by Ronald Willemse with Cesare Santi
After collecting and organizing the information gathered from family documents and relatives, it is most important to verify the data, wherever possible, with the original religious or civil records.
The Italian speaking part of Switzerland, i.e. the Canton of Ticino and part of the Canton of the Grisons, is predominantly Roman Catholic. With the Council of Trent (1545-1563) all parishes were obliged to keep registers of baptisms, some years later also weddings and deaths had to be registered. Some parishes (Balerna, Morbio Inferiore, Novazzano) started almost immediately, others some later (Vira Gambarogno 1580, Chiasso 1616, Bellinzona 1629). In the Moesano (Grisons) the oldest preserved registers are those of Santa Maria in Calanca 1598 and San Vittore 1599. In occasion of the bishop’s visit to the parishes, the priests had to compile a status animarum, a census of the population, family by family.
With a few exceptions, all church registers were written in Latin. Depending on the priest, some records are very clear and precise, others are in bad handwriting, very difficult to read or incomplete. Unfortunately, some records are missing or contain errors with wrong dates and names: it takes a lot of patience and time to reconstruct them.
In Ticino the church books are kept in the archives of the single parishes, in order to consult them one has to contact the local priest or the president of the parish council. In the Grisons, however, by law, the old parish registers had to be handed over to the civil communal authorities as a base for the so-called civil population registers. Microfilms of the church books can be consulted at the Bishop’s Archive in Lugano and at the Church of the Mormons in Pregassona.
By federal law, from 1876 all Swiss communes had to keep proper records of the population. In Ticino most communes started much earlier, e.g. Frasco/Sonogno already in 1838 and Bellinzona in 1855. Until about 5 years ago, it was possible to get information directly from the single communes. With the introduction of the federal digital project Infostar all communal civil state offices were closed (Grisons 2003, Ticino 2004) and all the existing registers were brought to new districtual offices. Since then, new registrations are made on and available only via the computer.
With the recent legislation protecting the privacy of living people, access to the civil records is now much more complicated. In Ticino, a written authorization, subject to a relative high fee, must be obtained from the Ufficio di vigilanza sullo Stato civile in Bellinzona, In the Grisons such an authorization is issued by the Ufficio di diritto civile dei Grigioni in Chur.
Unlike in other countries, only a limited number of registers has so far been transcribed by volunteers. Some researchers have published their family trees on the Internet, most have not, but are willing to share their information with others. The Swiss-Italian Genealogical Society (SGSI) publishes a yearly bulletin, in Italian only, and may be of help to establish local contacts or find people to help. Services of the SGSI (www.sogenesi.ch) are usually subject to a fee.