Territorial division according to the Church

Traditionally the Roman Catholic Church in Spain – and beyond – has followed its own criteria when dividing the national territory into administrative units, the largest of which is known as a archdiocese. An archdiocese is headed by an archbishop, while a diocese is led by a bishop. The map below shows how Spain’s territory is divided into archdioceses (red lines) and dioceses (black lines). Priests who head parishes within each (arch)diocese are therefore answerable to the relevant bishop or archbishop.


Source: Revista Ecclesia.

The parish is the smallest territorial unit used by the Catholic Church. Knowing which parish our ancestors were baptised/married/died in will always be a vital clue when carrying out our genealogical research. In addition, having some basic notions about Spanish geography will always be helpful when searching for ancestors in Spain. Free online tools (e.g. Google Maps, Wikipedia) can prove invaluable when trying to find out where a specific place is. Beware of place names being in more than one language, particularly in bilingual areas (Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country…).

The map below displays the region of Galicia, in north-western Spain, and shows the area according to its ecclesiastical divisions. The archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela and the four dioceses of Lugo, Mondoñedo-Ferrol, Orense and Tuy-Vigo, with their respective diocesan capitals marked with a red dot, are divided by a pink line. The map also reflects each diocese’s subdivisions (known as archpriestships or arciprestazgos). Archpriestships are essentially clusters of smaller parishes, and are independent form each other; they are not particularly relevant to Spanish genealogy researchers, though the term can be helpful as it is often used to group and classify records in church archives.


Parishes, on the other hand, are extremely important. In fact, knowing the parish where an ancestor was baptised can make all the difference to your research. Modern-day parish register books for baptisms, marriages and burials are almost invariably kept at parish level, while most older (100+ years) registers have generally been transferred to archives in the respective diocese. These so-called diocesan archives are organised independently from each other, which is why it’s important to remember that they all operate differently and according to their own rules of access: there are significant variations when it comes to access rights, obtaining certified copies, opening times, fees, accessibility to digitised records and of course preservation of the actual records. Some archives offer extremely professional services, where certified archivists look after records; unfortunately, other archives are still very much in the hands of local priests, who often do not have the time, knowledge or resources to organise the registers so as to make them easily accessible to the general public.

In order to make the most of our genealogical experience, it is always advisable to contact diocesan archives well in advance before attempting to research parish records (regardless of whether they are still held in the parish church or in the diocesan archive). Staff members of any diocesan archive should be able to inform you where the records for a specific parish are held, and to provide contact details for the local priest if necessary. Research services are often subject to a fee which, as mentioned, will depend on each archive’s internal rules.

Some parish records are still held in local parish churches.

Requesting a copy of an ancestor’s baptism/marriage/burial certificate will invariably require knowing three key elements: the person’s name and surname(s), the year when the event took place, and the parish. Without any one of these three details, archive staff are unlikely to respond favourably to our request. Records are rarely digitised previously – though the practice is slowly taking off in some areas – and traditional/digitised indexes only exist in a handful of cases. It is therefore essential to provide as many details as possible when sending off for a copy of our ancestor’s certificate.

If you have any questions or if you wish me to include additional information about this specific subject, please leave a comment below.