A Funny Little Story About Religion

Dealing in absolutes should be left to the mathematicians, not the family historians. We should never, ever, say “my family was always….” anything. Nothing is ever absolute through the passage of time. Ever.

A big one that tends to catch people out when searching for ancestors is religion. In the grand scheme of things, people changed religion all the time, but they didn’t necessarily talk about it–so fast-forward a few generations and you can expect a few surprises in the books as you uncover more about your family.

Growing up I cut my teeth on stories about how my Grandfather was excommunicated from the Catholic Church when he married my Grandmother, and he was bitter towards the Church for the rest of his life. Being a good Catholic boy, though, he had a healthy dose of Catholic guilt and fear of God that he just couldn’t shake, so it was a push-me/pull-me situation in the family. As the first grandchild I was even sent to Catholic School (which didn’t last long) and my mother was forever telling me that it was because my Grandfather insisted…that I was a sort of “offering,” although he refused to go to Church himself. How much of any of this is true? I have no idea, really. But, if we operate on the basic premise that he ran into difficulties with the Church when he married my Grandmother who was not Catholic, it gets a little funny. Because by rights, she should have been Catholic, if only two young boys had gone South instead of North.

This is a little story about a newly arrived family to the Manchester, NH area and two churches.

My Grandmother Phyllis was the daughter of Benjamin and Edith Sandford. When Benjamin and Edith married, he was a Church of England kind of guy and Edith was a Catholic. It appears Catholicism won out, and that’s how the children were intended to be raised. So, before emigrating to New Hampshire in 1924, my Great Uncles were baptised in the Catholic faith.

When they came into the USA my Great Grandmother Edith had exceedingly poor eyesight and three children to manage at the time–Tommy and Johnny, who were aged 12 and 10, and also Ruth, who was a little over two years old. There was a catholic church not far from their new home, and Great Grandma Edith, still settling in after the big move, and with a young child to care for, sent her boys off to church on their own. It wasn’t far, just a few blocks South, and it was a different time, a safer time, so 10 year old Johnny and 12 year old Tommy set off on their own.

It must have been a bit of a surprise then, when a few weeks later the Pastor for the local Congregational Church arrived to welcome my Great Grandmother to the neighbourhood. It turns out that the boys, in a new place and figuring things out on their own, had headed North rather than South. They would have passed a fair few churches as they went on their way, but there were kids playing out in front of the Congregational Church and that got their attention. When services started, they just followed everyone in, and that’s how it all happened.

So now, here we are, my Great Grandmother has just learned that her boys have gone and converted away from Catholicism, but in the presence of a very kind and welcoming pastor, whom her boys seem to like, she decides to ask them what they think. Apparently, as the boys were happy at the Congregational Church, Great Grandma Edith decided to leave things as they were, and so by the time my Grandmother Phyllis entered the world, the family had become Congregational.

Fast-forward to when my Grandparents got married, and this apparently caused a bit of a stir with Grandpa’s church, enough so that he “turned his back” on religion in general, but he never let go of his Catholic roots, and was always torn about the potential consequences of his actions. In the end, in his last days, he insisted on seeing a Catholic priest and giving his last confession, which was a bit of a surprise to all of us, but we saw his wishes through, and he seemed very relieved for it afterwards.

So take this as an example that most things in life are relative. This story talks about religious conversion sparked by accident, but the search for faith, and for belonging, can involve many twists along the way.

There have been many historians who have discussed the question of faith with the Famine Irish, and how their experiences affected their religious path. Some, like my own Morgan family, were committed to a legacy of giving back to the church in exchange for surviving their ordeal…literally. In our family history there is at least one who becomes a nun or priest in every generation from when they arrived in the US in the 1850s through to the 1950s. Others decried the faith they were raised in, exhausted and desperate to understand how God could lead them through such tribulations. The reasons behind an individual’s choice in spirituality are inherently subjective, and need to be viewed through the filter of their time, not our own. Understanding that spiritual paths can divert, and looking for the story behind it, can help us understand our ancestors better, as there is not much that is more personal than faith.

My Sandford family conversion to the Congregational church, while it seems on the surface to just be a matter of coincidence, is more than that. It speaks volumes about my Great Grandmother, and her overall world view. To be willing to let go of her life-long church purely because her children were happy and comfortable in a new one, paints a picture for me of a loving and tolerant mother, who would rather have her children happy to attend church, regardless of the denomination, than to force them to simply follow the family tradition. I feel she was rather progressive, but she was a young wife and mother in the 1920s, had already changed countries, and may have just evolved from the rigid adherence that perhaps her parents had followed.

So if you are tracing a family branch that has historically been of one faith per the census, and suddenly they have changed what they report to the government, don’t write that record off. It is likely still the right family group, and you may discover quite a bit about the people your ancestors were during the time that they lived.

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