Local Mormon genealogy centre keeps the family together forever

The Record, Canada/December 19, 2009

Kitchener - Some families can't get enough of gathering around the dinner table for each and every holiday.

For others, the time spent with parents and siblings, aunts and uncles just feels like an eternity.

But for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), keeping the family together forever is among their principal pursuits - and they have the resources to help them.

Since 1986, the Latter-day Saints Church at the corner of Lorraine Avenue and River Road in Kitchener has been a gold mine for people trying to trace their family histories.

According to the church, the local Family History Centre is just one of about 4,600 similar centres in 132 countries around the world.

The search for long-lost ancestors leads visitors to a dimly lit room. Contraptions lining one wall allow local sleuths to view rolls of microfilm, or sheets of microfiche, containing parish records, census data, land registries and a dizzying list of other information sources.

Volunteers staffing the centre can help genealogy rookies choose a sound methodology for conducting searches that often yield long lists of names that can be hard to manage.

Steel cabinets in a nearby room contain records from southern Ontario. But if someone is looking for baptismal records from a tiny church in Bavaria, for a small fee they can request that microfilms or microfiches be shipped to the local centre.

A giant vault carved into a mountain near the Mormons' worldwide headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, contains 2.4 million microfilms of information from parish records, census data, land registries and a dizzying list of other information sources.

Information is currently being collected by 185 two-person teams of volunteers working in 45 countries. Most volunteers are church members. Most are using mostly digital cameras and flatbed scanners to reproduce the records without taking them off site. The work to record information from a particular archive doesn't begin unless the archive's authorities have granted their permission.

Don Wright is among the regulars at the Kitchener centre.

His mother had just one brother and his dad was an only child, Wright said during a recent interview.

So he didn't expect to find many people in his family when he started tracing his roots in the late 1970s.

"All I had was two cousins, that's it," he said. "I didn't think we had much of a family."

What a difference three decades makes.

Now, he has 30,000 names from both sides of his family, said Wright.

In the process of mining countless historic archives, Wright has uncovered some gems.

He discovered a family album from the 1820s that included information on a 17th-century ancestor named Nathaniel Ely.

Wright also found a photo of a bronze plaque bearing the names of 25 men who founded the settlement that eventually became Hartford, Conn. Ely's name was among them.

The family album also contained a reproduction of Ely's signature from a ledger from a corn mill.

"It's really something special to have a signature from the 1600s," Wright said.

He didn't always have such a heap of information about his family.

Wright said the first two decades of his search didn't even glean 1,000 names.

One of his first forays into genealogy, a car trip to find the graves of three men in New York State, took Wright three days. And when he arrived at the cemetery he couldn't read the gravestones because the inscriptions had dissolved many years earlier.

It took cemetery staff to find the records and learn the names and dates of the men whose remains were in those graves.

Now, anyone with a computer and internet connection can conduct lots of research from the comfort of their homes.

Wright said he can now view maps for many cemeteries without spending much time or money.

The search that took three days in the early 1980s takes about three minutes these days, he said.

But as one poster on a bulletin board at the Family History Centre reminds visitors - the poster bears the drawing of an iceberg with its vast bulk below the surface - only a small portion of archives that exist are available on the internet.

"When you get dead ends, you come here," said Wright, standing in Kitchener's Family History Centre.

As Wright thumbed a 15-page list of names of his ancestors, just from his mother's side, two women chatted in the hallway.

Neither of them were church members, but they met at the history centre about five years ago. While reading a land registry document, one of the women realized they were related by marriage.

But for Latter-day Saints Church members, tracing family roots isn't just a passion or a pastime -finding unbaptized ancestors is an obligation, said Don Crawford.

Crawford, the Kitchener centre's director, said the Latter-day Saints believe their families can be sealed together forever in the afterlife.

It's a notion based on verses from the Bible's Book of Malachi 4:5-6 that read: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the Earth with a curse."

The curse, Crawford said, is being without family relationships.

The church teaches that in 1836 the prophet Elijah appeared to the church's founder Joseph Smith and gave the church the power to seal family relationships forever.

But a condition of being bound together for an eternity is that their souls must first be baptized into the church.

Those who lived and died long before the church's founding can still be baptized, Crawford said.

However, the process must be started by Mormons here on Earth.

As ancestors are identified, church members in good standing can attend Latter-day Saints temples and undergo rituals to obtain various "ordinances" - including baptism, confirmation, eternally sealing of husband and wives to each other and to their children - on behalf of the ancestors.

Then it's up to the ancestors in the spirit world to decide whether or not they will accept the ordinances, Crawford said.

"They're not obligated to accept it," he said. "It's all voluntary. There's no force involved in any of this stuff."

But the practice outraged Jewish groups after some church members posthumously baptized Jewish Holocaust victims including Anne Frank.

After discussions between Jewish groups and church officials, the practice was stopped in 1995. The church also agreed to remove about 380,000 names of Jews from its database for whom posthumous baptisms had been conducted.

Crawford said the church doesn't allow its members to initiate ordinance ceremonies for deceased people who aren't their own ancestors.

However, Crawford added, he is allowed to be a proxy for the dead if he receives a request from one of the deceased person's relatives.

Crawford said he has undergone ceremonies for about 1,500 people, nearly all his own ancestors, so far.

He stressed it's up to them whether or not they will accept.

"You never know," said Crawford. "I just did my duty."

The Family History Centre is located at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 10 Lorraine Ave. in Kitchener.

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