Some Notes on Marriage Dispensations
in Roman Catholic Marriage Records

This is part of an article that I originally wrote for the Island Register. My thanks to Dave Hunter, owner of the Island Register, for allowing me to modify and integrate his original code rather than having to redo this all from scratch!

I will begin this section with a note on dispensations in general. I feel this is necessary to clear up some confusion that has arisen from my original posting of this information on the Island Register. Some fellow researchers have contacted me with questions on this topic, having been confronted with marriage dispensations in their files yet seeing no clear indication of a relationship between the bride and groom.

The presence of a dispensation in a marriage record does NOT imply that a couple were related. In general, most researchers consider Roman Catholic marriage dispensations to refer to the dispensations of consanguinity and/or affinity that were sometimes granted to a couple. However, other types of dispensations were also granted.

According to my dictionary, a dispensation means:

Exemption from penalty or duty laid down in ecclesiastical, etc., law: granting of licence by pope, archbishop, or bishop, to a person to do what is forbidden by ecclesiastical law.

In other words, part of the marriage ceremony was contrary to established rules, usually by either omitting certain procedures or by allowing things not normally permitted, or both.

One item that was commonly dispensed with was the requirement to have the marriage banns read on three consecutive Sundays. Often, we see the priest note that the marriage was performed after the publication of only one or two banns, "having dispensed with the other(s)..." or "having granted a dispensation for the other...".

So, it is possible to find other types of dispensations in Roman Catholic marriage records. When reviewing these records, do not assume that the presence of the word dispensation implies a relationship of some sort between the bride and groom. But, do not dismiss other types of dispensations outright in the belief they will not provide any genealogical or historical clues.

A dispensation of one or more marriage banns might mean there was no resident parish priest, or that the couple lived some distance from the church and could not attend on a regular basis. It might mean they were already living common-law and simply legalizing, at least in the eyes of the church, a relationship that already existed for some time. Or, perhaps an existing marriage was being rehabilitated.

A dispensation of the granting of permission by the parents, in the case of a marriage involving one or more minors, might mean the parents were already deceased and no other legal guardian existed. Or, it could mean that the young bride or groom had left home at an early age and was far away from their families. Contact with the parents, in this case, might be either impossible or impractical.

As with any other aspect of genealogy, do not take anything for granted and do not make any quick or uninformed assumptions. Be prepared to dig a little deeper into the clues that marriage records, and their intracacies such as dispensations, might provide.

Researchers must remember that marriage dispensations of consanguinity/affinity were not granted as a matter of course. And, not all priests had the rights to grant marriage dispensations.

The power to grant a marriage dispensation was, to my understanding, held by the Diocese (ie: the Bishop or Arch-Bishop) and not by the individual priest. However, priests were sometimes extended the powers to grant dispensations to a particular degree without having to apply to the Diocese in every case. But, should the priest not have been granted those powers, or the dispensation in question was outside of the limits set for him, then an application to the Diocese would have to be made.

I am unaware how these applications were made or handled at each level. There may or may not have been a formal procedure to follow. However, some of the early correspondence between the priests and the Bishops do discuss individual cases, although not always at length. And, the follow-up correspondence from the Bishop to the priests would indicate whether or not permission had been granted, and why. [see Dispensation Request from Father Angus MacEachern, 16 July 1817 for an example of one of these letters]

Some of the marriage records do note whether or not the priest had been given the powers to grant marriage dispensations, and there is often a date attached to that (separate and distinct from the date of the marriage). A quick review of that date should inform the researcher if the dispensation in question was covered by some general powers or by a specific application to the Bishop. In other words, if the date of the granting of powers was several years prior to the actual marriage, it would be covered by some general rights (and there would probably be no mention of it in any correspondence) while a date just a few months prior might indicate that a specific application had been made. To be certain that the latter is true, you must also review some records both prior to and after the marriage in question. From time-to-time, the priests powers were altered or renewed, which would obviously change the date of the granting of the powers. Usually, only a sudden, one-time change in date would indicate any possible specific discussion of the marriage in question. Not all priests noted the granting of any powers, or the dates in question, even for the most exceptional of cases.

If a researcher is faced with a couple who were granted a marriage dispensation for a fairly close relationship (ie: second degree consanguinity), it might be worth the effort to try and review some of this correspondence between the priest and the Bishop. These letters may reveal some more detail on the couple in question. I am not sure, though, what Diocesan records, if any, may be available for public view at your local archives or historical society. The release of Catholic Church records to the public is subject to certain limits and regulations, and the types or amounts of information available may vary from one Diocese to another.

Some of the letters from the priests request the right to grant close dispensations to a specific couple, and the follow-ups from the Bishop actually rejected any possibility of marriage. So, your ancestor's attempt to marry their first beloved may have been refused, either initially or totally, making an interesting footnote to any family history!

To be honest, from the correspondence I have seen, it is rare that these letters name individual parishioners or betrothed couples, for any reason. This might indicate that some separate, formal procedure was followed, and thus there was no reason for the priest to mention the couples in general correspondence. On the other hand, it may simply be indicative of the fact that few "exceptional" marriage requests were made, and therefore there is little opportunity for the researcher to garner additional information through this source. However, it is an additional resource available to us so it should definitely not be ignored.

For Prince Edward Island research, one must also keep in mind that the Island Catholics were originally part of the Diocese/Arch-Diocese of Québec until sometime circa 1830-1835 (Father Aeneas MacEachern was the first Bishop of an independent Diocese of Charlottetown that also included, for a time, the Magdelan Islands and New Brunswick). Therefore, the correspondence of the early priests and missionaries to PEI would actually be held by the Archives of the Arch-Diocese of Québec, rather than the Archives of the Diocese of Charlottetown. Finally, the early correspondence can appear in any one or a combination of three languages: English, French, and Latin.

I would strongly suggest that researchers interested in this resource check for the availability of information through their local archives, research centre, or historical society before approaching the Catholic Church. Most provincial archives do attempt to have copies of any and all pertinent documents on-hand, either personal, family, religious, or governmental. Because of the conditions set by the Catholic and other churches on the release of their information, we can generally assume that if the provincial archives do not have a copy, the documents in question have not been released for public view. And, your local archives or research centres are normally better equipped to handle both general and specific inquiries from researchers and genealogists (although they also tend to be limited in staff, so a personal visit is always the best way to go!). For those who frequent Family History Centres, it should be noted that some of the microfilming of church records was done by the Diocese rather than the LDS. The Diocese then controlled the distribution of the films, which often did not include the LDS.

As for my previous postings, I am not an expert on this subject and do welcome any comments or corrections from those with more experience. However, I do hope that this will help some researchers garner a little more useful information for their files.