|'Bridget Geraghty for churching'|
From The Register of Leckanvy, Diocese of Tuam, 1865
Although being able to view transcribed church records online is convenient (and no doubt more cost effective), one of the things I most love about examining original records in Ireland is the interesting things you might come across within the text of a document. In an 18th century Roman Catholic Parish register, I once came across what looked like a grocery list scribbled in the margin. Aside from such amusing notes, you can also find entries which lead you to learn about practices which are no longer commonplace, and which in turn may lead you to records not yet uncovered.
The 'Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth', commonly called the 'Churching of Women' is a good example of one of these practices. I have come across reference to the practice of 'churching' many times in registers of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the one in the image above, but it can also be found in registers of the Church of Ireland, as well as those of other denominations.
Specifically, what is churching?
In Christian traditions, the 'churching' of women was a rite, an ecclesiastical tradition which manifested in a ceremony in which a blessing was given to a mother after childbirth. The ceremony included prayers of thanksgiving for the woman’s survival of childbirth.
In the Roman Catholic tradition a woman would be 'churched' as soon as she was physically able to go to church following the birth of her child. In the Church of Ireland, a woman did not receive the blessing until forty days after the birth of her child.
The Rules of Churching
Before I share with you the rules of churching, I would like to point out that this rite was not laid out in Canon Law. Although she may have been compelled by members of her family or her community, a woman was not ordered under church law to receive this blessing; she chose to be churched. If churching was chosen, then certain rules had to be followed. Although history tells us that over time the practice went through some changes, in 18th and 19th century Ireland the rules were very clear.
1. The woman must be married.
2. The child must not be born out of wedlock.
3. The child must have been baptized in the church in which the blessing of the mother was to take place.
4. The churching may follow not just live births, but still births as well.
5. A fee must be paid to the priest.
Why are such entries helpful for genealogy research?
An entry for the 1760 churching of my own maternal fifth great-grandmother, Allice 'Ally' Howard, led me to discover that she had given birth to more than just the two children for whom I had previously found records. In fact, Allice Howard birthed at least four live children for her husband John Cavanagh. References to churching led me to look for baptism records for the other two children in years I had not previously examined.
Also, churching was by no means an inexpensive ceremony. In the parish register the priest notes a paid fee of 2 shillings and 6 pence. In 1760, this price was the equivalent of one day's paid labour for a craftsman. Such an entry signals that the family were probably doing well since they could afford the ceremony.
Over time the practice of 'churching' women has been a controversial subject. There has been a lot posted about it online, some of it accurate, and some of it way off the mark. Despite the fact that the ceremony itself contains absolutely no elements of purification, some view 'churching', not so much as a blessing, but instead as the requisite cleansing of an unclean woman prior to her being allowed to once again enter a house of worship. The last Catholic missal which makes reference to the rite is very clear that it is "a ceremony of blessing and thanksgiving".
My own mom views the rite of churching in a positive way. Mom was 'churched' only once, after the birth of my brother Michael, and she felt it was a celebration, a supportive blessing. She felt as though God was watching over her at a time when, as a first time mother, she was feeling a little uncertain.
The rite was essentially dropped by the Catholic church after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, although in some areas of the world it morphed into a blessing of the family after the birth of a child, and it is still possible to request such a blessing in some churches.
No matter what your personal opinion of the practice may be, the fact of a female ancestor's churching tells us that sometime within the forty days prior to the blessing ceremony, she gave birth to either a living child for whom we might find a record, or a still-born child for whom a record may or may not exist.
The Catholic Encyclopedia online.
Donabate Parish Register, Diocese of Dublin, 1760
Leckanvy Parish Register, Diocese of Tuam, 1865
The Tridentine Missal, 1962.
Click on image to view larger version.