January 8, 2016
The Search for our Ancestry (XX)
A Cautionary Tale
By Angelo Coniglio
Once an immigrant ancestor’s name and town of birth have been determined, we can begin the search for his/her vital records. After your search of family records, censuses, and passenger manifests, presumably at least an approximate year of birth is known. If not, try to estimate: how old was your ancestor when he died, in what year, etc. How old was he when he married? You should have a range of years which are a reasonable approximation of his birth year. If you have a day, month and year from a marriage document, death record, headstone or other secondary source, consider it approximate, until you find a primary record.
If you have sufficient funds and know the town name, you could travel there. In or near the municipio (town hall), most towns have an Anagrafe or Registry Office where all the civil birth, marriage and death records for its citizens, from the early 1800’s, are kept in large permanent registers. Church records, sometimes dating back to the 1300’s, are usually kept in a similar fashion at each parish, or sometimes at a central diocesan church. Unless your ancestral town is a large city like Rome, or Palermo, you’ll have to speak the local language, or pay an interpreter to help. If you speak the language your immigrant ancestor spoke a hundred years ago, you may not be understood. Unfortunately, even if you speak fluent Sicilian, it is no longer taught in Sicilian schools, and even locals speak Italian, not Sicilian in public situations.
If you plan on visiting your ancestors’ town for genealogical research, be forewarned that you may need several days before you gain access to the records you seek. State and church holidays, daily siestas, and other delays generally mean that you can’t just plan ahead to spend a morning in a town and find what you seek in the way of genealogical records. An example follows.
My wife Angie and I went to Sicily in 2006. We planned to land in Catania, rent a car to drive along the north coast, then swing down from Palermo to my parents’ birthplace, Serradifalco, in Caltanissetta Province. We would be passing close to Angie’s ancestral village of Mussomeli, in the same province, so we thought we’d make a quick stop there to resolve a question we had about the surname of one of her great-grandmothers. We found the public cemetery in Mussomeli, but though it was open, other visitors told us that there was no attendant because it was Italian Liberation Day. We began looking for my wife’s ancestors’ headstones, and learned something about Sicilian burial customs.
The same friendly visitors told us that we would not find stones from the early 1800s for two reasons: 1) the earliest burials were not in public cemeteries, but in churchyards. Only after disease transmission was understood in the 1800s were laws passed to require consecrated public cemeteries, outside of town limits; and 2) in the 1800s, usually cemetery plots were not bought, but rented. When the deceased’s family petered out or moved away, if the rent was not paid, the remains were disinterred and placed in common ossuary chapels.
Disappointed at not finding any useful information, we decided that after we had settled in at our destination, we would return to Mussomeli, a half-hour’s drive away, to expand our research. We did the next day, scheduling two hours around lunchtime to go back to the municipio and find out more about the cemetery. At the town office, we were told that ‘lu Prufissuri’, the caretaker of the cemetery, was there each day after siesta, at about 3 PM. We decided we’d come back the next day. When we pulled into town the next day at 3:30 PM, and drove toward the cemetery, we found the road blocked by the town’s weekly street market. This was on the only road to the cemetery! In response to our queries, we were told that the market would last until sundown. Oh, well, tomorrow was another day!
We returned the next day at 3 PM, made it to the cemetery, and parked near the office. The office door was locked, and a note in the window said “Gone to town on an errand, will return shortly.” After a few minutes, a car pulled up and an elderly gentleman stepped out, unlocked the office an entered. I went up to the service window and asked “Are you lu Prufissuri?” He sheepishly answered, in Sicilian “Well, I’m the custodian, they call me the Professor.” I asked “May we see the cemetery’s register of burials?”
He answered “Nicholas has the key to the registers.” I asked “Where is Nicholas?”, and he responded “He’s not here today.” After changing our schedule on four successive days, we couldn’t go back another time, and our search of the cemetery’s register will have to be done on a future trip!
Fortunately, you may be able to find images of many original records without having to do extensive travel. Next time, I’ll start to explain just how to do it.
Coniglio is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel, inspired by his Sicilian research. Order the paperback or the Kindle version at http://bit.ly/SicilianStory. Coniglio’s web page at http://bit.ly/AFCGen has helpul hints on genealogic research. If you have genealogy questions, or would like him to lecture to your club or group, e-mail email@example.com.