A family history surprise in great-grandma’s will

Josephine Arcuri will pg 1My mother found a copy recently of a will made by my great-grandmother, Josephine (Gualtieri) Arcuri in August of 1927. At that time my grandmother, Mary Nancy (Arcuri) Sanders was twenty years old, already married with a six-month-old daughter. Josephine’s three eldest were also out on their own, and her youngest children, boys of 19, 17, and 12, all still lived at home.

Each of her children is named in the will, with each of the three daughters to receive vacant lots on Waverly Avenue in Patchogue, New York, located adjacent to their family home. All other property was to be divided “share and share alike” by her four sons.

Here’s the surprise: My grandmother is named as “Maria Rosa” in this document, and not Maria (or Mary) NANCY as she was known to us all our lives. My mother was as surprised to see this other name as I was.

Josephine with her husband Francesco Arcuri, about 1910.

Josephine with her husband Francesco Arcuri, about 1910.

From my mother’s descriptions of Josephine, I know that although she lived in the United States from 1900 to her death in 1947, she spoke little English, and she signed the document by her mark, suggesting she didn’t read or write. I wonder if her daughter’s name was an error made by whoever drew up the documents, and Josephine was unable to read for herself, or proofread, what she was signing.

So is this a mistake in the will, or a willful change of name on her daughter’s part? If the latter, it wouldn’t be the first time. Another daughter of Josephine and Francesco Arcuri, three years older than Maria, was named Elvira. Elvira hated her name–possibly because it had been the name of an older sister who died in infancy, or perhaps she just didn’t like the sound of it. When Elvira went to school at five or six years old, she told the teachers her name was Mary. I don’t know if her parents knew about it, but the name stuck. Three years later, when my grandma started school and told them her name was Mary, they didn’t believe her because they knew they already had a Mary from that family attending the school.

Later in life, in the 1970’s or ’80’s,  my grandma wanted to travel to Europe, and Mom helped her get a passport. This requires a birth certificate, which she didn’t have. None could be found in New York, or anywhere they tried. Finally Grandma’s brother prepared an affidavit of some kind, stating that she was his sister and attesting to her date of birth. It didn’t seem to matter that he was her younger brother–she was able to get a passport. I have still never seen any official birth record for her, nothing that would clarify whether her name at birth was Maria Nancy or Maria Rosa. To me and my generation of cousins, she was just Gram, and to my kids and the next generation who knew her, she was called “Great.” She fit the name, too–she was a great Gram, whatever her name was!


17 thoughts on “A family history surprise in great-grandma’s will

  1. Interestingly! All of the Italian women I have met named ‘Nancy’ in North America were actually named Nunzia or Anunziata. Doesn’t sound like that was your Nonna’s name, but maybe a confirmation name or her commara’s name? Ciao, Cristina

  2. My nana made up her name also, Her real name was cuchintina, well she need to work in the cigar factory in tampa, so she took the name bella. When my dad died no bella arcuri was listed what a mess. Lucky for us a Italian man worked in the court house and helped us. Alot of peoe had to change their names themselves togeet a job. thank you

  3. Thanks for the story about my Grandma Arcuri’s will. I will continue to look for the new birth certificate of Mary Nancy (Rosa?) Arcuri among the thousands of papers received from your cousin George. Really enjoy this post you do.


  4. Thank you, Sandy, for continuously providing family trivia. She obviously liked the name Nancy since she named one of her babies Nancy. She was indeed the Greatest Gram ever! I have many fond memories but her spending countless hours playing cards with us kids was the greatest. And her laugh. And her pie crusts.

  5. Didn’t the Priests used to use Mary & Joseph as Baptismal names? I remember people named Mary or Joseph that went through life using their middle names because of the Priests inserting Mary or Joseph before the names chosen by their parents.

    • I didn’t grow up with those traditions myself–I know there are patterns of naming after grandparents, and in some places it was expected that at least one name would be a saint’s name. In Josephine’s family, her eldest son was given her grandfather’s name, and the second son was given her husband’s father’s name (Pasquale) though he was always called by his middle name (Sal for Salvatore). Maybe the priests used Mary and Joseph if the parents failed to choose a saint’s name for their child.

  6. Thank you for sharing this Sandy! It is another great story, and document in our family. I wonder if a baptism record exists for Gram, or other church records that might give some clarification on her middle name. I love your articles!

  7. It’s curious how aliases stick and the origin of the change gets lost over time.
    Our family name changed at some point from Sisca to Sisco. I always assumed it happened when my father passed through Ellis Island. When I researched it a few years ago, it was clearly correct when he immigrated. I’ve scoured our local newspaper trying to find a timeline for the change and couldn’t pin it down. By the 1940s it had just suddenly become an O.

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