The Role of GodParents and the Extended Family

(Presented by Mr. Elroy Sprauve, summarized by Robin Swank)

The Bethany Moravian Church meeting house was packed the evening of March 11th. Our March membership meeting featured one of our favorite speakers, teachers, and experts on St Johnian culture, social customs and language, Mr. Elroy Sprauve.

Mr. Elroy spoke from experience and as an observant historian about the role of godparents in the 1920’s through the 1950’s. Technically, godparenting was primarily a religious event, with a commitment to guide a child to becoming a good Christian; however, it went much further than that, he told us. A baby’s baptism began an outreach system that pulled the community together, creating an extended family.

Speaker and Board Member, Elroy Sprauve,
with the Funeral Booklet of Miss Myrah
Keating Smith, Board Member Andromeada
Child’s mother. Andro’s mother,
Miss Myrah, was Mr. Elroy’s godmother.
The Funeral Booklet recounts that Miss Myrah
as godmother, or Nennie Myrah,
to over 500 people.

Not only was baptism a rite of passage for the baby, but also a major honor for the godparent, who would then be involved with that child and the child’s family for life. Only people who were highly thought of, people considered stable, mature and with character were sought out. (Mr. Sprauve admits, modestly, that he has about 30 godchildren!). In the early to mid 1900’s baptism and godparenting were taken seriously; there was a large probability that a godparent would at some point intervene in a child’s life, or the child in the godparent’s later life. In the 20’s to the 50’s there was not only an absence of welfare services for children (or seniors) for one to rely on, there was also an absence of ready cash, a way to store or preserve meat or vegetable provisions, and a need to feed your animals and care for the garden, all necessitating on-going daily support for chores.

Many children were raised by godparents, Mr. Elroy states. If a parent passed, or had too many (young) children to cope, or fell on hard times, the mother might ask her ‘compay’ (her child’s godfather) to take full responsibility for the child; there was no legal process or court interference, as godparents were considered ‘guardians’ by the community. St. Johnians sent children reaching high school age to St. Thomas to live with relatives or godparents to continue their education. More often a godparent stepped into the child’s life alongside the parents, extending their guiding role to schoolwork and discipline; the community expected their authority– to sign permission slips, reprimand, and discipline without parental interference.

Such social ties helped keep children in line. Mr. Elroy related that one day he and his brother observed a man who had had too much to drink in Cruz Bay. They decided it would be great fun to pelt him with wet sand. When his mother was told, they were punished not only because they had been rude, but also because they had been disrespectful of her ‘compadu;’ she was godmother to one of the sand-man’s children.

In listening to Mr. Elroy, it becomes clear that in a world where godparenting attaches you to all the children of that child’s family, the network of bonds becomes a large part of a small town quite quickly. Andro’s mother was Mr. Elroy’s godmother; Mr. Elroy and Andro are godbrother and godsister; therefore, Mr. Elroy addressed all the women in Andro’s parents’ generation as ‘Nennie;’ and all the men in her parents’ generation as ‘Pepe.’ A child’s godfather is referred to as my ‘compay.’ The network of these ‘endearment terms’ associated with godparenting created behavioral expectations and made the entire ‘village’ responsible for all the children. It must have been difficult for a child, (or an adult, for that matter) to get away with anything!

Children were expected to keep in contact with, check in on, and help their godparents; a child might be sent to look in on or to live with a godparent as the elder grew unable to complete daily chores. “My last godfather passed away last week at the age of 96,” he told us, “and until one week before his death, I had weekly contact with him.” This was the godfather with whom he stayed in St Thomas while attending high school.

What eventually diluted and then undermined this support system in the 1960’s? A torrent of money and a decade of modern consumerism downloaded to the islands in about two years increased the independence of some people from the network of relationships. Mr. Elroy believes the social network still exists in the countryside on a few West Indian islands. But it is easy to see how the predominance of cash wages, the ability for everyone of all ages to travel farther and have modern conveniences, access to off-island provisions, and the ‘convenience’ of government services that pay lip service to the form and function, but not the heart, of caring for children, have weakened the godparenting role. Today’s children might sense that they don’t feel grounded, or that they are missing ‘something.’ They may be missing a time when many caring eyes and guiding words supported them. It is a common refrain that it takes a village to raise a child; today’s children don’t know what they have missed.

What a Pistarckle-A Dictionary of Virgin Islands English Creole, published in 1981 by Lito Valls, a native of St. Croix, provides these supplemental definitions of the godparenting network:

  • COMPAY: A male salutation used among close friends. Spanish, Compadre. Also said, Compadu or cumpado.
  • NANA: (1) Nursemaid. From Twi, nana = grandmother or grandfather. (2) Foster mother. In some African tribes nana is (sic) name given to the chiefs, which means not one who rules, but one whose duty is to take care of others.
  • NEN: (2) Godmother. Also used as a title of respect or affection of any older female. Also pronounced NeNe or NeNee.
  • PEPE: Godfather. Used alone or with a person’s Christian name. Thus, it is “Pepe Jule,” never Pepe Sprauve, for Julius Sprauve. In addition, Pepe is used as a title of respect and affection by younger people to non-related elders. Also said Peps.


See the related items:


Resource Title Attributes
Article Post-Plantation and Pre-Tourism: Life and Work on St. John in the Early 20th Century Fortwangler, Crystal
Article English Creole-The Spoken Word on St. John Sprauve, Elroy
Article Christmas Eve aboard the Ingolfn Linck, Olaf
Article Guavaberry and Christmas Carols Gibney, Eleanor
Article JUMBIES and WEREWOLVES Swank, Robin
Article Masquerade: Costumes of the Atlantic Rim Nicholls, Dr. Robert W.
Article Guy Benjamin, Kenneth Marsh, Edmond Roberts, Milton Samuel:Stories of the Last two Decades Swank, Robin
Article God Parenting in the 1800’s to early 1900’s Swank, Robin
Article The Role of GodParents and the Extended Family Sprauve, Elroy & Swank, Robin
Article Reminiscence of the West India Islands, Second Series No V; Tortola: The Native Missionary Kidder, Daniel P.
Article Estate Sieben & Mollendahl Memories Sprauve, Elroy
Article A Week on St. John (Notes from Denmark’s most beautiful island) Linck, Olaf
Article Fever Gibney, Eleanor
Article Fever Gibney, Eleanor
Article A Week on St. John (Notes from Denmark’s most beautiful island) Linck, Olaf
Article All the Fault of Peter Fink Gibney, Nancy Flagg
Article Old Time Toys and Handmade Gifts Swank, Robin
thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/Postcards/Thumbnails/EastEndPicnic.jpg Pic-nicking among the Danish West Indies – at the East End of St. Jan
Creator: J. Lightbourn
Owner: Private collection
Post Card

Elroy Sprauve

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