Any Genealogist or family historian will tell you that church records are amongst the most important repositories of information when conducting research. And they’re right. Before many state governments required vital records to be recorded at their own governmental institutions, it was the duty of religious organizations to record births, deaths, marriages, and the like for their citizens and parishioners. Having these records will advance your research significantly, and often hold the information you need to overcome brick walls.
How to find the records
Since I’m focusing mainly on my Saleker relatives, I’ll discuss Lutheran and Catholic records in Prussian-Lithuania. My particular family was Lutheran but it’s important to research both Lutheran and Catholic churches, because if your family settled in an area that didn’t have a Lutheran church to begin with, the Catholic church was required to record their vital records, regardless of their religious affiliation.
To do this, you’ll need to know the name of the village where your family lived. Then, you need to determine where they may have attended religious services. My family lived in a tiny village called Luki, just north of Wischtitten, Lithuania (today, it’s called Vistytis.) Villages usually belonged to a Kries (German, literally ‘circle’) which is essentially the geographic area for the local government and the church. In America, you can still find this kind of community organization, especially in places like Chicago and New Orleans.
Now, you need to determine what churches were in that Kreis and if their records are available. For that, we’re going to rely on FamilySearch.org, since they hold the largest collection of microfilmed church records in the world.
Let’s go back to my example. My family lived in Luki (today Liukiai) Lithuania, a tiny farming village just north of the larger village Wischtitten. Doing a simple Google search, I find that Luki is part of the Vilkaviskis district. A further Google search tells me that in the past, Kreis Vilkaviskis (German Wilkowischken) had several villages and churches associated with it. Including the Lutheran church in Wischtitten. Seeing as Wischtitten was such a short distance from Luki, it’s a good assumption that my family attended the church there. That means, I needed to find the microfilmed records of the Wischtitten Lutheran Church which was part of Kreis Wilksowischken. Let’s head over to FamilySearch.org
Under the search tab, I go to “Catalog” and search for “Vistyits” and up comes links to two sets of church books. Clicking on those links, I find the main page for the microfilms of these books. The church and village you’re interested in may have several different spellings, so use Google and make notes of these spellings. If your FamilySearch results aren’t forthcoming, try the different spellings to see if you can locate them.
The top part of the page is useful because it tells me a bit more about the collection, how they were filmed, what language they are in, and different spellings of the village and district of the church. This can be really useful when doing further research.
The bottom part of the page displays how the records are accessible. In this case, they’re all still on microfilm--unfortunately, FamilySearch.org has suspended their microfilm renting service to digitize all their records. Eventually, these (along with millions of other films) will be available to view online digitally.
Depending on where your ancestor lived in Lithuania, the church records for their village may not go back far enough for your research--this is likely because many Lutherans in this part of Lithuania attended churches either in East Prussia or had church services in their own home. That’s where the Catholic church comes in. Most Catholic churches were required by law to record the vital records for the town's inhabitants--especially if they did not have a church or temple of their own. If you want to take your research back further than the establishment of your family’s Lutheran church, check the town’s Catholic records. Unfortunately for me, the Catholic church records in Wischtitten were mostly destroyed for the eras I need.
I’ll discuss in a future post how to read these records (trust me, it’s tricky!) But at least now you have an idea of how to find the church records you’re looking for. Note that FamilySearch isn’t the only record repository. There are various sites, mostly Polish, that contain some records online, especially those for churches in the Suwalki region.
If you’re still not sure or need more guidance finding German-Lutheran church records in Lithuania, check out this super helpful page from the Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe (SGGEE) which lists known Lutheran churches in Lithuania and Poland-Lithuania.