Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Prokopowicz Surname

Although I myself am descended from two distinct Prokopowicz families, for most of my life I was under the impression that this was an unusual or rare Polish name. I had never encountered it outside of Worcester, or outside of my own families. Combing through Soundex cards at the National Archives in Waltham, Mass., in my early days in genealogy, I was quite surprised to find some 187 records of Prokopowicz arrivals at Ellis Island. There may have been more; my hand was cramped from note-taking and my mind was reeling, so I stopped at that point. (Today I could get a speedy, effortless, more accurate count via Steve Morse's invaluable Web site, I was thrilled to have located the arrival data for my maternal grandfather, Aleksandr Prokopowicz, especially since my mother had always maintained that "no one in our family came through Ellis Island."

The notion of 200 or so Prokopowiczes was overwhelming: Who were they all? Where did they come from? How many, if any, were related to me? What did this surname mean? I conducted as much of an investigation as the reference room at the Auburn (Maine) Public Library could provide. Later I summarized my findings in a quarterly newsletter, Prokopowicz Lives & Times, which I had begun for my paternal family. This is what I had learned:

The root of Prokopowicz is a Greek first name, Prokopios/Procopius/Procopio, which comes from the root words pro, meaning "before, in front," and kope, meaning "cut." Prokopios signifies "advance, progress," or someone who is a pioneer. The name became widely known in 303 CE when an early Christian named Prokopios suffered martyrdom in Palestine during the persecutions dictated by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. This early martyr was greatly venerated in the Orthodox Church. A first name derived from Prokopios is Prokop. As Greeks emigrated to Russia, Prokop became Prokofi.

In the 11th century, another Prokop founded the Sazaba Abbey in Prague. He became the patron saint of Bohemia. Much of the popularity of Prokop as a first name in eastern Europe may be traced back to the veneration of this saint. As various cultures there embraced the name Prokop, it took on new forms and spellings, including Brokof in German, Prokupek and Prucha in Czech, and Prokopczyk in Polish.

Thousands of Prokopowiczes, not necessarily related

Surnames evolved in more recent centuries, and one common type in eastern Europe was the patronymic—a name that signified parentage by combining a father's first name with an ending that meant "the son of." Thus, Prokopowicz developed to indicate someone who was "the son of Prokop," akin to Johnson standing for "the son of John." Just as there were many men named John and Johnson, there were many named Prokop and Prokopowicz. Without documentation of lineage through the usual genealogical sources, particularly birth and marriage records, or without DNA confirmation of blood ties, there's really no reason to assume that all people who bear the same surname are related.

According to A Dictionary of Surnames, -ovich was the standard patronymic ending in what are now Belarus (formerly Bialorus, Byelorussia, or White Ruthenia) and Ukraine (eastern Galicia, Red Ruthenia). Poles familiarly refer to this region as the kresy—the eastern borderlands of Poland during the interwar years, 1922-39, and earlier, from the 14th century until the late-18th-century partitions, part of the Kingdom of Poland and the subsequent Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Authors Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges say that -owicz is an "explicitly Polish" surname ending. William F. Hoffman in Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, 2nd ed., rev., reports that 2,737 residents of Poland in 1990 bore the name Prokopowicz. To my knowledge, no tally exists for its occurrence in Belarus, Lithuania, or Ukraine, where it is found as well.

At any rate, there are thousands of Prokopowiczes worldwide today, and records of who knows how many in church and civil records of the past. I have paid closest attention to the ones listed in my chief genealogical resource, microfilms of 18th-19th-century baptismal, marriage, and death records of the Lida and Radun dekanaty (deaneries, or groups of parishes) of the old Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilno. The Prokopowicz surname appears in a number of parishes whose churches are often within walking distance of one another; the parishioners' home villages were equally close. Among them all, who was related? Puzzling this out is an ongoing project. One of my goals for the coming weeks is to consolidate my parish findings and share them here.

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