by Mary Papoutsy

In the beginning of my genealogical research I knew just enough to realize that linguistic and cultural barriers would lead to sketchy and inconsistent official records. It was bound to happen, I told myself, since my grandparents were Greek immigrants. Sooner, rather than later, I was going to run into a brick wall. And so I did—almost at the very beginning!

My father had told me several times how upset his mother had been at the apparent loss of her marriage record. When she had applied for citizenship in the late 40's, she couldn't seem to find the certificate. Together with my grandfather she searched everywhere, through more than three decades of American family records and memorabilia. But it was in vain. Not only was she a devout Orthodox Christian, determined to demonstrate that she had been married in the church, but her naturalization would not proceed without it. Her attorney, Max Pinansky, a prominent New England attorney who later received an appointment as a judge, assembled witnesses who could testify that she had been married properly, people who knew her well and could furnish affidavits. She completed all of the necessary steps and paperwork and eventually received U.S. citizenship. I have a photocopy of her original naturalization certificate, badly damaged over time.

As my father related the story, my grandparents had to re-create another civil marriage record as part of the naturalization process, and no record of her marriage could be found at the family church. I wanted a copy of this civil record, so I went to City Hall and requested one.

In my naivete, I thought that I was going to receive a photocopy of the original ledger record. Instead, I received a typed abstract from the clerk. Not entirely pleased, I asked if I could have a photocopy of the handwritten record. The clerk refused, saying that they didn't photocopy the ledgers. So much for my first attempt.

But I did learn something interesting from the typed abstract. Before leaving the clerk's office, I asked where I might obtain more information about the original record, noting that the date on which the re-created form ("delayed") was filed was in the 40's, nearly three decades after my grandparents' wedding in the U.S. She did tell me that the State Archives Office might have more information for me.

On my next free afternoon, I drove to the state capital to see what information this repository might contain. My efforts earned me another photocopy, but of the "re-created" or "delayed" form submitted in the 1940's. Admittedly, it was not much of an improvement over a typed abstract, but still I uncovered more tantalizing clues. Even without an informant listed, I could tell that either my grandmother or one of her brothers must have supplied the information on the record: nearly all of the family information for my grandfather was incorrect, while that of my grandmother was accurate. Researching the officiant might also lead me to the marriage records, I reasoned, observing that he was listed as a priest for a neighboring Greek community about 20 miles away. This wasn't unusual—it’s a common practice even today--since priests from surrounding communities often filled in when emergencies arose or when other clergy were traveling. Also, there were references to the naturalization process and to the affidavits filed in the 1940's. I hoped that some of these uncut rocks might yet yield bright gems and decided to continue my hunt.

The next stop was at our parish church. The local priest and secretary permitted me to review the oldest records of the community dating back to the early 1920's. Although the time-period was a little late for my event (April 1915), I still sifted carefully through the entries in the hope that there might be an achronological sequence in the ledger. In the end, though, I left discouraged. There was no marriage record for my grandparents. I did manage to find the baptismal records of some of my aunts and uncles, and records showing that my grandparents had baptized fellow villagers' children, but their own wedding entry proved elusive. Still, the fact that they had been permitted to serve as godparents--and to baptize their own children--was indirect evidence that the community and the parish priest knew that they were married in the church. Only parishioners in good-standing in the church, canonically speaking, could participate in the sacrament of baptism. (This is still the case today.) Unfortunately, this indirect evidence was insufficient for acceptable proof of marriage. So, I was still empty-handed and wondering where to look next.

I contacted the secretary of a nearby Greek Orthodox church and asked about their records. Although I spent a number of my younger days in this church with my maternal grandmother and aunts and uncles—it was my mother's parish—the records were not available for extended viewing. The secretary hovered over me as I turned the pages gently. Unfortunately, my attempts here, too, yielded no concrete results. There were no entries for my (paternal) grandparents' wedding in this ledger whose records began a couple of years after my grandparents' marriage. There was one surprising find, however: my father's baptismal record.

Upon further inquiry I learned that this church was established before my home parish. My father was even able to recall attending worship there a few times when he was very young. Members of the his community had attended services in the other city until they had organized and purchased their own church about ten years later. This fact opened up other possible avenues of exploration: if my father was the second of six children, perhaps one or two others were also baptized elsewhere? Perhaps I should then be searching for my grandparents' marriage record in yet a third or fourth church?

In the meantime, I decided to search city directories and marriage announcements at a local library. With a little luck I had hoped to discover a vital statistics section at the back of the directories or even a cursory mention of their wedding in the community news section of the local paper. Nope. Discouraged, but unwilling to give up, I decided to write down all the remaining possibilities, however remote, and to launch multiple searches simultaneously.

Could the records have been transferred to the Diocese (now a Metropolis) or the Archdiocese? My husband had some answers for these questions. An archon of the church, he knew that our Metropolis of Boston wasn't formed until the 70's, the Archdiocese, the late 20's. Again, the brick wall impeded progress. I protested. Perhaps the Metropolis or the Archdiocese would have information on the priest who officiated? Was it possible that he might have kept duplicate or separate entries of sacraments he had performed in unorganized or newly-formed parishes? My husband didn't know. But he suggested that I phone New York and ask about the records.

The historian and archivist for the Archdiocese explained the records process for me. Today, the ecclesiastical sees receive copies of the sacraments falling within their jurisdictions. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Archdiocese hadn't been formed. So, there was no systematic record-keeping nationwide. When I asked whether they might have information about the priest, he said that he didn't recognize the name and that he knew the names of the nation's clergy through his regular research.

Important questions arose: Where did the priests come from early in the twentieth century if we had no Archdiocese? Were they assigned by the Archdiocese of Greece?" The answers were complicated. Priests came from a number of other overseas jurisdictions, apparently, in the absence of an authoritative hierarchical structure here. The priest could have been invited, too, from a Russian, Albanian, Serbian, or Antiochian jurisdiction, among others. Did this mean, I mused, that there might be records abroad for the U.S. immigrants whose communities these clergy served? Perhaps.

Well, I wasn't holding my breath. I had just heard the story from my husband of the condition of the early church records in a parish where he had served on the board of trustees. The parish priest had discovered that decades of records either hadn't been kept or had been lost. He developed a plan to re-create the records, asking parishioners to come forward with information on their parents and grandparents. After many months, this church community managed to compile a ledger of many early sacraments. But there were no original entries created at the time of the event, increasing the chances of error. Was it possible that other parishes had undertaken similar projects? No, my husband had not heard of it, and others had quickly confirmed this.

Is it possible that my grandparents' marriage record was never recorded in an ecclesiastical ledger? Yes. But, I'm still not ready to abandon my hunt. I haven't yet exhausted every possibility. So, what's next?

I'll continue to check with other churches, widening the area of my search to include two or three other states and about a dozen other communities. Some of these were well established by 1910, giving me a small sliver of hope that the priest who married them might have decided to deposit the record in an established community. The name of the officiant on the State Archives' record is unfamiliar to all of the Greek elders in my home parish, lending additional weight to the notion that the priest was either itinerant—visiting the U.S. temporarily—or assigned to another, more distant parish.

At the same time, I'll check with other Christian denominations in my father's city. A few of the Orthodox church elders recalled that the early Greek immigrants were permitted to use another church temporarily for worship services. Perhaps among these other denominations there might be a record. I'll write to the National Archives and Records Administration for the full naturalization files on my grandparents; something there may yield clues. Also, checking the ecclesiastical records at the Archdiocese of Greece in Athens and in my grandparents' village are distant possibilities, even though I know that they were married in the U.S. There is still a very remote chance that an itinerant parish priest may have sent a copy of the record to their village parish or to the local office of the presiding Metropolitan. And finally, although I had already poured over resources in another state, where my grandfather lived until he married my grandmother, I'll revisit records there in case my grandfather's marriage was recorded at the local city hall or there was some mention elsewhere of his nuptials.

I'm very tenacious. I can still hear faint strains of "Orea ine i nifi mas," a traditional Greek wedding song that surely played during their wedding celebration. Someday, I'll find the records for the wedding crowns, or "stefana," of my "yiayia" and my "papou."

(Posted 3 March 2009)

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