Just a little off the charming quay, behind the concert hall of La Rochelle, tucked away in a cobblestoned alley are the Diocesan Archives of La Rochelle. One pushes open the red door to enter a courtyard that may be lovelier in the spring and summer but that, on a rainy November day, is nearly colourless. To the left is a door with a sign on it that contains a telephone number and the instructions to ring it for access to the archives. This was worrying, for we had not booked, trusting the website that had said the archives were open en principe at this time. What if the principle had not held and our afternoon was to be wasted? We rang the number and asked to enter; almost instantly we heard the thundering of footsteps on the stairway within. The door was opened by a smiling, if breathless, librarian, who turned and ran up the stairs, without looking back to see if we, with our arthritic pins, were anywhere in the distance behind her. No matter; we got there in the end, and entered one of the tinier of the archives and libraries we have seen on our travels.
Tiny, it may be, but well organised; the finding aid (inventaire) to the records of the Ancien régime are online, so one can prepare well in advance. All the preparation in the world, however, can not anticipate the at times quite thrilling discoveries one may make. Among the papers proving ownership of property donated to the Church, was an early eighteenth century marriage contract.
It is worth noting, then, that, if your ancestors gave large properties to the Church, properties that other relatives might have wished to take back or that, for some other reason, the Church would have had to be able to document thoroughly, the archives of the relevant diocese could hold similar treasures to the above about your ancestors.
There were also a number of small registers of "Secret Baptisms" and clandestine nuptial blessings made by Catholic priests during the Revolutionary period and the Terror, when the Church was illegal. These are not indexed or online. The only order is that they are grouped by the name of the priest who performed the baptisms or blessings. They are fragile and incomplete but could contain the name of an ancestor who was willing to risk the guillotine to be married a Catholic.
It seems that, in days long gone, the diocesan archivist would exchange with others about and contribute to the compilation of an informal family genealogy, using the diocesan records, at no charge, and post it to the person who requested it. That would never happen today; please do not ask. Again, if one of your earlier family historians' epistles aroused an archivist to make such an effort concerning your ancestors, the work could still be stored in the archives. Here, we came across such a genealogy on a family from Quebec.
Diocesan archives should never be your first port of call in researching your family; but, after the Departmental and Municipal Archives, you may decide that the Diocesan Archives may well yield more about your ancestors. In that case, by all means, go. Even if you learn nothing about your family, you can sit quietly at your desk and not be able to avoid learning quite a lot about the local community from the other users' gossip, which can be of a shockingly personal nature.
©2019 Anne Morddel