April 25, 2005 12:00 PM

Why did Courteney Cox Arquette choose Jennifer Aniston to be godmother to Coco Riley, her 10-month-old daughter with actor David Arquette? Consider it just another fundamental sign of the Friends stars’ enduring friendship–and maybe a sort of gift, a chance for Aniston to find a happy reprieve during a rough stretch. “Jennifer has the biggest heart,” Cox tells PEOPLE, “and there could be no better godmother.”

After flying from Los Angeles to Birmingham, Ala., on a Friday afternoon, Aniston and the Cox Arquettes the next day stood by the baptismal font of St. Stephen’s, the suburban Episcopal parish where Birmingham native Cox attended Sunday services as a girl.

Dressed in a summery flower-patterned dress, Aniston, 36, occasionally held little Coco and smiled as the Rev. Doug Carpenter, who married Cox and Arquette in San Francisco in 1999 and has known Cox’s family for years, trickled holy water onto the baby’s forehead. “We all passed her around, like a family,” Carpenter says. When the minister asked Aniston to provide moral guidance to her former costar’s first child, she quietly answered, “I will.”

As Carpenter gave a brief sermon to the crowd of 110 (David Arquette’s pal James R. Stine was tapped to fill the role of godfather but couldn’t make the ceremony), he addressed Cox, 40, and Arquette, 33. “I reminded them, since they are all so visible to the whole world, it is important for the world to know they have a good marriage,” says Carpenter. “And it is important for the world to see they are good parents.”

He didn’t mention it, but Coco’s parents have lately been showing the world something else as well: how to stand by your pal. Asked how Aniston has been faring since her marriage to Brad Pitt ended, Cox answers, “She’s great.” In Birmingham they all spent time relaxing and laughing with Cox’s mother, Courteney Copeland, and stepfather Hunter Copeland. When the group went to dine at Highlands Bar & Grill, both actresses ordered the same house specialty, a side dish of creamy stone-ground grits. “They are like sisters,” says Carpenter. “There’s a genuine closeness there.”

It has been that way, of course, for more than a decade, since the fledgling stars first hit it off during their audition for Friends in 1994. Then came the salad days of sitcom fame. The duo vacationed together, lunched together at the NBC commissary, even plucked each other’s eyebrows. They attended each other’s weddings and, now famously, rang in New Year’s 2005 with their husbands on the island of Anguilla just before Aniston and Pitt returned to Los Angeles with news of the separation. Since then, Aniston has found frequent shelter and sympathy at Cox’s home in Malibu. “I think it’s the most beautiful thing,” Aniston told PEOPLE last year, “when women come together.” Especially when they stay. “It is a good friendship,” says the Rev. Carpenter. “I am sure it will last.”

Tom Gliatto and Allison Adato. Nancy Wilstach in Birmingham, KC Baker, Mary Green and Lisa Ingrassia in New York City and Chris Gardner, Pamela Warrick and Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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