Churching refers to a blessing given to mothers following their recovery from childbirth. After remaining at home for 40 days after giving birth, the woman would return to church where she would thank God for the safe delivery of her child and receive a blessing from the priest. This was known as ‘Benedictio Mulieris Post Partum’ (The blessing of women after giving birth), and more commonly known as ‘Churching’.
The forty days was a rest period, where the woman’s husband and female relatives would take on all of the household chores, giving her time to recover after childbirth, and to spend time with and enjoy the baby. Wealthy families hired what was known as a ‘monthly’ nurse who worked specifically with new mothers taking on their duties for the first six weeks. At the end of that time, the ceremony of churching marked a return to normal life, and was often accompanied by a party.
Only married women were eligible for the blessing. They were to be appropriately dressed, and carried a lighted candle. The priest would then mark the woman with the sign of the cross in holy water.
Among the old beliefs and customs brought to Lanark County by the early settlers from Ireland, were their superstitions about new mothers, and the rituals of Churching. In Irish folklore, it was regarded as unwise for a woman to leave her house to go out at all until she went to be ‘churched’. It was believed that new mothers who had yet to be churched were regarded as attractive and vulnerable to the fairies, and so they were in danger of being kidnapped by them.
Painting: Joseph Noel Paton – 1850
Churching in the West
In the history of many religions all things having to do with birth and death are understood as somehow sacred, and the custom of ‘Churching’ was also practised in many of the other Christian churches, such as Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist.
In the Lutheran church, there is a prayer for “the Churching of Women” – “God, we praise Thee for Thy great mercy shown to this mother and her child, and humbly beseech Thee to keep them always in Thy gracious care.”
In the Anglican 1979 “Book of Common Prayer”, there is “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.” The rite takes place within the Sunday liturgy soon after the birth and parents and other family members come to the church with the newly born child to be welcomed by the congregation and to give thanks.
In the Methodist Church the custom of the churching of women, is officially known as “An Order of Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child”, and continues to be offered in the present day.
Painting: “A Woman’s Solemn Churching after Childbirth” by Christen Dalsgaard – 1860
Origins of Churching
In previous times infant mortality was very high and baptizing a child quickly became important. Because of this the mother could not always attend the baptism, because she was often still recuperating from birth.
The time of recovery — called “lying in” was often a welcome time of rest for women who often had hectic and busy days . During the lying in, women were exempt from attending Mass on Sundays and from fasting.
You may see references to ‘Churching’ in parish records, where the minister or priest recorded the Churching, Birth, Baptism, Marriage, Death, and Burial Records of the members of a congregation.
A Thing of the Past?
The rite was dropped by the Catholic Church after the second Vatican Council of 1967. Some say that the practice lost favour because it was seen as a ‘purification’ ritual, however, another possible view is that giving thanks for safely coming through childbirth may still be relevant today. For some, a service focused entirely on the woman, apart from her identity as mother, is rare at a time when the new baby commands so much attention.
Churching in modern times
Where to Find
Irish Churching Records:
You can find Churching Records within the Church of Ireland registers, as a notation in the baptismal registers.
Some records of Irish churchings include:
Cork, Cloyne parish, – churchings from 1795 to 1818
Kilbrogan, – churchings from 1756 to 1818
St. Mary’s Clonmel, – churching records from 1796 to 1801
Evidence of churchings in Catholic registers are more difficult to find. They are normally found in baptismal registers as notes written in the margins, as is the case in Kilbrogan RC in County Galway