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Article Published October 13, 1998

Pierre Inconnu and other possible unknowns in Quebec Baptism Records
By Xenia Stanford

As a volunteer at our local Family History Centre, I helped a gentleman find his Pierre Jolivet in a baptism index in a Quebec parish register. Offering to help interpret the full record once he located it on the microfilm, I turned to assist another patron. Soon he excitedly called me over indicating he had located his Pierre. Looking at the entry, I could see it was the baptism of a Pierre Inconnu on "le deuxième juillet". He had mistaken the name of the month, July, for the family name Jolivet. With the similarity of the two words and the difficulty deciphering the old French handwriting, it was an easy mistake.

However, from another clue, he should have known this Pierre, was clearly an illegitimate child and not the child, as far as is known, of any Jolivet. "Inconnu" means unknown and when found instead of a "surname" during baptism indicated the parents' names were either not known or not divulged. This usually happened when a child was born out of wedlock and turned over to the Church's care. You may find the godparents of "Inconnus" or foundlings were a priest (especially in the case of male babies) or a nun (e.g. for female babies).

This means many records are filed in the indexes under "Inconnu" as it was not an uncommon occurrence. Other terms to indicate a child was born out of wedlock were "enfant naturel" and "illégitime". Usually in these cases a surname (often the mother's) was assigned and the full name of the mother and, in some cases, the father, is given.


However, this patron should not be embarrassed as the most common mistake made by non-French "reading" genealogists is much simpler. The baptism date is often wrongly interpreted as the date of birth. Many entries for French Canadian ancestors in Ancestral File and the International Genealogical Index (in the submitted rather than extracted data) contain this type of error.

It is especially confusing to those using genealogical indexes where the events are abbreviated by one letter. Thus b. 17-01-1683 Charlesbourg looks like the person was born on January 17, 1683 when it actually indicates the event is the act of baptême or baptism. It might be easier to remember that n. (naissance or né/née) is birth, if we think of the indicator used to show maiden names. For example, Sandra Smith nee Brown means Sandra was "born" a Brown.

The Catholic Church was the only official primary source for recording vital statistics from the early 1600s in Quebec until Protestant marriages were allowed in 1760. Even afterwards, church ceremonies continued to be the official source for births and deaths in Quebec until civil registration began in 1922. However, in the Church records the concern was less for the birth and death dates than for the religious "acts" of baptism and burial.

Therefore, it is more important that a genealogical "dictionary", if it gives only one date, indicate the date of the "sacred act" as that is the order of the events found in the parish registers. You must use the date of the act or Sacrament of Baptism (Baptême)to find the original entry in the register. Once you have found the record, it will usually reveal the date of birth as well.

Only in cases where the child was baptised months or years later is it difficult to ascertain the date of birth. In those cases it may only state the child was so many months or years old. For at least one record where several members of one family were baptised together, no birth dates or ages were found. This either represented a conversion of the entire family or they lived too far from any Church to attend regularly.

Luckily for future genealogists, this is a rarity in French Catholic records. The Church considered it imperative that children be baptised as soon after birth as possible so they would not die in the state of original sin and be condemned to Limbo, a place "between" Heaven and Hell. Thus many baptisms took place the same day or the day following birth.

If a child was stillborn, often no baptism is shown but a burial (sépulchure ) record in the parish register will show the date of birth and parents. When the child was still alive at birth, a baptism followed by a sépulchre may be found. Usually the child was not given a first name if stillborn. Sometimes no name was assigned even if the child was born alive and died shortly after birth. Seeing the infant was at great risk of dying in the state of original sin, he or she may have been given an emergency baptism called "ondoyer". The index may not show a first name but record it as "Ondoyé" for a male followed by father's surname or "Ondoyée" for a female infant. The body of the text will also contain this word and not usually indicate a "prenom" or first name for the child.


Often the birth is not indicated by a numerical date and may be difficult to find in the record. The index may have already given the date of baptism which may help if you are not familiar with French numbers for days, months and years but the birth may be indicated by "né le même jour" for born the same day, "hier" or "la veille" for yesterday, or "avant-hier" or "avant la veille" for day before yesterday.

Even then the words indicating the birth date are usually buried in the text following the date of the event (i.e. baptism) and the name of the individual.

For example the entry for Pierre Ulderic Boudreau in Notre-Dame, Montreal is typical. It starts "Aujourd'hui, vingt juin mil huit cent trente-trois, je prêtre soussigné ai baptisé Pierre Ulderic, ne hier, fils du légitime mariage d'Antoine Boudreau dit L'Acadien et d'Ursule Hurtubuise de cette pariosse"

(N.B. The introductory wording may also be "nous ... avons" instead of "je ... ai" when the priest uses the plural or "royal we".)

From this we learn that "today, 20th June, 1833, I the undersigned priest baptised Pierre Ulderic, born yesterday, son of the legitimate marriage of Antoine Boudreau called the Acadian and of Ursule Hurtubuise of this parish…"

Usually the baptism occurred in the parents' home by the priest but was recorded in the register of the nearest parish church. If the child was baptised in a parish different from the parents' residence or usual church, the parish they were from would be indicated in place of "cette pariosse".

The record continues by giving the names of "le parrain" (the godfather) and "la marraine" (godmother). Often the godparents were relatives and their relationship to the child are sometimes given. This is why, even if the secondary source gives both n. for the date of naissance or birth and b. for baptême, it is still wise to check out the actual record.

Also an entry may indicate the child was a jumeau (male twin) or jumelle (female twin) which should encourage you to look at the next or previous baptism. In some cases, if the twin was stillborn, a burial entry for the day of or day following the birth will be the only entry for the deceased infant.

Another reason for checking the original entry is to find the occupation of the father, whether he could sign (which indicates whether he could read and write), and other interesting details. One record revealed the father was not present at the baptism as he had died eight months before and another that the father was in France on business. These details would be missed if only indexes are used.

Another good reason to check the original baptism record and keep a copy on file is the actual signatures of the parties may be valuable as clues to identify family members in other records.

Many times I have re-read the record and found a detail I may have missed earlier. After all the handwriting was not always legible regardless of the language and fresh scrutiny can lead to finally deciphering a formerly elusive word or phrase.

Learning as much as possible from each baptism record can enrich our understanding of our ancestors' lives.

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