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What is a Parish?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A parish is a specific region within a larger area. The term is used to describe two different types: administrative and ecclesiastical parishes. In both cases, it is headed by a central authority figure, who may be a priest or a local government, depending on the type under discussion. Parishes of both types can be found all over the world, and the meaning of the word can fluctuate, depending on where one is, which can get confusing at times.

An administrative parish is a division of land like a county, province, or state. They are generally small, and many are rural, although this is not always the case, and some administrative divisions are based on historical ecclesiastical parishes. The area is typically headed by officials selected by voters during annual elections. In the American state of Louisiana, the parishes are like counties in other states, and those of a similar type are found in many former English colonies as well.

Typically, a parish is at a low level of local government. People who live their know their officials well, and may turn to them for a variety of needs. Because many are quite small, people within them are often well acquainted, and they may network to assist each other in times of need or disruption. Within a parish, voters may enact specific laws which change from one to the next, concerning things like rates of taxation, municipal codes, and so forth.

An ecclesiastical parish is another form of subdivision, on the low end of the Church hierarchy, based on the area served by a specific church. Historically, they were usually limited by the distance people could reasonably travel in a day, and the Church made a conscious effort to distribute parishes in such a way that everyone in a region could easily access a church for Sunday worship and church events.

The priest who oversees such an area may be known as a parish priest, and depending on the size of the area, he may have assistants who travel out into the community and assist with various church functions. The people who live within a specific parish and attend church there are known as its parishioners; by convention, most people prefer to worship within their own local church, and marriage banns and other announcements must be made in one's home parish church, rather than any available church, ensuring that the community is aware of such information.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By MrMoody — On Jun 16, 2011

@JessiC - I attend an evangelical church, and although we hear the term “parishioners” used now and then to describe those who are members, we never hear the term “parish”. I suppose that’s because we’re an independent church and the term parish seems to imply a connection with a larger organization.

The usual term we use to describe church members is “congregation,” which is a pretty clinical term I think.

I understand your case, however, where you have a local church that is part of a larger denomination.

In my mind, however, the term "parish" has always had a frim, Catholic connotation; perhaps this is because the Catholic church has a strong, ecclesiastical hierarchy, and of course a history of using that term for their churches.

By allenJo — On Jun 14, 2011

@oscar23 - I used to think parishes referred only to church bodies as well; that was until Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005. Then I heard over and over about the Jefferson parish in Louisiana.

The TV news would interview some of the representatives of the Jefferson parish. When they were introduced, I automatically thought they were local pastors or something, and it only dawned upon me later that parish meant a district of some sort.

It’s interesting, however, to note that usage of the term is common in one state, like Louisiana, but not in others. Perhaps there is a way of governance in Louisiana that makes parishes more suitable to that state and not to others. We certainly don’t have parishes where I live (Oklahoma).

By B707 — On Jun 14, 2011

There are a number of advantages to attending the church in the parish where you live. Everyone is in close proximity to the church. The priest and his assistant do not have to travel far to make personal visits. Parishioners know other members, not just from church, but from other organizations in the community.

On the other hand, some churches have no boundaries of residence. People can choose a church based on the pastor, the services and activities offered, the size of the congregation, and the neighborhood. So, it all depends on personal preference.

By Misscoco — On Jun 14, 2011

I didn't know that some of our states have divided themselves into geographical government sections called parishes -- where are some areas where this system is still used?

By oscar23 — On Jun 14, 2011

Up until I read this article, I wasn’t really aware of a “parish” as a sort of community beyond that of believers in a church. How interesting!

I really didn’t know that there were still actual towns and communities that were parishes around today! I was aware of the different Catholic parishes, of course, but I thought the parish communities had sort of gone extinct.

I used to think that it was so awesome to read about historical Ireland, who I believe did have little parishes all over. Basically, there was one man who typically oversaw everyone who lived within his parish, and in return offered them jobs and protection. I think this may have been popular in Scotland as well.

How awesome that this sort of thing is still around today! I wonder if they still have parish halls and such, too!

By JessiC — On Jun 14, 2011

Although I do not attend a Catholic church, we also know the body of our Baptist church as “the parish” or “the parishioners”. Basically, we look to our pastor as the leader of the church, and everyone else is part of the parish.

Typically, the parishioners at our church attend regularly and join either through baptism or having a letter moved from another church of like faith. We are ally privy to parish records of any kind.

I personally was not baptized into my church, but had my letter moved from the church that I was a member of from the time that I was a teenager.

As a parish, we are also expected to contribute financially when we can, fill roles such as Sunday school teachers, deacons or any other roles from a long list that keeps the church functioning the way it should.

We even have a sort of list of rules that we use so that we are of likemind and similar action.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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