Follow the Godparents!

Modern Sillery.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Modern Sillery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few of us pay attention to the extra folks in the records we find of our ancestors — after all, we are out for blood and those people don’t have it.  But I started to keep track of the godparents for my seventeenth century Quebec relatives and now I know their world a little bit better for my efforts.

When my parents assigned me godparents, they drew from their own siblings.  This was not the dominant practice among my seventeenth century Canadian ancestors.* Sure, Barbe Nepveu called on her mother, step-father, and half-siblings to serve as godparents – but in 15 births and 30 godparents, she only drew on her family of origin 5 times.  She chose from her own children only twice.  The remainder of the time, she and her husband Nicolas Sylvestre drew godparents from their community.  This was the common practice of their times from what I can see.  Few called on blood relatives to serve as godparents.  Anne Leodet had a child serve as a godparent only once.  Anne Hayot and Catherine Durand never did.  The majority of godparents came from the community.

Paying attention to the godparents, I have learned a bit about who my ancestors knew and who they relied on.  Most often an individual showed up as a godparent just once, but some families showed up repeatedly in the records.  This can indicate a lifetime friendship.  For example, Barbe Nepveu turned to Elisabeth Cretel as a godmother in 1681 and to her son Etienne Langlois, as a godfather in 1699.  She turned to Jean Dubucq as a godfather in 1681; to his wife, Francoise Larchevesque, as a godmother in 1682; and to their son, Romain (who later married her half-sister, Anne), in 1690.  In one final example, Barbe turned to Marie Damois as a godmother in 1671, and later to her (Faucher) daughters: Marie Madeleine (1690), Elisabeth (1697), and Genevieve (1699.)  Marie Madeleine Faucher also married Barbe’s half-brother Guillaume in 1692.  Clearly, the Langlois, Dubucqs, and Faucher were long-term, close family friends.**

I also learned that my earliest ancestors had intermittent relationships with local elites.  Anne Leodet called upon the Legardeur De Repentigny family as godparents for her eldest daughters of both her marriages.  These godparents included Charles De Repentigny who counted Governor of Trois Rivieres, Communauté des Habitants membership, and St. Michel Cove (near Sillery) ownership amongst his accomplishments.  Anne also used his daughter and his niece Marie Madeleine (her father was a director of the Communauté des Habitants and an admiral of the fleet, her husband had been Champlain’s interpreter and was comptrollergeneral of the Communauté des Habitants – he was also famous enough to be known by one name like Madonna or Cher.)  Anne Leodet and Gilles Pinel also called on the young son of the seigneur of Sillery, Francois Ruette, to serve as godparent to the family.  Catherine Durand and Pierre Piche called upon the Robineau family to serve as godparents, they held the title to the Barony of Portneuf.  Finally, Anne Hayot and Etienne Denevers called upon Jaqueline Potel, the wife of the seigneur of Dombourg (soon to be Neuville), where most of these families would wind up living after 1680.

When I started looking at the godparents in my family’s records, I thought little of their importance.  I assumed that the repeating family names I saw amongst my ancestors were a homage to favored siblings — but as I paid attention I figured out that the fact that both the Pinel and Sylvestre families had Annes, Elisabeths, Francoises, Francoises, Jeans, and Marie Madeleines didn’t reflect sibling love as much as naming conventions. Look at the baptism charts for Anne Leodet and her daughter Barbe Nepveu below and you will see it was common to name a child after its godparent.



18 of 24 children were their godparent’s namesake.*** The majority of exceptions are explained either by the fact that they were their parent’s namesake or that they had siblings serving as godparents.  Only Barbe’s name appears unexplained – at least until you learn that her godmother, a social elite, had a daughter named Barbe.  At the time of the baptism, Anne had only been in New France for about a year.  She had arrived as a fille a marier (a precursor to the filles du roi, she came to the new world as a single woman willing to marry), not as a woman of status or means.  Perhaps Anne thought it would be impolite to name her daughter after an established member of the local elite, and chose to honor the godparent by using the name of her daughter instead. The Denevers and the Pichets, who also asked social superiors to serve as godparents at some point in time, didn’t give their children the godparent’s name when using elite families either.

Lastly, following the godparents sometimes provided a potential glimpse into how individuals felt about their world.  Take for example, the naming patterns of Anne Leodet and Catherine Durand.  You might remember that they both had the misfortune to marry bigamists.  Anne’s first husband was exiled from Canada; Catherine’s husband returned to her after his first wife died.  In looking at their naming practices two visions emerge.  Anne’s life seems to have picked up and continued without skipping a beat.  She continues to bear children and name them after their godparents with her second husband — hardly missing a year of fertility.  Perhaps it was the number of social elites she knew, perhaps it was the steadiness of her fertility — but her naming practices never shifted.  She always (except the year she named a daughter after herself), made her child the namesake of its godparent.

Catherine Durand’s life, however, took a different course.  After her marriage was reinstated, she continued her godparent namesake practices.  But it looks like her life after her marriage’s rehabilitation was unsteady.  There are years of missing births.

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 10.33.31 AM

Catherine has her original husband, but her luck has changed — and I wonder if her attitude soured with it.  Although her first 5 children follow the godparent naming practices, her last three do not.  I wonder if she began to feel cut off from her husband, her God, or her community.

Of course, I know nothing about the reality of this — but following the godparents helps me bring a little more fact into my imaginings of what seventeenth century life for these ancestors might have been like.


*  I am keeping track of records by the mother’s name since Anne Leodet had two husbands.  I was able to find records for the children of Anne Leodet and Jean Nepveu/Gilles Pinel, Barbe Nepveu and Nicolas Sylvestre, Anne Hayot and Etienne Denevers, and Catherine Durand and Pierre Pichet.

**In the Pinel family, they drew on Guillaume Constantineau as a godparent in 1669, later their children would marry in 1683, 1687, 1695, and 1699.

*** I removed the two children without an existing baptismal records from the count.

Below is the chart I was able to do for Anne Hayot and Etienne Denevers.


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5 thoughts on “Follow the Godparents!

  1. I have a line in Quebec that I have been researching heavily this past year. The godparents have given me plenty of clues – I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment of following the godparents. Incidentally I have an ancestor who may have had three wives simultaneously. There is so much other work to do that I haven’t completely sorted it out yet – but it’s looking like he was a bit of a ladies man. Was this common in Quebec in the 18th century?

    • I am not an expert on Quebec, in any century. But my experience says that multiple marriages were rare. My guess is that this ladies man might have come from a family that was large over the generations — and he and a couple of cousins were given the same name, at about the same time, in about the same place. I ran into an example of this in my family that I wrote about here: If this isn’t the case, you have quite the story on your hands! Good luck with it and I look forward to hearing how it turns out (when you get around to it.)

      • His family was definitely large – they all were on this line which of course is common for Quebec in this time period. I haven’t sorted him out yet because the records pertaining to him are especially difficult to read, bad handwriting, bad scans. I keep coming back to him and taking a peek – the more research I do on this line in general, the more comfortable I am becoming with the French regardless of the quality of the image. Eventually those chicken scratches are going to be easier to read and I will tackle this one head on. 🙂

  2. Dot says:

    Great post! I wanted to add that in the Greek Orthodox church, the godparents choose the name of the child. i wonder if the Catholics did the same – that might explain the pattern. Also, having non-related godparents insures that your children have connections to the community if anything happens to your family – like finding out your husband is a bigamist! Thanks for the tip! I will stop overlooking godparents as a source.

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