27 December 2010

“It’s always best to start at the beginning…” – Glinda the Good Witch of the North

            Any genealogical research, or family tree climbing, should begin with what you know.  I believe that even before you start with what you know, you should start with YOU.  How many of us don’t have the vital records pertaining to our very own lives?
If you come from one of those families who don’t talk about the past, or if your family is “broken” in some way, you may not know much.  If you’re the sort of person who would rather not know the details surrounding your birth for example, then I can tell you for sure, that your family tree will not be one that you want to hug.  Life expectancy is about 75 years, give or take, and a lot can happen in that many years.  People make mistakes, people correct their mistakes, people make different mistakes than you would make and you make different ones than they would.  Keep in mind that parents are people too and often they are very good at keeping embarrassing facts to themselves.  All we can hope for is a little growth from time to time, and over time. 
I have found that an open mind has served me well in the pursuit of truth.  If it wouldn’t rock your reality to find out that you were born out of wedlock, were adopted, your biological mother is a convict, great-grandpa was a horse-thief, WHATEVER, then move forward.  If the possibility of anything like this would devastate you, then my advice is to find another pursuit.
Over the years of researching my own family history, although I do enjoy being very methodical in this pursuit, I have proven to myself that there will always be holes.  I wouldn’t call them brick walls (i.e. impassible), they’re just little pieces of information that I hadn’t gotten around to digging deeply enough in the right place to find, yet.  Sometimes these little facts don’t seem too important in the big picture and they sit on the back burner.
            Here’s my case in point.  A few years back, I asked my mom if there was something special that she wanted for Christmas.  She said that she couldn’t think of anything but that she wondered if I could find out where and when her parents were married.  They never celebrated their wedding anniversary that she could remember and it bothered her that she didn’t know.  This is one of those little pieces of fact that I hadn’t spent time with, so, I told mom that I could and would find out for her.  However, I asked if she was ready and willing to find out whatever truth I might uncover based on the documentation.  She said that she was okay with it and even assumed that there would be something amiss.  Sure enough, I haven’t yet been able to prove that they were married beyond a shadow of a doubt, because the signed marriage certificate was never sent back to the state of New York.  However, the fact that they applied for a marriage license in March and Mom was born in August makes it clear that Mom was a pre-marital bun in the oven.  I have since learned that in some cultures, although not my Irish-Catholic grandparents culture, it was important that the first birth occur before the marriage to ensure that the family name would continue.
By the way, my mom’s response to this information was, “well mama always said ‘the first one comes any time, all the rest take nine months’.”
So, if you’re still willing to press on, first gather any and all documentary evidence of your existence.  The facts are that you are here in this place, and in this time.  You are alive!  Imagine that you are proving this to the future generations through documents, so that the future will not only know THAT you lived but also HOW you lived.
Here is a short list of some personal papers that document your life and of course this is the same list that you can go back to time and again to document your ancestors’ lives making sure to add census and death records where applicable.  You will want to gather:  birth certificate, school records, marriage certificate, divorce record, passport, social security card, photos, any journals or diaries you’ve written over the years, property deeds and titles, your will, driver’s license, any legal record, religious records, proof of membership in any organizations, and especially your personal military records.  If you have children, do the same for them.
Now, read them, look at them, examine them, and stare at them for a few minutes each like you’ve never seen them before.  Write down any questions that come to mind, any discrepancies you see, and any thing that you don’t fully understand.  If you don’t have all these papers and should have, get them through the issuing body.  If there are any mistakes, typos etc., get these fixed now; your great-grandchildren may thank you some day.

22 December 2010

Baptismal Certificate - First Evidence of Christian Membership

             Having been raised Roman Catholic by parents who were children of immigrants from the "Catholic" countries of Ireland and Belgium; I am most familiar with Roman Catholic Certificates of Baptism.
There are twelve obvious pieces of information written on a typical Baptismal Certificate.  They include the church’s name and address, the name of the person being baptized, the mother and father of that person, the birth date of the person being baptized, the baptismal date, the name of the priest who performed the ceremony, the sponsors of the newly baptized also known as Godmother and Godfather, the date that the certificate was copied from the official church ledger and the signature of the current pastor of the church.  There is more information that’s not so obvious and questions that the document brings up.  I’ll try to highlight some of these hints and hopes for enlightenment.
The Certificate of Baptism’s primary function is written evidence of the sacrament performed.  In other words it gives primary evidence that this person, at this particular time, in this particular place, had water poured over their head or were immersed in water and words were spoken.
The Roman Catholic tradition as well as some other denominations, baptizes infants.  When I was growing up, I was taught that baptism was performed to remove “Original Sin” (aka the sin of Adam and Eve) that all human beings are born with.  Should a baby die without having been baptized, then that poor soul would be stuck in limbo until the end of the world when Christ would come again and rescue the poor souls in limbo and the ones in purgatory.  I don’t know if the concept of limbo is still taught but I believe the modern understanding is that the sacrament of baptism is a welcoming of the infant into the world and especially into the church community.
Receiving this sacrament, first and foremost tells the researcher that the baptized person is a Christian.  The event is often referred to as the Christening.  The name of the church can also tell the researcher the Christian denomination the person became a member of.   This information also hints at what religion the parents and the Godparents of the baptized were.  I say hint at because I consider most written information to be “hints” at facts until I have three hints that agree.  Another huge value of a Baptismal Certificate, like any primary source, is that the information was recorded very soon after the actual event occurred, thereby giving more weight to the facts of the event which in this case are only the name of the baptized, where and when.  All other information on the Baptismal Certificate is, in my opinion, a hint.
Some additional hints that the certificate can provide…  The Church may be their home church or at least in the neighborhood where the person lived.  The date of the baptism often was days or at most a couple of weeks after the birth because many believe that the child’s first outing should be to God’s house.  Godparents are often related to the child because the purpose of Godparents is generally to take on the responsibility of raising a child in the faith, should the child’s parents die.  It’s an honor and responsibility that you’d give to only a spiritually like-minded person.
In my father’s case for instance, his Godfather was his father’s cousin and his Godmother was his mother’s sister.  In my family, my parents continued a Belgian custom of naming the paternal grandfather and the maternal grandmother as Godparents of the firstborn son, and reversing the choices, the maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother, for the firstborn daughter.  It also should be considered that since the Christening often happens closely following birth, the Godparents could be chosen because they are simply church members who lived close by, especially if the family were new immigrants.  This was the case for my mother’s Godfather who was my Grandfather’s first and only Catholic friend after having recently moved to Chicago.  Oddly enough however, a Godparent doesn’t necessarily need to be present at a Christening and sometimes a proxy stands in.  In this case, a proxy is not named in a Baptismal Certificate, only the actual Godparents are named. 
I hope that my musings have enlightened at least one new road, may it be religion, location, or relationship, you might take when examining a Baptismal Certificate.

21 December 2010

How I got started

   September 8, 1982 was my 26th birthday and I was, at the time, somewhat estranged from my family.  I found myself wondering where I came from and if perhaps the earlier generations of my family had it more together than my parents generation, thereby giving me more hope for my future.  My father's birthday was coming up and because I hadn't seen him in a few years, I was thinking about him and wondered where and if he was baptized. I knew he had been born in Chicago but that's all I knew. I wondered how hard it would be to find out.
     My parents had been married in the church where I had been baptized, Immaculate Conception - North Park, so I thought that would be a good place to start. They searched for Dad in their baptismal records and they could say for certain that he wasn't baptized there. As long as I had them on the phone, I asked for them to send me a copy of their marriage record. I knew where mom was baptized, Saint Michael's on Cleveland Street, and since they lived in the same neighborhood, I called that church. They didn't have Dad's baptismal record either. But again, since I had them on the phone, I asked them to send Mom's baptismal record.
     Then I called the church where my older brother had been baptized, Saint Mary of the Lake, and again no luck. Then it dawned on me that the church that married them would have to know if they were both baptized Christians. I called Immaculate Conception back again and yes in the marriage information that they had, they knew that Dad had been baptized in Saint Ita's church on Broadway. I had never heard of that church before.
     I called Saint Ita's and Dad's baptismal record was on the way. It turned out to be much easier than I would have thought. I was prepared at the time to call every Catholic Church in the City of Chicago if I had to, because now I had a mission.
     Growing up, whenever we asked a question of my mother, she'd always respond, "go look it up".  I can't remember ever getting a straight answer from her. My Dad on the other hand, would tell us anything we'd want to know and he instilled in us a love of learning. So between the two of them I got a love of learning and the ability to search until I found the answer to almost anything.
     A week or so later, I received my Dad's baptismal certificate in the mail and it told me a lot. Dates, names of his Godparents, the priest who baptized him, but the best find was on the back. The church listed the other sacraments that he would have received over his lifetime, and space to write in the name of the Church if it was known. My Dad received his First Holy Communion at Saint Thomas of Canterbury Church in Chicago.
     I considered all this a goldmine and all of a sudden had a million more questions that I wanted answers to.