Native St. Johnian and historian Elroy Sprauve brought St. John Historical Society members back to a happier time at the society’s Tuesday evening, March 11, meeting, when he discussed the positive affect godparents had on the St. John community in the early- to mid-1900s.
The godparenting “system” provided for both children and adults in need, pulled the community together and created large families, Sprauve explained. Being asked to serve as a godparent was a major honor, as godparents were a big part of their godchildrens’ lives, even into adulthood.
“People looked for stable, mature persons to be godparents,” said Sprauve. “This was not taken lightly, because there was a large possibility the godparent would actually have to intervene in the child’s life.”
Government services were minimal on St. John, and it was not uncommon for a godparent to take in their godchild if the child’s parents died or could not afford to provide care, Sprauve added.
Strong Bonds Formed
“A great percentage of people were raised by their godparents,” he said. “It seems there was no interference from the courts; no one questioned it.”
Godparents were involved in every aspect of their godchildren’s lives, from schoolwork to church, and they had as much free reign and authority over their godchildren as the children’s parents. Strong bonds were formed thanks to the godparenting system, and not just between the godparents and their godchildren — the godparent became like family to their godchildrens’ parents as well, who fondly referred to their children’s godmother as “comadoo” and godfather as “compadoo.”
“There was a deep, special bond,” said Sprauve. “The community was pulled in together through these relationships.”
Sprauve found out the strength of these bonds the hard way, he explained.
“My brothers and I decided one day to throw wet sand on a man who’d had too much to drink in the Frank Powell Park,” said Sprauve. “Well, somebody somewhere saw us and told my mother. Stupidly, we forgot that man was her compadoo, and she really punished us for that.”
Godchildren Returned Favor
While godparents were a positive influence in the lives of their godchildren, the favor was often returned when godparents became elderly, according to Sprauve.
“Most people had animals back then, and in instances where the godparents become older, quite often their godchildren would be there to take care of the animals for them,” he said. “This was just a part of the extension of their involvement.”
Children were expected to report to their godparents regarding schoolwork and any major events in their lives. The bond often extended throughout the family, with one child’s godparents becoming, in effect, godparents to that child’s brothers and sisters.
“This really helped pull the community together,” said Sprauve. “It helped to build the family and hold it together.”
Godchildren fondly referred to their godmothers as “nennie” and godfathers as “pepe.” Sprauve spoke weekly with his last living godfather, who died just a month ago, up until his death, he explained. Sprauve himself has nearly 40 godchildren, and still keeps in touch regularly with those born before 1960. After the 50s, the importance of godparents has unfortunately deteriorated, he explained.
Godparents Provided Island “Village”
“Today, there’s no comparison,” said Sprauve. “There was never a need for foster homes because of godparents. In many cases, godparents were more stable people than a child’s relatives.”
Sprauve has only come across one person from St. John who had to be sent to the orphanage on St. Croix when the godparenting system was strong, he added.
St. John Historical Society member Eulita Jacobs recalled the role of godparents in the confirmation process.
“The biggest gift they gave us was a Bible and encouragement to continue with the religion,” said Jacobs.
Many of the same names often show up as godparents in church records, because the most stable people in the community were chosen to fill the role, Sprauve explained.
The historian admitted the godparenting system will likely never be as important as it once was.
“It takes a village to raise a child, and while the village is not there in many cases, this system provided that village,” said Sprauve. “I don’t think it will come back because of the increase in government intervention. The government can’t replace that system; it was based on love and concern.”
“The sad part is, we took it for granted,” Sprauve added.