Who were your ancestors’ FANS? Genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills first suggested this handy acronym for Family, Associates, and Neighbors and explained, “To prove identity, origin and parentage, study individuals in the context of their FAN club.”1 When it comes to researching my Catholic ancestors, some of my favorite FANS include the godparents that are named on their children’s baptismal records.
According to Catholic Canon Law, godparents must be baptized and confirmed members of the Catholic Church who have received the Eucharist. They must also be at least 16 years of age, although exceptions can be granted, and they may not be the same as the parents. Typically there is one godfather and one godmother, although sometimes additional godparents were named, especially for the baptism of a noble child. Godparents were often relatives of the child, as is still the practice today, although there is no requirement for this, and it’s not uncommon for parents to ask close friends to serve as godparents. Depending on the family culture, godparents might be a married couple, or one might come from the father’s side of the family and one from the mother’s side. The role of godparents is to provide spiritual support to the parents as they raise their child in the Catholic faith, and some families have an understanding that the godparents will assume financial responsibility for the child in the event of the parents’ death. Since this is such an important role, godparents are clearly worthy of some of our attention as genealogists.
Godparents are also especially noteworthy as FANs because one of them is usually a woman, which can provide clues about women’s married names in the era before women were commonly named as legal witnesses. Let’s examine some of the ways in which godparents can shed some light on questions of identity in genealogical problems.
The Naciążek Family, Revisited
In my last post, I wrote about my great-great-grandmother, Antonina (née Naciążek) Zarzycka, the frustrating lack of birth, marriage or death records for her, and why it’s possible that her birth and marriage records might no longer exist, based on where those events were likely to have taken place. I also examined evidence regarding a contemporary of hers named Marianna (née Naciążek) Kowalska, who is likely to be a relative based on the rarity of the surname and the geographic proximity of her village of residence to that of Antonina. However, one piece of evidence I did not examine in that post was the issue of godparents: If Antonina Zarzycka and Marianna Kowalska were cousins or even sisters, as I suspect, then one would expect each of them to be named as a godmother to a child or children of the other. So what do the records say?
Unfortunately, there are no baptismal records available for the five known children of Marianna (née Naciążek) Kowalska. That leaves the baptismal records for the eleven children of Antonina (née Naciążek) Zarzycka, which are summarized in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Summary of Godparents of Children of Ignacy Zarzycki and Antonina (née Naciążek) Zarzycka.
And there we have it — the “smoking gun” is the godmother of Florentyna Zarzycka — Marianna Kowalska. Kowalski (in combination with the feminine form of the name, Kowalska) is a very popular surname, and if we were to consider only the names of the godparents in absence of other data, it would not be obvious which Marianna Kowalska was meant here. However, in light of the other evidence that Antonina had a cousin or sister with this name who lived nearby, it seems likely that these Marianna Kowalskas are one and the same.
So who are these other godparents? There is documentary evidence that Ignacy Zarzycki had just three siblings: a brother Wincenty, and twin siblings Wojciech and Wiktoria. Wiktoria’s first husband was Ludwik Karol Pszenicki, and Wojciech’s wife was Aniela Tempińska,. so it’s reasonable to conclude that those four godparents — Aniela Zarzycka, Wojciech Zarzycki, Wincenty Zarzycki, and Wiktoria Pszenicka — were siblings to Ignacy Zarzycki by blood or marriage.
Unfortunately, for the rest of the list, there are no obvious matches to known members of the Zarzycki family, and certainly not to the Naciążek family, about whom we know so little. At first glance, Marianna Marcinkowska’s name stood out as a possible clue. As discussed in my previous post, Marianna (née Naciążek) Kowalska was remarried to Stanisław Marcinkowski in Giżyce in 1881. However, it’s obvious that the timing does not work for this to be the same person as Tomasz’s godmother, since he was born in 1856, 25 years earlier. Given the propensity for families to intermarry in those days, the fact that the Marcinkowski family was associated with the Naciążek family may still be significant. None of the other surnames mentioned were associated with the Naciążek family (0r any variant of that surname) in any of the indexed records in Geneteka, anywhere in Mazowieckie province.
It’s still possible that these other godparents might be related to the Zarzycki/Naciążek family, and that the proof of the relationships lies in records that simply have not yet been indexed, or in records that no longer exist. However, it’s also possible that some of these godparents were merely good friends of Ignacy and Antonina, which is the clear drawback of godparent analysis. Some of the godparents’ surnames (e.g. Zieliński) are so common that, in absence of any direct evidence, it will be difficult to tie them to the Zarzycki/Naciążek family with any degree of certainty. Some of them, like Bugajka, are tantalizingly rare, and it’s fascinating to note that one of the only parishes in which this surname is found in Geneteka is Sochaczew, which is one of the two parishes that seems to be associated with my Naciążek family (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Geneteka search results for death records with the Bugajka surname in Mazowieckie province.
Could it be that Antonina Naciążek had a sister named Jadwiga who married a Bugajka, and it is she who was named as godmother to Józef Zarzycki in 1859? Might she even be a daughter-in-law to one of the widows whose deaths are reported here? It’s possible, maybe even probable, but at present, there’s not enough evidence to draw any conclusions. My family should have no reason to wonder why I have insomnia some nights.
Speaking of insomnia-provoking questions, who the heck was Weronika Jaroszewska, and why was she named as godmother to three of Antonina’s children? Another question for another sleepless night.
To sum up, in this example, we hypothesized that two women were siblings, predicted that they should be named as godmothers to each other’s children if that hypothesis were true, and then examined the evidence, which supported the hypothesis. In my next post, I’ll offer an example of how this sort of analysis can also be used in reverse, to suggest a mother’s maiden name in absence of direct evidence for that. In the meantime, happy researching!
1 Mills, Elizabeth Shown. QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to the Research Process. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012, p. 1.
2 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1845-1854,” 1850, #48, baptismal record for Maryanna Zarzycka.
3 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1845-1854,” 1853, #60, baptismal record for Paulina Zarzycka.
4 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń, 1855-1862,”1856, #48, baptismal record for Tomasz Zarzecki.
5 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1855-1862,” 1859, #15, baptismal record for Józef Zarzycki.
6 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1863-1869,” 1861, #36, baptismal record for Florentyna Zarzecka.
7 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1863-1869,” 1863, # 72, baptismal record for Aniela Zarzecka.
8 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1863-1869,” 1866, #27, baptismal record for Jan Zarzycki.
9 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1863-1869,” 1868, #67, baptismal record for Joanna Walentyna Zarzycka.
10 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1863-1869,”1869, #93, baptismal record for Karol Zarzycki.
11 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1870-1880,” 1872, #15, baptismal record for Roman Aleksander Zarzycki.
12 Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga urodzeń 1870-1880,”1876, #87, baptismal record for Leonard Zarzycki.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017