Reclaiming the past

Mormon initiative recovers old records from public records offices in São Paulo cities

A FamilySearch team catalogues records from public records offices at the São Paulo State Public Archives...

Eduardo CesarA FamilySearch team catalogues records from public records offices at the São Paulo State Public Archives…Eduardo Cesar

A partnership between the Mormon Church and a São Paulo state agency responsible for preserving public records will afford researchers and the public at large access to 25 million digitized images of birth, marriage, and death records pre-dating 1940. Under an agreement signed in April 2016 by FamilySearch, a genealogical research organization with ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the São Paulo State Public Archives, 199,664 books from public records offices in dozens of São Paulo cities will be cleaned, digitized, and indexed. Forty-two technicians have been hired for the project, which should be wrapped up by April 2018. The bill – to be footed entirely by FamilySearch – is expected to reach R$20 million. After the records have been digitized, they will be searchable for free on the organization’s website. The São Paulo State Public Archives will be able to offer them on its own site, as it now does with some 400,000 images from a number of its collections, like the police records compiled by the State Department of Political and Social Order (DEOPS), which was São Paulo’s state political police force from 1924 to 1983.

The agreement ensures other benefits for the archives and its users. In addition to digitizing public records, FamilySearch has pledged to clean and catalogue hundreds of books holding property records, which will be searchable at the main office of the Public Archives. However, this material will not be digitized since it is of no relevance to the organization. “Mechanical cleaning is very important, because these are old books, from before 1940. That’s why they’ve become part of the permanent repository,” says historian Wilson Ricardo Mingorance, director of the Archives Administrative Center at the São Paulo office. The books had been stored without being catalogued. As cleaning and indexing progresses, it will give an idea of how many cities the material represents.

...this task follows the cleaning...

Eduardo CesarEduardo Cesar…this task follows the cleaning…Eduardo Cesar

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has specialized in gathering records and making them available for genealogical research since the 19th century. “According to Mormon doctrine, family ties are eternal. We believe that we will be reunited with our ancestors at the time of the Resurrection. So we encourage our believers to find out who they were,” says Mario Silva, regional manager of FamilySearch, an organization founded in 1894. Up until about 10 years ago, the work focused on producing microfilms in a number of countries; these are now stored in Salt Lake City, Utah, site of the church headquarters. Starting in the 2000s, microfilm was replaced by digital images, which are easier and cheaper to record. In Brazil alone, the organization has 41 digital cameras that reproduce records in various locations; 20 of these are assigned exclusively to the joint project in São Paulo. The work has already covered cities in 17 of Brazil’s 27 states. Part of the FamilySearch collection can be accessed for free. When users request information on microfilm, they only pay shipping or the cost of reproducing the documents. Microfilm can be searched at Mormon churches.

Ieda Pimenta Bernardes, director of the Management Department of the São Paulo State Archives System, expects that researchers from a variety of fields will avail themselves of this collection of public records. “Property records can be helpful in studies on the history of urbanization in São Paulo. Birth certificates – in research on immigration and even philology. Death certificates – in public health studies,” she cites as examples. Most searches, however, are expected to be done by people interested in discovering information about their genealogy. “These documents are of evidentiary value and can offer proof of rights. For instance, they can be used by people interested in receiving foreign citizenship,” says Bernardes.

...this task follows the cleaning...

Eduardo CesarEduardo Cesar…this task follows the cleaning…Eduardo Cesar

Immigration cards
This is not the first time that the São Paulo State Public Archives and the Mormon organization have entered into partnership. In 2014, FamilySearch digitized 4 million images, like the immigration cards of the foreigners who arrived in São Paulo between 1902 and 1980. This material is available on the Internet, along with part of a collection of 2 million immigration cards that FamilySearch digitized in Rio de Janeiro under an agreement with Brazil’s National Archives.

Historian Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro, professor at the School of Philosophy, Literature, and Human Sciences, of the University of São Paulo (USP), has been searching the immigration cards under the custodianship of Brazil’s National Archives. Her goal is to complete research for the Virtual Archive on the Holocaust and Anti-Semitism ( Her team continues to look for Jewish survivors of the Nazi persecution that began in 1933, in order to record interviews about their life histories. “Digitized immigration cards provide valuable information for this research, information that goes beyond individual memory, because it is part of the history of a genocide that was unique in the history of humanity. This information allows us to retrace pathways of flight and the arrival of these immigrants to Brazil, find out whether they entered the country as stateless persons and which consul approved their entry, and discover the date that they came or the ship that brought them,” the researcher explains. Carneiro believes that the public records currently being digitized in São Paulo will be put to noble use. “In research on immigrants, these documents will let us know what assets they acquired in Brazil, who they married, for example – providing significant data for studies on their integration and ascent in Brazilian society,” she says.

According to FamilySearch, its records have served multitude purposes. “Some years back, researchers from the Center for Documentation and Research on the Portuguese Territories of the Federal University of Paraná, contacted us. They were interested in the birth registries at Catholic dioceses in the state, which we had digitized and which were easier to search online than in person. We asked the archdiocese if we could pass the data along to them, and the Church gave its authorization,” says Mario Silva. In other situations, lost records have been recovered. “We had microfilmed the books from a public records office in São Luís do Paraitinga, and these books were lost in the 2010 flood. We recovered the records from Salt Lake City and returned them to the office,” he says.