by John

The church records of Canton Bern, Switzerland, are among the most complete genealogical resources for any place in continental Europe. Many registers are unbroken back to the sixteenth century. Finding the appropriate register involves knowing the town where a family held citizenship or voting rights. Church registers, at least in theory, contained the record of the births, marriages, and deaths of all those that held hereditary citizenship in that town, even if they resided elsewhere. In most cases, church officials maintained separate registers for hereditary citizens who lived in the town and those living out-of-town (typically called “Auswärtige Bürger”). Sometimes a third set of registers were maintained for town residents who were not citizens (called “Ausbürger”).

For a number of decades the Family History Library has made the Canton Bern church registers available on microfilm for borrowing. Later, when the microfilms of the registers were digitized, Swiss officials placed restrictions on the images, making the digital versions viewable on Familysearch only to LDS Church members with valid logins or from computers specifically located in LDS Church libraries (not member public libraries). The late genealogist Lewis Rohrbach offered DVDs of the registers at expensive prices, but with his death and the closing of his publishing house, Picton Press, the DVDs are no longer available for sale. The lack of an easy way to view the registers has made it frustrating to Swiss researchers seeking full, convenient access to a large body of material.

Very recently the State Archives for Canton Bern has made the images of the records available free from its own website. To access the records, go to this link, and click on the small box with the plus-sign to the immediate left of the word “Kirchenbücher.” If the parish you want starts with the letters A through N, you will see a list displayed. If it falls later in the alphabet, click on “Open the next 100 entries,” and an additional 77 towns will appear. In either case, to view the options, click again on the tiny box with the plus-sign immediately to the left of the town you want to view. A list of specific books will appear with ranges of dates. Baptisms are included in books marked “Taufrodel,” marriages are in “Eherodel,” and deaths are in “Totenrodel.” Make note of the Auswärtige registers that recorded the out-of-town citizens. To view the records, double-click on the book you want. A further breakdown of the registers will appear, and you will have to click again on a separate link marked “PDF.” Once you do so, a file of the entire roll will display. Be patient for the download, since it is not instantaneous, especially for larger files.
Swiss

The registers are still not indexed. Some names and vital record events can be searched separately through the link to the International Genealogical Index (IGI), available on Familysearch. These references are not linked to specific images and represent only a fraction of the total names. However the IGI can sometimes be helpful for translating a particular surname, since some families in some towns have been extensively researched.

While we are unable to say when the registers will be made searchable for every name, the fact that they are available at all, freely online, makes this a happy day for genealogists researching this part of Switzerland.  An added bonus is the easy access to the large collection Swiss coats of arms, called “Familienwappen,” also available from the archives’ website. These images display in full color and show the date and town where the arms were granted.