November 6, 2015
The Search for our Ancestry (XVIII)
By Angelo Coniglio
Often, I have had more luck finding facts in the Mormon microfilms than I’ve had by trying to contact Sicilian towns or churches by mail, e-mail, or even by personally visiting the town. But after a trip to Sicily, I learned a lesson about primary records. The names below have been changed, but the story is factual.
I had long searched for the ancestry of a relative, Maria Galbo, born in Belpaese in 1883. The image of her birth record on the Mormon microfilms that I viewed at my local Mormon Family History Center (FHC) showed her father as Ciro Galbo, born in 1855, and her mother as Lena Marino, born in 1861. I also found the microfilmed 1855 birth record for Ciro Galbo. His mother’s first name was Maria, which, considering the Sicilian naming convention, supported the idea that he could be the father of Maria Galbo. But I could find no record for Lena Marino: in fact, I could find no record of anyone with the surname Marino in any of the records of the town for 100 years. Further delving into the films, I found an 1879 marriage record for Ciro Galbo, but it said that he had married Lena Messina (not Marino).
My search of films for a birth, baptism, marriage or death record for Lena Marino were fruitless. Neither could I find Ciro Galbo’s death record, which might have confirmed the name of his widow. Although I found ancestry for Ciro Galbo and Lena Messina, I didn’t add the information to my genealogy records, afraid I was ‘barking up the wrong family tree’. Was my ancestor Lena Marino or Lena Messina?
On a trip to Sicily, I resolved to unravel the mystery. I went to the Belpaese ‘Muncipio’ (Town Hall), and asked to see Ciro Galbo’s death record, hoping it would give the name of his wife. Unfortunately, no such record could be found. The records clerk suggested looking at Ciro Galbo’s birth record. I agreed without much enthusiasm, since I had already seen the microfilmed copy at the FHC. But when the original record was retrieved, at the top I saw a ‘margin note’ that had not been on the microfilmed image. It was written many years after the birth, and said: “He (Ciro Galbo) married Lena Messina in 1879. He now lives in Nantrabanna. His wife is here (in Belpaese) and she wants to be called Marino.” Eureka! Lena Messina and Lena Marino were one and the same, so one mystery was solved (leaving another one, discussed below).
When I saw the revealing margin note, I asked whether I could have a photocopy of the birth record. The records clerk shook her head and said that for privacy reasons, it wasn’t allowed. I started to copy the information by hand, when the clerk’s assistant asked me if I had a camera. My face brightened, but again the chief clerk solemnly said “No!” Photographs were not allowed, either. They must have seen my crestfallen look, because the clerk suddenly lowered the window blind. Then her assistant locked the door and winked and they both whispered the classic Sicilian phrase, “Nenti vidimmu!” (“We see nothing!”) I got my photo of the elusive record.
The second mystery I alluded to was the fact that the microfilmed Mormon record I had found (which was photographed only a few years ago) doesn’t show the margin note about Lena Messina/Marino. How could that be? Aren’t the microfilms copies of original primary records? The answer is that back in 1855, the town clerk of Belpaese painstakingly, by hand, filled out two birth records, both considered primary records. One copy went to the ‘Tribunale’, or Magistrate’s Court of the capital city of the province in which Belpaese is located. It then was stored in the province’s ‘Archivio’ or Archives. That copy was ultimately photocopied by the Mormon Church, and found by me in my research at the FHC in the U.S. The other copy was bound in the permanent register of the town. Years after the 1855 birth, a town clerk added the margin note but didn’t send the addendum to the court or province. A hundred years later I found the note, during my personal voyage of discovery.
The moral is: there are primary records, and sometimes there are other primary records. The Mormons’ (and others’) lists of available microfilms indicate where the photocopies were made. If they were made from records in the provincial capital, it’s possible that duplicate records exist in the town of origin. It is also possible that data for specific events or for whole years, listed in the provincial records as missing, could still exist in the town. Conversely, if films were made of a town’s records, and the town’s records were subsequently damaged or lost, more complete copies may exist in the provincial capital. In these circumstances, the only way to tell for sure is to search for missing records in the ‘old country’, or have someone do it for you.
Coniglio is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel, inspired by his Sicilian research. Order paperback or the Kindle version at Amazon.com. Coniglio’s web page has helpful hints on genealogic research. If you have genealogy questions, or would like him to lecture to your club or group, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org