhgenvirt.ro). The undergoing activities include the digitization of the Bucharest collection (c. 90% finished). After September 30th, 2017, more than 500.000 images in total will be available on-line for free consultation.

The digitization of the registers has been carried using compact cameras with 18 Mpx resolution mounted on photo stands. In the case of Brașov collection, the registers were photographed as such, with two pages per frame, while in the case of Bucharest collection, the registers were photographed by certificate[24]. In some cases, the digitization process was extremely difficult due to the poor state of conservation of several registers; in very few cases, the registers could not be photographed.

Unfortunately, due to the limited financial resources, the acquisition of large format book scanners was not possible.

The database was structured using MySQL 5x programming language, while the web application uses a Symfony framework (PhP 5.4x) suitable for long term projects. Among the functionalities and options to be provided for all users we can ennumerate:

  1. search by name option and the visualisation of the civil status record associated for each name (available for Bucharest collection)
  2. page by page visualisation of each register (available for Brașov collection) with search options by locality, parish and year(s).
  3. personal working space, where favorites can be listed and stored;
  4. a tool for creating one’s own genealogical tree.

Hopefully, the digitizing of the civil status collections from the Romanian archives will be continued in the future years, as it represents the only solution to safeguard an important part of the national archival patrimony.

 

Selected bibliography

Arcadie M. Bodale, ”Colecţia de stare civilă – între realizări şi deziderate. Actele comunale de stare civilă de la D.J.A.N. Iaşi”. Revista Arhivelor-Archives Review, 1/2008: 51-79.

Ioan Bolovan, Sorina Paula Bolovan, ”From tradition to modernization. Church and the Transylvanian Romanian family in the modern era”. Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 7, 20 (Summer 2008): 107-133.

Mircea Brie, Registrele de stare civilă din Transilvania în a doua jumătate a secolului al XIX-lea. Semnificație documentară. Dan Octavian Cepraga, Sorin Şipoş (ed.), Interpretazioni del documento storico: valore documentario e dimensioni letterarie, Oradea: Ed. Univ. din Oradea, 2010: 164-193.

Liviu Moldovan, ”Registrele confesionale de stare civilă din Transilvania”. Revista Arhivelor, 1/1958: 159-185.

Bogdan-Florin Popovici, ”Consideraţii pe marginea prelucrării colecţiei de registre de stare civilă”. Buletin de informare și documentare arhivistică, 2005: 64-72.

Aurelian Sacerdoţeanu, Arhivistica, Bucharest: 1971.

Gh. Ungureanu, ”Actele de stare civilă sub regimul Codului civil III”. Revista Arhivelor, 1/1960: 31-48.

 

[1] The budget allocated to the projects selected following the 2013 competition was part of the total budget of the National Plan for Research II launched in 2007 after Romania joined EU.
[2] Between 1848-1857 the Latin was temporarely replaced by Hungarian.
[3] Until the middle of the 19th c., Romanian was written in Cyrillic alphabet, later being replaced by Latin alphabet.
[4] After 1829, Armenian parish registers were written in Latin.
[5] A special law on the recording of civil status data for the Jewish communities was issued only in 1840.
[6] The registers had to be kept only in the parish residence and in case of fire they had to be rescued first.
[7] Issuing such certificates was free of charge.
[8] This second copy was to be used only in the case when the first copy had been lost.
[9] The law stipulated that boys should be baptized in the religion of their father, while girls in the religion of the mother. Many priests openly disobeyed as they considered the disposition an abusive intrusion of the state in a matter considered strictly religious. However, the Hungarian authorities reinforced the rule with harsher sanctions in 1879 and 1890.
[10] Each circle included one or more communes.
[11] In 1904 a new law established that in the case of villages the notaries had to function also as civil status offices.
[12] The sources document the existence of small communities of Catholics, Reformed, Armenians and Jews in the few Moldavian and Wallachian towns (in Moldavia there were also several Catholic villages), which apparently did not reach a total of 10% of the population.
[13] One of these princes was Constantin Mavrocordat, who ruled several times in both principalities between 1730-1769. In his second rulership in Moldavia (1741-1743), Constantin Mavrocordat ordered that all priests should pass a mandatory exam to prove that they can write and read the sacred texts otherwise they had to attend special alphabetization courses; failure to do so led to the cancellation of the fiscal privileges usually granted to all priests
[14] This task, however, was not carried on a regular basis, thus many parishes did not transfer their own registers to Bucharest.
[15] One copy was preserved in the archive of the city houses, while the copy no. 2 was preserved in the archive of law courts.
[16] The level of alphabetization was so low that many of the mayors of communes were illiterate people, as the correspondence carried by oficials of the Ministry of Interior clearly testifies.
[17] Among possible impediments one can count inbreeding or bigamy.
[18] The rural communes used only two types: one for births, marriages and deaths and one for agreements of marriages.
[19] In Latin Libri baptisatorum, copulatorum, mortuorum.
[20] In Latin Libri aversorum et conversorum.
[21] In Latin Libri status animarum, conscriptio, numerus animarum.
[22] Such lists are bound in separate registers called school registers.
[23] Such data can also be found in birth registers, under the ”Observations” heading.
[24] Some civil records (usually marriage certificates) contain 2 or 3 pages, thus needing 2 photos per certificate.


2 Gedanken zu „The Virtual Genealogical Archive: making available on-line the parish and civil registers from Bucharest and Brașov county archives (Romania)“

  1. Hello Gentlemen,
    On a research for a Belgian family I found out that an Austrian young military officer (Fähnrich) called Aloys (von) Dessulemoustier died in Drebecen on 02.06.1833 during a cholera epidemic. As his family was from Belgian origin, I try to find out who were his parents and therefor would like to have an access to his decease act or only obtain a copy of this act . Would it be possible by your channel ?
    Best regards,
    André Goethals, B 1030 Bruxelles,
    andre_goethals@yahoo.fr

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