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Lesson 3: Contacting the church

[For information on finding the church, see here.]
[For a method of writing to the church, see here.]

What the church can and cannot provide
The local churches have the original Matic"ne Knjige and the Stanja Dus"a (if they have not been destroyed or lost). But keep in mind that most churches in the larger cities did not keep Stanja Dus"a. Also, it's important to understand that the original records (that are found on the LDS microfilm) are not in the local churches. They are in the various local State Archives located throughout Croatia (23 in all). See here for more information on church records.

Any information you receive from a church will come from the original Matic"ne Knjige and the Stanja Dus"a. If there are discrepancies in these various records (and there sometimes are), use the following heirarchy of accuracy, which starts with the most accurate:

1. the original Matic"ne Knjige, found in the local church (the journals)
2. the Matic"ne Knjige found in the State Archives (and on LDS microfilm)
3. the Stanja Dus"a, found in the local church

This heirarchy is not foolproof but is used because it represents the order that the records were created in (i.e. the earlier record is assumed to be the more accurate).

For the most part, priests in Croatia don't read or write English, they don't have photocopy machines (though there is one in the nearest large town), they don't have e-mail, and they don't like long, involved projects like drawing up your family tree or transcribing pages of Stanja Dus"a. There are exceptions but this is the norm. They are used to answering simple questions like "will you please send me the birthday of my grandfather?" or "what was my grandmother's mother's name?" Priests are not genealogists by training nor, in most cases, by inclination. In fact, the American fascination with genealogy is not understood at all in Croatia because few people there have left their roots. When you wake up in the same village that your 10-g-grandparents lived in, what's to understand about family history?

However, this will not disuade most family historians. What they are looking for is every piece of information that the priest has on their family whether he is willing to provide it or not. And therein lies the reason behind the famous "ignored letter" -- the carefully written letter (in English, of course) that the priest never answers and the sender never quits complaining about.

So what to do? A few things can be suggested:
  • Study the LDS microfilm carefully and try to be satisfied with that.
  • Hire a professional genealogist in Croatia. There are very few but some can be found in here.
  • Contact the priest and ask for a few things at first. Always send your letter written in Croatian (get it translated) and then have his return letter translated into English. Slowly get to know this man. Always send a donation ($10-20) and after a few go arounds, ask him if he would consider photocopying the Stanja Dus"a of your family for a donation of x amount of money. Make it at least $50 -- more is better. This approach is more in line with Croatian values. They very much dislike hurry-up requests and big projects. Genealogy and family trees are not well-understood in Croatia. A few priests (very few) will not accept donations in which case yours will be returned. This might just do the trick. If it doesn't, you know you're dealing with a hard case and the next tip may be your only hope.
  • Go there in person. You'll have a great time and get to see the village of your ancestors.

Writing to the church
Here is a "copy and paste" method of writing letters to churches.

Other tips:
Birthdays are sometimes incorrect. Often, people who immigrated into the U.S. from what is now Croatia did not know their exact birthdays. Birthdays were not celebrated in their society. So when authorities asked for their birthday (at the port of entry, for example) they often just invented a day or took a guess and stuck to it throughout their life. As a result, there are many incorrect birthdays given in U.S. death certificates. So don't be surprised if you discover a different birthday for your ancestor in Croatian church records. And when giving identifying information to priests, be sure to qualify the birthdate by saying, for example, "his birthday may have been xxx" or "to the best of my knowledge his birthday was xxx" or "my records show his birthday to be xxx but this may not be correct." I have found incorrect birthdays on over 60% of all cases of people who immigrated before WWI.

Always enclose a donation. They can cash U.S. paper money or a personal check made out to "Church" or "Crkva." The amount depends on the effort the priest must make to fulfill your request. For short requests $20 would be about right. If you receive back many pages of information, then send an extra donation. Along with the donation send a note that says "this is for you and for the church." This gives the priest permission to keep some of it for himself -- after all, he is the one doing the work.