Monday, June 24, 2019

Baptismal Records Greek Philadelphia

The Greek American Heritage Society of Philadelphia possesses a rare collection of parish records from the establishment of Philadelphia's Greek community in 1906. The records consist of hard-bound log books on membership, marriages, baptisms, and funerals. In summer 2016, my students digitized some of the logs, but the project slowed down because of the difficulty in transcribing the Greek and the large number of entries. I've been doing a little bit at a time over the last three years and have vowed to complete one project, the record of baptisms this year. I'm excited to announce a half-way point in transcription. Between 1907 and 1920 about 700 baptisms took place in the Greek Orthodox Church of Philadelphia. Most are infant baptisms, but there are a few adult baptisms. Having just entered birth number 296 in my database, I pause to make some general observations.

Greek American parish records surely exist, but none have been systematically transcribed, published, or shared. For this reason, making Philadelphia's records available to the general public wishes to set a precedent and a paradigm to be followed by others. Baptism records present to us a list of a each community's hyphenated Americans. Although surely many Greek offsprings did not get baptized in the Orthodox church, most did in the period under consideration. The sacraments of baptism, marriage, and funeral are, in fact, one of the practical motivations for organizing Orthodox churches to begin with. The great mobility of immigrants, both between the US and Greece and within the US makes them demographically invisible. In the first mapping of immigrants by the Hull House co-operative in Chicago (1895), the volunteers note that individual inhabitants were so mobile that the constitution of each house changed constantly from week-to-week. What can the list of the 700 first Greek Philadelphians tell us? Here is what the database looks like and some research objectives.
  • Each baptismal entry lists the village from which the father originates. This patrimonial connection to place allows us to reconstruct the regional profile of the American community. Oral traditions privilege the Peloponnese and Macedonia, but the data might prove more diverse. The first thing I want to do with the data is to create a geographical database of all the places of origin. This is a hard undertaking because Greece underwent a major renaming campaign in the 1920s. Once the original name is transcribed, one has to decode the village's modern name, and then find its location. The total village distribution will provide a regional profile of a Greek-American community and trace chronological trends over the course of 13 years.
  • The log gives ample evidence of the national diversity of the early community. Baptisms are not limited to Greeks but include Syrians, Serbians, and other Orthodox immigrants.
  • Greek American historiography has stressed the role of men in the community and focused on women mostly as picture brides. This may be the case in the large centers of Chicago and New York, but it does not seem entirely accurate. David Pettegrew and I have been doing a comparative sample of Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Harrisburg (for an upcoming essay in Pennsylvania History) and have concluded that the gender distribution in smaller towns is close to 50-50. Since baptism requires childbirth by a female, the Greeks baptized in the U.S. are all offsprings of a family unit. Greek American males fathered many offsprings back in Greece, but the baptismal records give a unique insight in the balanced mother-father family units.
  • The baptismal records show intensive intermarriage between Greek men and native women. Intermarriage is a phenomenon difficult to study through other sources. The records provide a glimpse of the scenario where the father's religious tradition (Orthodox) dominates over the mother's (Protestant or Catholic). Surely, many Greek offsprings entered the faith traditions of the non-Greek mother, but this would show up in the parish records of the other denomination.
  • The baptismal records also list the godparent. This should allow the reconstruction of some family networks between parents and godparents.
  • Finally, the baptismal records could be integrated with other digitized database, such as the list of all Greeks in the 1920 US Federal Census. There are 1,777 of them, so it will take me a little longer to complete that. This is when I'm envious of colleagues who have grad students to help them data crunch.
Wish me luck. In order to expedite the laboriously translation and transcription process, I think I will now focus on the place of origin. If I also manage to complete the map of all the Greek residences in Philadelphia in 1920, one should have a geographically expansive view of distribution within the city and distribution of origin within Greece. That should make two powerful maps. More importantly, it should stage all kinds of additional studies of place. 

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States