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by Maureen A. Taylor

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# Monday, January 03, 2011
First Communion Mystery
Posted by Diane

I can tell that a lot of folks looked at their family photographs last week by the number of emails I received. Scannning, identifying and organizing your photos is a great way to start the new year. Remember to scan at no less than 600 dpi and select Tiff as the format. You can always re-size for various uses.

Let's ease into the year by discussing a photo with religious overtones.


Beth Hartley submitted this tintype photo with a question: "Is this my great-grandmother or her mother?" Beth's grandmother told her that she thought it depicted one of these two women with a younger brother, but she wasn't sure about the generation.

When you think you know who's in the photo, start with family history. In this case, Beth's great-grandmother Ellen McHugh was born in 1885, while Ellen's mother, Bridget Murphy McHugh, was born in 1855.

Photographic formats often help narrow down the time frame. A tintype is a photograph on a thin sheet of iron; they were popular by the late 1850s. The rounded corners on this image strongly suggest that it once occupied a frame.

Costume provides clues about the occasion. The girl's white dress and veil clearly indicate it's her First Communion. She's even holding a tiny prayer book. It's traditional in Catholic churches to dress girls in white dresses and veils for this event. First Communion dress styles mimic bridal fashions. The details in the white dress are unclear, but the veil suggests a date circa 1890. In this period, bridal veils hung from a small gathering of fabric or flowers on the top of the head. This information definitely rules out Bridget McHugh.

The average age for a First Communion is around 7. So if this photo depicts Ellen, then it was taken in the early 1890s. Ellen had an older brother born in 1883 and a younger brother born in 1887. The youngster standing next to her would be 5-year-old William. 

There are always unanswered questions about photos. In this case, I'd love to know why Ellen's older brother John isn't included in this studio shot.

For more help analyzing old family photos, use Taylor's guide Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs (now on sale at
1890s photos | children
Monday, January 03, 2011 2:49:59 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [4]
Thursday, January 06, 2011 9:49:33 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Regarding the first communion picture, up until the pontificate of Pope Pius X children were making their communion at age 10. Pope Pius X changed it to age 6 or 7 in early 20th century which is what it is now.

I am a McHugh descendant with names of Ellen and Bridget in my family tree. Can you have this person contact me?

Joan Moody
San Antonio, Texas
Joan Moody
Thursday, January 06, 2011 10:53:45 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Before the Pope lowered the age of First Communion for the Western Church in 1910 (Quam Singulari), it was commonly received during a range of ages, ~ 8-12 or even 14 or 15 years old. It was assumed that the child needed a substantial amount of maturity to receive the Sacrament with appropriate reverence, hence the older age.
In the Latin Rite in the 19th and early 20th century, Confirmation on the other hand, was not very widespread. So I doubt that this is her Confirmation picture.
Perhaps a more detailed study of the clothes would help pin down if it was taken in the mid 1880s (possible a very late communion for the mother) or in the mid 1890s (an early communion for the daughter).
If she has any idea of the place, I would also suggest an inquiry into the parish or diocesan archives to see if a record of the reception of the Sacrament for her relative might exist.
I am having lots of fun on a similar quest, by reading the old parish registers for my Breton French relatives from the early 1700s, KMC.
PS -- See this link for Picasso's version of a First Communion (Spanish, 1896)--
Saturday, January 08, 2011 1:29:49 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I've been scanning at 300 dpi (but in tif format), though I did scan slides at 2400 dpi and they enlarge beautifully to 8 x 10. I noticed that you've suggested 600 dpi - is 300 dpi insufficient for archival purposes? Thanks in advance.
Monday, January 10, 2011 8:47:14 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Great comments! Joan Moody--please send me your email so I can forward it to Beth. I know she'd love to chat with you.

Thank you to everyone for all the great tips on First Communion and the church.
Comments are closed.