The Catholic Church Records of South Russia

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After the annexation of large areas of Poland, thousands of Catholics became Russian citizens. In response, the Tsarina Catherine the Great created the Archdiocese of Mohilev (Mogilev) in 1772.   The new archdiocese was to cater to the spiritual needs of Catholics living in the Russian Empire, and so its geographical base was very large.  Mohilev is a city in present-day Belarus (White Russia), but the headquarters of this large archdiocese was actually St. Petersburg throughout Imperial and Soviet times, although for much of the Soviet period there was no resident archbishop.

Thus the spiritual care of the German Catholic settlers who immigrated into the Volga and Black Sea regions of Russia fell within the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Mohilev.  Before 1811, the German Catholics of Odessa District (i.e. Kutschurgan and Grossliebental colonies) were served spiritually by the priest in Odessa, while the Beresan Catholics were assigned to the priest in Nikolaev.  These priests tended to be Poles and Lithuanians, with a poor command of the German language.  The Catholics of Crimea did not receive true pastoral care for many years.  The first resident priests to minister to Russia’s new Catholics in the Black Sea colonies were Jesuits sent from Poland in 1811.

But by 1820, under heavy pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, Tsar Alexander I ordered the Jesuits out of Russia.  The spiritual care of the Catholic colonists fell again to the Polish Catholic clergy, whose command of the German language was no better that that of the Jesuits.  Further it was felt that only the less capable priests were being sent to “New Russia.” As the Catholic colonies grew and began to prosper, their pleas for proper pastoral care were heard in Rome.  In 1847, the administrations of Pope Pius IX and Tsar Nicholas I agreed to the establishment of a separate diocese for South Russia’s German Catholic colonists.  The new diocese would have its headquarters in the city of Kherson, and would have its own bishop, a new cathedral and a seminary to train native German priests. 

It took until September of 1849 for the parties involved to agree on the geographical boundaries of the new diocese, which fell naturally under the administration of the Archdiocese of Mohilev.   The new Diocese of Kherson would encompass the Gubernias of Kherson, Taurida, Astrakhan, and Saratov.  The Bessarabia Oblast and the Trans-Caucasus regions were also included.  Two German colonies, Grosswerder and Kleinwerder, were not included within the diocese, as they were considered too distant from the other colonies.  (They were added at a later date.) The directory finally established for the Diocese of Kherson included 52 parishes, each with its own church, and 40 affiliated congregations with their own church or prayer chapel.  The new diocese would minister to 200,000 German Catholics and also 70,000 Catholics from Poland, Georgia, and Armenia.  The first bishop of the Diocese of Kherson was consecrated in the fall of 1850.  He was Ferdinand Helanus Kahn.  But before he could take up official residence in Kherson and begin his work, the Russian Orthodox Church had created such an uproar in Kherson and in St. Petersburg, that Bishop Kahn was forced to look for an alternate location.  Bypassing Odessa, he chose the small insignificant city of Tyraspol (Tiraspol), whose remote location, he hoped, would remove it from the fanatical remonstrations of the Orthodox clergy.

But there was not even a Catholic Church in Tiraspol, nor a building suitable as a bishop’s residence and headquarters.  The new bishop was forced to take up residence in St. Petersburg, while attempting to make his visitations to the vast southern territories of the new diocese.  The location of Tiraspol was affirmed as the “seat” or headquarters of the Diocese of Tiraspol in September 1852.  The Crimean War prevented any progress on the establishment of a church or seminary in Tiraspol, and Bishop Kahn continued to live in St. Petersburg until 1856.   By this time, the decision had been made to relocate the Diocesan headquarters once again, this time to Saratov, the most prominent city within the diocese.  The name “Diocese of Tiraspol” would remain, but its administration of South Russia’s German Catholics would only last another sixty years.

In October 1917, the city of Saratov fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks.  Bishop Joseph Kessler, the last bishop of Tiraspol, fled to Odessa, and later lived in exile in Germany.  He left behind 125 parishes with 239 affiliated congregations serving 370,000 Catholics, the vast majority of them being German.  Bishop Kessler renounced the diocese on 27 November 1929. 

The Diocesan Consistory in Saratov collected and supervised the statistical records of the parishes.  These records included the financial reports of all the churches, the lists of parishioners for each church, and the lists of those who were confirmed or converted into the Catholic faith.  More importantly for genealogical researchers, the diocese also collected the birth, marriage and death records for each parish in the diocese.  At the beginning of each year, each parish had to submit two exact copies of the birth, marriage and death events which had been recorded in that parish during the previous year.  One of these copies stayed in Saratov, and one was forwarded to St. Petersburg where it served as a civil record for the Tsarist administration.  In other words, church records were recognized as civil records.  The church records were recorded in Latin until the 1840s.  All the Catholic church records after that were written in Russian Cyrillic.

These records have been preserved, many in leather-bound volumes, and can be found today in the State Archives of the Saratov Oblast in the city of Saratov.  This archive has existed since 1918, and today is one of Russia’s largest local archives, containing over a million files.  Parish records of the Black Sea German Catholics are found in these files:

    
Fond 1166, “Mogilev Roman Catholic Church Consistory”, 1801 – 1853.                                          
     Fond 1167, “Kherson Roman Catholic Church Consistory”, 1850 – 1853.                                                
     Fond 365,  “Tiraspol Roman Catholic Church Consistory”, 1853 – 1918.    

Application can be made to the State Archives of the Saratov Oblast for digital and/or paper copies (with official archival stamp) of these parish records.  At present (2014) there is a search fee of $20 USD per event per year per village church.  To clarify -- to search for the birth records of one particular family name in one particular village in one particular year costs $20.  Copies of any pertinent records found cost $11 each.   Written transcriptions, without copy of the original record, cost $2 each.

Because of the requirements to communicate in Russian with the archives, and to pay the archives in ruble currency, most researchers require the services of an agent to place the order on their behalf and handle the transfer of money.  Of course, these agents charge a fee for their services as well.  But these church records are often the only way to document one’s lineage.

Several concerted efforts have been made in the past for greater public access to these important genealogical records.  Efforts by the LDS Family History Library at Salt Lake City to microfilm the Saratov collection have so far been unsuccessful.  Both AHSGR (American Historical Society of Germans from Russia) and Kansas State University have sent delegations to Saratov in attempts to form information-sharing partnerships.  But the Saratov Archives is unwilling to give up the revenue generated by the sale of the copies of their holdings.  At present (2011), there does not appear to be any progress in digitizing the Tiraspol Catholic Church records at the Saratov Archives.   Unfortunately, this leaves the individual Catholic researcher of the Black Sea colonies to his own resources. 

Many such individuals in Germany, the United States, and Canada have ordered copies from the Saratov Oblast Archives of the original church records (birth, marriage, death) of their ancestors.  Some of these records are available on various websites.  Most are not.  A common repository of these records would be a great asset to Catholic researchers, so that different individuals do not have to order the same record twice.  However, individual researchers have spent considerable amounts of money to obtain these records, and they are not always willing to let others benefit from their work and investment.  For further discussion on the Catholic Church records held at Saratov, contact Merv Weiss at mervinweiss@hotmail.com  

At present, the best a new researcher of the German Catholic Families of South Russia can do is to establish as wide a network as possible of contacts interested in the same families.  Hopefully one of these contacts will share the data (if not the actual copies) for the family being researched.   This website is committed to facilitating such networks of contacts, and the free sharing of information.   

Example of record-copy from Saratov Archives.

1847 Baptism/Birth record of Anton Schafer. Rosental Catholic Parish records, Crimea
1847 baptism/birth record of Anton Schafer.   Rosental Catholic Parish records, Crimea.
 

Catholic Parishes in South Russia: 
(See Bishop Kessler’s book for a complete list)

Bessarabia
Krasna
Bender, including Emmental, Balmas, Larga
(There were many jurisdictional changes up to 1940, and the researcher must always consider the timeframe when studying the parishes in Bessarabia.)

Odessa District
Odessa, Parish of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary
Odessa, Parish of St. Clement
Mannheim, including Georgental and Johannestal
Elsass, including Bischofsfeld (Jeremejewka) and Schemiott
Kleinliebental
Josefstal
Mariental
Franzfeld
Kandel
Selz
Baden
Strassburg, including Stepanovka, Andryaschovka, Mirolyubovka, Maranovka
Severinovka
Langenburg (Ponjatowka), including Koschary, Bizilajevka, Simionovka
Neu-Liebental (Wolkowo), including Neu-Baden, Jusakov, Bogunskoye, Kostkolvka
Elisabethgrad (Kirovograd)

Nikolaev Region
Nikolaev Parish, including Neu-Karlsruhe, Laryevka, Dobraya Kerniza
Kriwoj-Rog
Speyer
Katharinental
Karlsruhe, including Antonovka
Landau
Schoenfeld, including Steinberg, Halbstadt, Petrovka
Sulz, include Wotsche
Blumenfeld, including Krasna, Sebastienfeld, Wilhelmstal, Eigengut, Lubyanka, Neu-Petersburg, Kolopatino, Annovka, Kapustino
Christina, including Felsenburg, Michaelovka, Novo-Alexandrovka, Kuhn
Rastatt
Muenchen
Kherson, including Zaredarovka
Klosterdorf
Kiseljevka

Crimea
Simferopol, including Kronental, Aschaga-Dzamin, Turasch, Agodza, Franzfeld
Rosental, including Alatai, Dzhaitschi, Pustarschi, Argin, Aila-Kaeli
Perekop, including Preobrazenka, Belozerkovka, Michaelovka, Alexandrovka, Novokievka, Pavlovka, Dagmarovka, Novoalexeyevka
Alexandrovka, including Zerkovitch, Mirovka, Bohemka, Nogai-Toma, Kirez-Tabor, Berty-Bulat, Kop-Kary, Attai, Baschbek and Komrat
Sevastopol

Jekaterinoslav and Taurida
Ekaterinoslav, including Losovaya, Alexandrovsk, Grischino, Parlograd
Georgsburg, including several affliliated congregations
Heidelberg, including Blumental (Molotschna colonies)
Jamburg, including Ekaterinovka, Rybalik, Marievka, Novoalexandrovka, Chortizta, Zorotchino
Kostheim, including Leitershausen, Marienheim, Alexanderheim, Chechograd
Nikolaejevka
Maryanovka (Novo-Mannheim), including Neu-Landau, Neu-Kronental, Rosenfeld, Simonsfeld, Nikolaital, Michailovk

Berdaynsk region
Berdaynsk, including Neu Stuttgart, Neu-Hoffnungstal, Waldheim
Bachmut
Lugansk
Mariupol
Eichwald, including Adamovka, Antonovka, Blumenfeld
Goettland, including Kaiserdorf, Kampenau, Myarau, Heitschule
Grosswerder
Bergtal, including Stepanovka (Gruenfeld) Neu-Jamburg
Taganrog
Gruental, including Novo-Vasilevka, Gross-Konstantinovka, Zolnzevo, Wagneropol
Rostov on Don
Novocherkask, including Gruenfeld, Gruental, Liebental, Grosswerder, Kleinwerder

Sources: 
From Catherine to Khrushchev, Adam Giesinger, 1974

History of the German Catholics and their Priests in Russia, Anton Bosch  (Alex Herzog translation)  Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland Heimatbuch 2001/2002

Geschichte der Diözese Tyraspol, Joseph Aloysius Kessler, 1930 Kessler, 1930

Handbuch Russland-Deutsche, Ulrich Mertens, 2001