An often overlooked source of genealogical information are funeral prayer cards. The kind you pick up at the funeral home and maybe after a while you tuck it away in your bible or prayer book. At least that’s what our mother used to do with the prayer cards she saved. As she read the bible and came across a prayer card of someone she loved she would say a prayer for that person and their loved ones.
Every once in a while my sister and I look at the old prayer cards, remembering something about that person, or we again try to identify the ones we don’t know. One prayer card in particular was a real stumper. The name on the prayer card was Theresa Vespera. The date of her death was September 25, 1940. We agreed we still didn’t have a clue who she was. This past July we tried again to break through this brick wall. This time we focused on the funeral director’s address, which was 33 Spring Street, New York City. How did Mom come to have a funeral prayer card for this woman? We suddenly blurted out simultaneously, “Aunt Stephie’s sister!” I don’t know how the thought came to us at the same moment, but it did.
Our aunt & uncle lived next door, having also built a house on the family farm. We didn’t know much about her sister. Looking at the funeral prayer card, we questioned whether her sister’s name was in fact Theresa, the same name I chose for a confirmation name, which must have pleased Aunt Stephie although I don’t recall her ever saying so. What I did remember Aunt Stephie saying was that her sister had the same birthday as me. We did know that both her sister and sister’s baby had died in childbirth. It was a sad subject and like most adults, she didn’t talk to children about the important things. What she did tell us was how she loved growing up in New York City and how much fun she had roller skating across the Brooklyn Bridge with her friends.
To find out if our hunch was correct about Theresa Vespera we first searched the 1920 and 1930 census records on Ancestry.com to see if Stephie had a sister named Theresa. We knew the names of their parents and that the family lived on the lower East Side of New York City where their father had owned a busy restaurant before moving to our little town in New Jersey. The 1920 Census showed a Theresa Mosch, 7 years old, living with her parents, Rudolph and Susan Mosch, and sister Sophie (sic) age 2-11/12. Both girls were born in New York City. In 1920 the parents were not yet naturalized citizens and they had emigrated in 1910 and 1908 from Hungary. Rudy did not yet own the restaurant. In 1920 he was a shoemaker in a factory. In the 1930 Census we found Teresa Mosch, 17 years old, living in lower Manhattan with her parents and sister Stephania (age 13). By this time Rudy’s occupation is Proprietor, Restaurant. Theresa’s occupation is waiter, presumably in the family restaurant. Stephania was at school. Now we were sure Stephie’s sister’s name was Theresa, but next we needed to find out whether her married name was Vespera.
Both the Italian Genealogical Group and the German Genealogy Group and other genealogy organizations in the New York area have been transcribing and indexing record collections held at local and regional archives. Their collection includes New York City Vital Record Birth, Marriage, and Death online, searchable indexes. Our search of the NYC death index for Theresa Vespera instantly provided a match to the funeral prayer card. We also sadly learned that Theresa’s baby was a daughter, who was born and died on September 21, 1940. She had lived exactly 11 minutes. Theresa Vespera died four days later. She was 28 years old.
Next, we needed to find Theresa Mosch’s marriage record. We found the marriage record for Theresa Mosch and Louis Vespera dated October 14, 1936 using the Bride’s Index on the same website. Further online searches provided us with additional information about her husband. According to census records, Louis Vespera owned a fruit and vegetable store on Catherine Street. I wonder if they perhaps met when he delivered produce to the restaurant? Or perhaps he came to the restaurant for lunch? Louis was an immigrant from Salerno, Italy, 21 years her senior. He had previously been married to a woman who died a few years earlier. According to the 1942 WWII Draft Registration card, filled out two years after Theresa’s death, Louis’s mother was living with him on Henry Street. Another search informed us that Louis Vespera died in Brooklyn in October 1969 at the age of 78.
We thought the only tangible evidence we have of Theresa’s existence, since Aunt Stephie is also gone now, is this prayer card.
However, as a result of reading this blog my sister just realized she in fact has a photo of Theresa and Louis Vespera and a very young Aunt Stephie along with an unidentified man who is sitting on the ground between the girls. The photo was taken in the late 1930s and appears to be taken on a trip to the country. I love how Theresa is leaning into her husband in the picture.
How fortunate we are to have this photo of the Mosch sisters taken when they were young and happy. If it wasn’t for the prayer card, some inspiration, and a little research, we might not have known who this couple was in the photo.