Sunday, October 10, 2010

Divining faiths

Families have different defining characteristics. You'd best be a baseball fan in our household - we love baseball. We're dog people, not cat people. We travel, as far and as frequently as humanly possible. We don't agree on politics - at all.

Over the years I've traced all kinds of traits back through our families - some good, some not. But one theme has been remarkably constant - strong religious faith and participation. Families have clearly defined church memberships that extend for generations.

It's been a challenge, however, decoding the religious backgrounds of my Northern Neck in-laws. The "recent" members of the Palmer & Meredith clan were born in the 1840s, educated at Catholic boarding schools and devout Roman Catholics.  But I've searched in vain for evidence that their ancestors were Catholic. I learned that there were no Catholic churches in the Northern Neck until long after the Civil War. Colonial Virginia banned Catholic priests, forcing the few Catholic families in Virginia to worship privately in their homes, leaving no public record of their faith. A marriage bond recorded in Colonial Virginia is evidence of a Protestant marriage ceremony. Finding records frustrated me with this crowd - not my normal response. There are, however, plenty of missing marriage records.

Thomas Meredith, a wealthy 19th century Baltimore merchant, was Catholic. He educated many of his nephews and nieces at Catholic schools, but the evidence is clear they were not baptized Catholics as children. Letters refer to two nephews deciding not to become Catholic. Niece Margaret Meredith was baptized at school in 1840, when she was about 18 years old. Nephew William V. Meredith is referred to as a convert in a newspaper article celebrating his 25th anniversary as a priest.  One of Meredith's maternal uncles, William Yerby, was married in a Catholic church in Baltimore. There's no indication the Merediths before Thomas were Catholic.  Indeed, his presumptive ancestor, John Meredith, tried to wrest control of an estate from Edwin Conway in 1654 by alleging he was a Papist. The only hint of evidence that any earlier Palmers were Catholic is the Maryland marriage of one of James Palmer's aunts to a Brent, a family that had Catholic branches. John Meredith's third wife was a Brent, but they were married in Lancaster County by a Protestant minister.

Too many shards of information and no clear answers! Seeing things graphically often helps me, so I made a descendancy chart tracing known Catholics, known Protestants, and the unknowns.

The chart reinforces the central role Thomas Meredith played in their lives - and in my research. I know about those family members he corresponded with. Those he didn't are still ciphers. John Meredith's children were particularly close to him after being orphaned in 1835. He played a lesser role with other nieces and nephews.

I noticed that proven Catholics left the Northern Neck and lived in places with Catholic institutions - where they left records. Only John A. Palmer remained in Virginia. Thomas & his sister-in-law Margaret Piet Meredith lived in Baltimore. His Yerby uncle lived in Baltimore before moving to Mississippi. Maria Lee Palmer and her mother settled in Frederick, MD.  Nephew William V. Meredith moved to Maryland and became a Redemptorist priest in 1853. Presumed grandniece Caroline Meredith seems to have become a Sister of Charity after living in a Baltimore Catholic orphanage following her parents' deaths.

I don't believe I'm going to get a definitive thumbs up or down on this group. My hunch is that at least the Yerbys had ties to Catholicism and when economic opportunities took men to cities with Catholic institutions and populations they married into Catholic families. Thomas Meredith seems to have been a deciding factor in the faiths of his brother John's orphans.

There is still much more research I can do. I am hoping to take some time next spring and visit archives in Baltimore, Richmond and Lancaster County.  Some of the family connections are far from proven, but I'm hopeful that church archives may help.

Source: Image from Wikimedia commons.


  1. This is an interesting challenge. It is not always easy to pin down the beliefs of ancestors who followed a religion or held beliefs that were not approved in certain areas, but it certainly makes a good mystery. Good luck!

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog. This sounds like an interesting challenge, I hope you succeed!

  3. i am not sure I understand what they did for batisms and marriages to keep the faith. would they travel with the baby great distance to be babtiszed. Or travel a long ways to be married. Or would a priest visit them in their home.

    I remember discovering a christian Science in the family of my grandfather. No wheres near as complicated.

    And in germany it could explain deaths as communites had been masacred because of being catholic or probably the other too. We won't touch on england.

    It's too bad it was that, because so many left the old place for religious reasons hoping to find freedom.

  4. Very interesting post.

    Back in Poland, in the old days, priests used to "make the rounds". They held open air Masses on a regular basis in small villages where there was no church. Before Mass they often heard the confessions of those who sought forgiveness and after Mass they would baptize any infants born that week and provide last rites to anyone on their death bed. The baptisms were recorded in nearby parish records as if they had been performed in the church itself. My mom remembered her mother telling her about it back in the 1960s but my grandmother immigrated in 1913 so the outdoor Masses she was speaking of would have happened in the 1800s and early 1900s.


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