Catholic Schools Week during Black History Month

This week is Catholic Schools Week. And February is Black History Month. This presents us with a great opportunity to explore some issues common to both.

African-Americans and Catholic schools have had a mutually enriching experience in America. But the relationship has not been without its bumps. I’ve chosen a unique microcosm by which to explore this relationship: the education of the French Negroes of Illinois.

Randolph County, Illinois, is situated just east of St. Louis on the bank of the Mississippi River. It is one of Illinois’ first two counties, the other being St. Clair County, just to the north. Randolph County contains such historic towns as Kaskaskia, Sparta, Chester (the county seat), and Prairie du Rocher.

At Prairie du Rocher, the first settlement was Fort Chartres in about 1721. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was established there about the same time. Then, in 1722, Philip Francois Renault, acting on behalf of King Louis XV, arrived in the area to explore for gold and silver. On his way to the Illinois country, Renault had stopped at Santo Domingo to purchase 500 slaves to do the heavy lifting of his precious metals exploration.

Renault and his expedition spent 20 years looking for gold and silver and finding none. He did however find lead which is still mined to this day in eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. In 1742, Renault departed the Illinois country and headed back to France. He left behind the slaves and their descendants.

The African-descended people Renault left in the Illinois country were largely Roman Catholic, of course, because of their French cultural orientation.

It is said that the black people who lived in Randolph County, Illinois, and Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri, over the next 150 years were descendants of these slaves.

Writing in the local diocesan publication The Messenger in 1984, Father Theodore Siekmann, former pastor of St. Joseph parish at Prairie du Rocher, observed:

Philip Renault and other French Catholics of his day aimed to be humane. They did provide for the basic needs of these people. They respected their dignity as children of God, endowed with immortal souls, and deserving of spiritual care and attention.

One of the regarded values of the French Catholics was education. Unlike the English and Scots-Irish slaveholders in North America, the French  Catholics had no issue with educating their slaves. Father Siekmann writes, “the black Catholics in Prairie du Rocher had always attended Mass and received the sacraments along with the white people on an amicable basis. Indeed two of the black girls became Religious sisters, and were a credit to their religious institutes.”  These two girls were Emma Micheau and her aunt, Adelaide Francis Micheau, both of whom joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence after a basic education in the Catholic school at Prairie du Rocher. “Addie” became Sister Celestine and Emma was Sister Mary Philomena.

Much of the history of the Catholic school at Prairie du Rocher can be pieced together from Catholic directories, Illinois state documents, oral history provided by the now-elderly last generation of French Negroes to actually  reside in Prairie du Rocher, and an exchange of letters between Sister Mary Philomena and a sister of one of the orders which taught at the school.

One very useful  source is the Sadlier’s Catholic Directory, Almanac and Ordo (an “ordo” is “a list of offices and feasts of the Roman Catholic Church for each day of the year.”

Sadlier’s tells us that from 1870 to about 1896, the Catholic school-age population in Prairie du Rocher fluctuated between 75 students in 1870 to a peak of 150 pupils in 1896. Sadlier’s also indicates that during most of this period, the church and the school in Prairie du Rocher were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Alton, Illinois. In 1887, the Diocese of Belleville was established and Catholic institutions in Randolph County came within its jurisdiction.

According to Sadlier’s, during most of this time, the instruction was conducted by a “secular” teacher. In 1896, however, the Sisters of St. Dominic began to lead the instruction at the school in Prairie du Rocher.

A major source of information is a letter dated February 28, 1981, written by Sr. Philomena to Sister Mary Joan Weissler at Red Bud, Illinois. Sr. Mary Joan was a member of an order called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (“adorantes in sanguine Christi“), which has a house in Ruma, Illinois. Sr. Mary Joan apparently was writing a history of the Adorers in Illinois and Sr. Philomena was answering her inquiries.

It affords me great pleasure to assist you in gathering information for the writing of the history of your community which I have known from early childhood. . . .

Your interest and inquiries involve the French Negro families who settled in Prairie Du Rocher [Illinois]. What a great story indeed. This story to be worthwhile and true must begin with the great-grandfathers and slave ancestors of the entire black community who lived in Prairie Du Rocher in 1852 or earlier.

Sister Philomena writes that the Adorers of the Blood of Christ had taken on the mission of teaching in the school for black children in St. Joseph’s Parish in Prairie du Rocher in about 1909. The Adorers discontinued teaching in 1913 or 1914, according to Sr. Philomena.

Historian Fred J. Kerns wrote in 1916 [during the time that Sr. Philomena attended the school as Addie Micheau]:

“I visited the parochial schools at Prairie du Rocher in Randolph County some years ago. I saw many colored children attending the Roman Catholic parochial school on equal terms with the white children and without the slightest sign of segregation. “–Kern, Fred J.,
The First Two Counties of Illinois and Their People,  Papers in Illinois History and Transactions For the Year, Illinois State Historical Society, 1916, pp. 35-42 at 38.


Ironically, Kern began the reading of his paper to the Historical Society by citing the following aphorisms:

History is only a confused heap of facts.

Lord Chesterfield

So very difficult a matter it is to trace and find out the truth of anything by history.


What is history but a fable agreed upon.

Napoleon Bonaparte

All history is a lie.

Sir Robert Walpole

Illinois Historical Society Papers, 1916, at 35.

Kern’s supposed observation of black and white children attending school together in Prairie du Rocher is contradicted by a number of sources. For example, P.N. Holm, the Randolph County Superintendent of Schools, wrote in his 1874 report to the state superintendent the following:

“The colored children of country [county?] Districts are taught in the same schools with white children, if at all; but in Sparta, Chester, and Prairie du Rocher they are taught in separate schools. A majority of our people are not in favor of mixed schools; but no serious results have arisen from them yet.”

 Certainly it’s fair to say that a lot of time passed between 1874 and 1916 and further that there is a difference between public schools and private schools. But the Catholic directories further narrow the gap. The Official Catholic Directory of 1912, published by MH Wiltzius Co., clearly shows two separate Catholic schools in Prairie du Rocher. One school has 175 students and six teachers (two male lay teachers and four sisters); the other, which is identified as a school for colored children, has 12 students and one teacher (a sister).

Then, ten years later, The Official Catholic Directory for 1922, published by P.J. Kennedy & Sons, identifies the same schools. One has 177 students, two lay teachers and an unspecified number of sisters; the other is labeled the school for colored children with eight students and one lay teacher. (By the way, family lore tells us that that lay teacher is Julia Lewis Micheau – – Sr. Philomena’s aunt by marriage).

Finally, Sr. Philomena’s 1981 letter itself in several places indicates that there were separate schools for colored children and for everybody else.

Why separate schools is a good question. I never really heard an answer.
Though not the answer Sr. Philomena sought, we must remember that the Church was and is made up  of fragile human beings subject to the same pressures and prejudices as every other earthly  institution.  The question of whether “separate but equal” can ever be “separate and sufficient” had been debated all over the country for decades.
Today, we can thank God that we have the will to provide children a decent school education in our Catholic schools without regard to race.   We are thankful that  our Catholic schools are the most sought-after educational experience  in most communities. We are grateful that they are that way because of their high standards academically and in all  other respects.  And while new challenges arise daily, we know that God will reveal  the answers if we can’t figure them out and we just ask.

Pedigree Charts & Prayers for the Dead: Honoring our Catholic Faith & Family on All Souls Day

On Easter Sunday a number of years ago four generations of my family were gathered around the dining room table when we got a phone call that a cousin had died earlier that day. It was sad news – she was a much-loved member of the family who lived many states away but had visited us several times in recent years. I had only begun to get to know her over the past few years, and now she had died of cancer.

I’ll never forget the sense of emptiness I had felt that day. It was not only for her loss – but because of how my family had received the news that afternoon. We were all saddened; we all loved and missed her. We were also all Catholic. But no one initiated family prayer for her at that Easter table. Although we had a few moments of somber mood and impromptu silence, and spent some time reminiscing about our favorite memories with her, no one suggested we take the time as a family to pray. I felt the need to do so, but didn’t know how to best begin. I left that afternoon feeling as if we had not only lost a dear family member, but had missed a great opportunity – a time of family prayer together to lift to Heaven the soul of our beloved cousin.

All Souls Day - Smallest Leaf

As a genealogist, I value death & burial dates, birth & baptism dates, and marriage dates as milestones that help to record and tell the story of the lives I research. As a Catholic, these times have special meaning to me as moments of sacramental and God-given grace. The Church has time-honored traditions that we would do well to understand and to incorporate into these moments of our lives – traditional prayers for a deceased relative, for example.

My family and I missed the opportunity around the Easter table that afternoon years ago to together lift our cousin’s soul to God on the day of her death, but I still remember her and pray for her today. In fact, as All Souls Day approaches, we Catholics are reminded to renew our prayers for all of our loved ones and others who have passed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains that most of those who have died in God’s grace still need purification before they are able to enter Heaven (refer to CCC 1030). Our prayers can help these holy souls.

A previous article I wrote for The Catholic Gene explained the importance of All Souls Day to me as a Catholic genealogist (see The Catholic Genealogist’s Feast Day: Lifting Your Family Tree to Heaven on All Souls Day). A recent commenter on that article asked me for more ideas to help introduce his family to the practice of praying for their ancestors. In response to his request as we approach this year’s Feast of All Souls, I’d like to delve a little more deeply into the Church’s traditional ways of prayer and remembrance on this special day for those who have died.

Attend an All Souls Day Mass

Priests have permission to say three Masses on All Souls Day. Take your family to one and pray for your deceased family members and others in need of God’s mercy. You can find the Scripture readings from the All Souls Day Mass here. If you can’t make it to Mass, meditating on the collect for that day is a beautiful way to focus your prayers.

Collect for the Mass of All Souls

Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord,
And, as our faith in your Son,
raised from the dead, is deepened,
so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants
also find new strength.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Make an All Souls Novena & Remember the Month of the Holy Souls

The month of November is considered the Month of the Holy Souls. In addition to the collect from the Mass mentioned above, there are some beautiful age-old prayers that can be used throughout this month. The very short Requiem Aeternam (Latin for “Eternal Rest”) is a brief prayer that is easy to pray together as a family for a deceased loved one after regular meal time or other daily prayers.

Requiem Aeternam

Eternal Rest grant unto them,
O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

The De Profundis (Latin for “Out of the Depths”) is a penitential prayer straight out of the Biblical Book of Psalms – Psalm 130, to be exact. It has long been used in commemorations for those who have died.

De Profundis

Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord: Lord hear my voice. Let Thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If Thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities; Lord, who shall stand it? For with Thee there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of Thy law, I have waited for Thee, O Lord. My soul hath relied on His word: my soul hath hoped in the Lord. From the morning-watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord. Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with Him plentiful redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

V. Eternal rest give unto them. O Lord.
R. And let perpetual light shine upon them.
V. From the gate of Hell.
R. Deliver their souls, O Lord.
V. May they rest in peace.
R. Amen.
V. Lord, hear my prayer.
R. And let my cry come unto Thee.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with Thy Spirit.

Let us pray: O God, the Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful, we beseech Thee to grant to the Souls of Thy servants the remission of their sins, so that by our prayers they may obtain pardon for which they long. O Lord, Who lives and reigns, world without end. Amen. May they rest in peace. Amen.

If you’d like to get a head start on All Souls Day intentions, consider praying a novena – nine days of prayer – beginning October 24 and ending on November 1, the eve of the feast. You may use whatever prayers you choose. The De Profundis is an important part of this traditional All Souls Novena. Another website offers the traditional All Souls Novena online here with links to each day’s prayers. Another option is to pray the Chaplet for the Dead on each of the nine days. If you’d like to keep your prayers very brief, you could pray this simple All Souls Novena which uses only one short prayer a day.

Other Devotions for Those Who Have Died

The Rosary has long been a traditional way of prayer for individuals and families. It is often prayed during a wake for the deceased, and would be a beautiful way to pray at home as a family for ancestors who have passed. This would be especially appropriate during October, the Month of the Holy Rosary, which precedes November and its focus as the Month of the Holy Souls. Learn how to pray the Rosary here. When praying for those who have died, you may substitute each Glory Be prayer for the Requiem Aeternam. In place of the concluding Hail Holy Queen prayer, pray the De Profundis (Psalm 130). If you would like ideas on how to pray the Rosary with small children, visit Haley Stewart’s Can You Pray the Rosary with Little Kids in the House?

All Souls Prayers & Pedigree Charts

The Divine Mercy Chaplet is another appropriate devotion (and my personal favorite). Its shorter length makes it even easier to complete with young children present, and the plea for God’s mercy seems most appropriate when interceding for the souls of deceased loved ones. According to one of the spiritual directors of St. Faustina, with whom this devotion originated, she herself used the chaplet to pray for the souls in Purgatory. Read more about St. Faustina’s devotion in Pillars of Fire in My Soul: The Spirituality of St. Faustina by Robert Stackpole. Learn how to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet here.

You can find additional prayers for the dead and dying online here.

One more prayerful “action item” (according to Fr. Zuhlsdorf): learn about and make a plan to obtain indulgences on All Souls Day and the first week of November for those who have died. Read more about All Souls indulgences here.

Get Creative & Include the Children

As you honor the memory of your deceased family members and try to hasten their entrance into God’s full grace of Heaven through prayer, use a bit of creativity. This is particularly important if you are planning activities for your extended family. Even more so if children will be joining you.

Some traditional (and a few brand new) ways to celebrate include:

  • Print out that family tree pedigree chart and display it prominently during the month of November along with as many ancestral family photographs as you can
  • Make a Purgatory Box and include names and types of people for whom you intend to pray
  • Make a family All Souls prayer candle
  • Make and share Soul Cakes for All Souls Day (an English tradition)
  • Share food, clothing and toys with the needy (or perhaps make a donation to a charitable cause in a loved ones’ name)
  • Practice setting up a table for Extreme Unction (also known as Last Rites)
  • Make a visit to a cemetery and clean and/or decorate the graves of relatives

If you have young children and are wondering how they might take all this focus on death and dying, I encourage you to visit Kendra’s Catholic All Year blog and read these two posts: At The End, Charlotte Dies: A Reflection On Death For All Souls Day and Little Kids And Death: How Taking My Kids To A Traditional Funeral Didn’t Freak Them Out. Conclusion: getting introduced to the reality of death and our Christian hope for eternal life early on in our years is not a bad idea.

All Souls Day Family Photos

I hope that I’ve given you some new ideas and a bit of inspiration for celebrating All Souls Day within your family. As I’ve grown in my Catholic faith and have said goodbye to more extended family members over the years, my appreciation for this beautiful feast day has grown.

Florence Berger, in her 1949 book Cooking for Christ: The Liturgical Year in the Kitchen, has a beautiful way of describing the purpose of this day:

…our charity and love go out to those who, though dead, still stand and watch at Heaven’s gate before they can taste of the Lord’s feast. We turn from our gaiety [of All Saints Day the previous day] to the sombre thought that we, too, may one day be waiting at the closed lattice because we are not yet perfect. We leave our friends to visit the loneliest spot on earth: the cemeteries of the dead.

I like the traditional Lithuanian way of addressing deceased loved ones on All Souls Day:

Dear souls of the dead,
you are still remembered by my family;
you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance,
especially you, my grandparents, my parents,
also our relatives, children,
and everyone whom death
took away from our home.
I invite you to this annual feast.
We pray that this feast be agreeable to you,
just like the memory of you is to us.

I think it is quite appropriate that the Catholic focus on the Month of the Holy Souls (November) comes immediately after Family History Month (October) in the United States. I hope you’ll take this coming month to share with your family the new discoveries you may have made about your ancestors as you join together to lift their souls in prayer as a family.

Philadelphia’s Catholic History


My birthplace, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is in the midst of papal frenzy. Pope Francis will visit the city of brotherly love on September 26-27, 2015. The city is excited, mostly, although many fear the expected crowds. But Philly Catholics are especially proud that the Pope chose the city as one of three stops on his first United States tour. For those of us that grew up Catholic in Philadelphia, we believe the history of our faith is intertwined with the history of our city. Now a new film will show that rich history – just in time for the Pope’s visit!

“Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic Philadelphia” will be shown at the September 2015 World Meeting of Families. It will also air as three 25-minute segments on WPVI-TV Channel 6 (for those in the Philadelphia viewing area) and later be available for viewing online (see below).

To summarize 300 years of Catholic history in the city, the story is divided into three parts. Part 1 (airs September 22 at 7:00 pm) examines the earliest history – despite William Penn’s freedom of religion in his colony, most residents were outwardly hostile to Catholics. The first Catholic church in the city, Old St. Joseph’s, was founded in 1733. The episode will explore how the earliest parishes were built and touch on the anti-Catholic riots in the 1840s.

Part 2 (airs immediately following Part 1) focuses on the growth of the church in the city and the birth of many parishes as a result of European immigration. During this time, in addition to new churches, many schools and colleges were built and new religious orders arrived in the city to help.

Part 3 (airs on September 27 at midnight) begins in the early 20th century when the archdiocese was at its zenith to the present day’s declining numbers.

Although the documentary focuses on the city of Philadelphia, it follows the arc of the Catholic story and its history in the United States.

Full episodes will be available online on September 28 at  Find out more info about the film here. The documentary overall is a part of the larger-scale project, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.

Seeking the Flock of St. Patrick: Researching Catholic Ancestors in Ireland

The people of Ireland have long been proud of their Catholic heritage. Their beloved St. Patrick, whose feast day we celebrate this week, brought Christianity to the pagan peoples of his adopted homeland. Ireland has never looked back. In honor of St. Patrick and the Catholic faith of many of the Irish people, The Catholic Gene focuses today on searching for ancestors in Irish Catholic records.

Irish genealogy can be a difficult task to begin – particularly for those whose ancestors emigrated generations back. The first step in the process is to work with all available records for all known ancestors (and their family members) in your own country. Before you can even begin to do research in Ireland, you have to be able to focus in on the town and/or townland from which your ancestors hailed. For many of us, that location can take years to discover. Once you do make that breakthrough, however, there are a number of strategies for beginning a successful search for ancestors using Irish records.

The records of Ireland’s Roman Catholic churches can be the best starting point and can play an important role in that search. Many a beginner seeking their Irish family tree has been disheartened by the news of the 1922 fire which destroyed all of the civil records (administrative, court and probate) that had been collected nationwide and stored at the Public Record Office of Ireland (some dating back to the 13th century). Thankfully, in the majority of cases, Roman Catholic registers were kept in individual parishes and did not suffer a catastrophic loss similar to the loss of civil records. They are, therefore, a much more comprehensive resource for the genealogist researching in Ireland.

Before civil registration extended to all of the country in 1864, church records were the only registries to record family information. Although the Church of Ireland had a presence in the country, the majority of the people were Roman Catholic, and those Church records are important to many in their search for Irish roots. Throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church faced severe persecution by the state, and accurate record-keeping was not always in the best interests of the Catholic faithful. It is difficult, therefore, to find Catholic parish registers dated earlier than the 1820s. However, records can be found as far back as the 1680s in urban areas and in anglicized regions in the eastern half of Ireland, though they are rare.

Old Irish gravestones in Drumragh Graveyard

Irish Roman Catholic records with genealogical interest come in both the Latin and English languages (very rarely Irish) and are primarily limited to baptismal and marriage records. Unfortunately, burial registers for Roman Catholics are difficult to come by, and those that do exist are typically found in the northern half of the country. An interesting sidenote regarding burials in Ireland: Irish gravestones today represent only 1% of the population, so don’t count on finding too many ancestors’ gravestones in a local Catholic cemetery.

But there’s good news in Irish genealogy – very good news! First of all, not only do some of the local parishes allow access to their records, but the National Library of Ireland (NLI) and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) are also repositories for many such records. NLI has copies of almost all of the surviving registers from Irish Catholic parishes throughout the island dated earlier than 1880. (See their guide to Family History Research Sources at the NLI for more information.) PRONI has microfilmed copies for Ulster Province and beyond, including most of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan; some of Louth and Leitrim. (See their Guide to Church Records for more information.)

The incredible news for 2015 is that the National Library of Ireland and the Catholic Church are partnering to digitize their entire collection of 390,000 parish register images and make them available online later this year for free. (Talk about the luck of the Irish!)

If you can’t wait for the big online reveal by the National Library of Ireland, and also can’t make the trip in the mean time over to the National Library of Ireland yourself, try searching the LDS Family History Library Catalog. Approximately 30% of the Irish Roman Catholic Church registers have been microfilmed by the LDS – maybe you’ll find that your ancestors’ parish is within that group.

Another great resource for Irish Catholic records is the strong network of heritage centers located in each county of Ireland. Visit the Irish Family History Foundation’s Roots Ireland website for information about county heritage centers throughout the island. The site features a map indicating each heritage center by county with links to a searchable index for each heritage center with an online presence (which is most of them).

For a good start at learning which records might be available for your ancestors and where they might be located, visit the Irish Times’ Roman Catholic Records map of Ireland.

An Irish Genealogical Researcher’s Pot of Gold

The Irish diaspora throughout the world continues to keep alive a worldwide interest in Irish culture and genealogy. Thanks to strong loyalty to their ancestral land, there is a wealth of resources available to those researching their roots in the Emerald Isle.

St. Vincent’s Catholic Church, Kerry, Ireland

If you are beginning work on your Irish family tree, or you are well into the lifelong search we call genealogy, you may find the following websites and resources helpful:
• Family Search’s wiki resource page on Ireland
Irish Times’ Roman Catholic Records map of Ireland
National Library of Ireland (NLI)
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)
• Irish Family History Foundation’s Roots Ireland website
• Joe Buggy’s Townland of Origin: Irish Genealogical Research in North America
• Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogy Toolkit

Good books that can aid you in your search for Irish genealogy in Roman Catholic records include:
Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham (updated 4th edition will be published on March 30, 2012)
Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History by James Ryan
How to Trace Your Irish Ancestors by Ian Maxwell
A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland by Brian Mitchell
A Guide to Irish Parish Registers by Brian Mitchell
Guide to Irish Churches and Graveyards by Brian Mitchell

There are many well-written blogs which focus on Irish genealogy. Some of my favorites include:
• Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman’s ‘On a flesh and bone foundation:’ An Irish History
Donna Moughty’s Genealogy Blog
• Deborah Large Fox’ Help! The Faerie Folk Hid My Ancestors

You might also enjoy my own two Irish genealogy blogs: Small-leaved Shamrock and A light that shines again.

Cathedral of St. Colman in Cobh, Ireland

Article 2 of the Irish constitution states: “The Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” On this St. Patrick’s Day, as you wear your green and take pride in your family’s ties to Ireland, The Catholic Gene – and this half-Irish author – wish you the luck of the Irish upon your genealogical search.

Most of this article was previously published here at The Catholic Gene. It has been updated to reflect new available resources for Irish genealogy.

10 Reasons to be Thankful for our Catholic Family History

Eucharist (Greek – εὐχαριστία): an action of thanksgiving to God

As genealogists we have much to be thankful for.  The search for our ancestral history often helps to put our own lives into perspective: as we discover the hardships and sorrows that plagued earlier generations, our own can seem much easier to bear.

The Catholic genealogist has even more reasons to be thankful. From the tangible (ancestral photographs, sacramentals, Catholic cemeteries), to the intangible (connections with distant cousins, inspiration provided by the saints), we have a bountiful harvest of gifts before us.  As you observe the Thanksgiving holiday this week, I hope you’ll join with me in celebrating the many blessings of Catholic genealogy. Here are my top ten:

Photographs of family members receiving the sacraments at important milestones in their lives. If it weren’t for her Baptism and First Communion photos, I would have no childhood pictures of my grandmother. I’m very thankful that someone took the time to document those important moments in her life so that I could see her as a child. (She is pictured at left with her cousins and other St. Francis de Sales parish First Communicants in Mount Carbon, Pennsylvania in 1922.)

Sacramentals and holy objects become family treasures when passed down from generation to generation. There is something special about seeing an ancestor’s crucifix on the wall of your own home, holding a great-grandmother’s Rosary, or dressing a new baby in the Baptismal gown that was worn by other newborns in the family tree.

Family Bibles – part family treasure, part genealogical record – are one of every family historian’s most sought after ancestral relics. I was thrilled this year to have a cousin share with me the Douay-Rheims Catholic family Bible in his possession which had belonged to my 3rd great-grandmother, Ann Cowhey. As a genealogist, I was overjoyed to see the names and dates recorded on its pages. As a Catholic, I was inspired to be able to hold the actual Bible owned by my 3rd great-grandmother. I can imagine it sitting in her home throughout the 19th century as she raised her family and relied on her faith to sustain her through hard times.

Sacramental registers allow us to peek into the rites of passage of our Catholic ancestors – Baptism, Matrimony, even Holy Orders. Death registers were also often kept by the Catholic church. In many countries Catholic church registers existed long before any form of civil vital records – or the church records were the civil records (as was the case in Hungary until 1895).  I had a surprise when I discovered my Hungarian-born grandfather’s Baptism register and learned that his birthday was different than the one he had always celebrated!

Catholic cemeteries are the final resting places of many of the Catholic ancestors whose names and stories we learn through our search for family history. There is nothing like walking through a cemetery in search of your ancestors, and coming upon a familiar name on a gravestone. I couldn’t help but tear up during a summer visit to the Irish Catholic St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (shown here) when I discovered the grave of the daughter of my immigrant ancestors who had first settled in the area in the 19th century.  It was moving to stand and pray for her soul where her family had stood as they laid her to rest a century and a half before.

Our ancestors’ places of worship were the fields where the seeds of faith that would someday be passed down to us were first sown.  The Catholic church where several of my children were baptized has just been renovated for the third time in several decades, completely altering the interior of the building.  Yet, the parish where my great-great-grandparents worshipped in Legrad, Croatia is still very much the same as it was in their day.  I haven’t yet visited, but I’m sure I will feel right at home when I finally make the journey to the 300-year-old village church that was host to so many of my family’s special sacramental celebrations.

The fascinating history of the Catholic Church cannot help but be enthralling reading to every Catholic interested in their own family’s story as it played out against the background of history.  The struggles of the Catholic Church in Ireland against the might of the British crown figured largely within the lives of many generations of my Irish family tree.  The strength of the Hungarian and Slavic Catholics as they held up against Turkish occupation kept Europe Catholic and gave my family an inspiring legacy of faith.  If you have Catholic ancestors, chances are that they played a role in or were witnesses to events in Catholic history that read to us today like the stuff of legends.

The saints are the host of holy people that have preceded us in life and now reside in Heaven as the Church Triumphant.  We, the Church Militant, can take inspiration from their lives and ask for their intercession as we strive to join them one day.  We find inspiration in their stories, celebrate their feast days, and name our children after them.  They are like an extended family tree!

A connection to distant cousins is sometimes difficult to establlish when they live in other countries, have different ethnic and cultural traditions, and speak a foreign language. Our shared Catholic faith has allowed me to find common ground with some members of my extended family in Croatia who are parishioners of my family’s ancestral church. Despite language barriers and an ocean separating us, we have found common ground in the age-old faith of our ancestors.

And the #1 reason to be thankful for our Catholic family history:

The legacy of our beautiful Catholic faith is perhaps the greatest family treasure that a Catholic genealogist can discover. It is a spiritual gift that has been passed down to us, and we are privileged to share it with coming generations.

In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
– Saint Paul (I Thessalonians 5:18)

If you’d like to delve more deeply into your Catholic family history this holiday season, take a look at my Catholic Genealogy QuickGuide™  published by Legacy Family Tree. If you enjoyed reading this article, please take a moment to write a comment including the things that you are thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!

(Note: This article was first published here at The Catholic Gene in 2011.)

The Catholic Genealogists’ Feast Day: Lifting Your Family Tree to Heaven on All Souls Day

Since the feast of All Souls falls on a Sunday in 2014, the commemoration of this day is transferred to Monday, November 3. But don’t stop there! The entire month of November is dedicated to praying for those who have died and must atone for their sins. Print out that family tree, display those photos of your ancestors, and remember them in a special way throughout the entire month of November this year!

(Note: This article was first published here at The Catholic Gene in 2012.)

A woman visits a cemetery in Czech artist Jakub Schikaneder’s 1888 painting “All Souls Day”

If there is one day that is the holiday for Catholics who are genealogists, it is All Souls Day. This is the day that our efforts to seek out the stories of the lives of our ancestors intersects directly with our Catholic faith and our responsibility to care for the souls of others. Masses for the dead are known to have been said as far back as the 5th century, but the memorial feast dedicated to All Souls originated in the 11th century and is focused on praying for all those who have left this world in the friendship of God.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Today is the day of all days to freshly print out our family tree, display as many photographs of our ancestors as we can, and send our prayers up to God for all of those who have gone before us – those who departed from us recently and those that lived generations ago.

All Saints Day (November 1), All Souls Day (November 2) and the entire month of November have also traditionally been a time for Catholics to visit family cemeteries. In fact, in many Catholic countries you can find cemeteries decorated elaborately on the days and evenings of All Saints and All Souls with flowers and candles lit “to illuminate the way of the departed souls to Heaven”.

The grave of my great-great-grandparents and their family members in Legrad, Croatia’s Catholic Cemetery decorated with flowers and candles

Whether or not you are able to visit a family cemetery today or have time to put together a display of your ancestral photos, this is the day that every Catholic should try to attend Mass and offer it for the repose of the souls of their family members as well as others who have left this life in need of our prayers. Although not a holy day of obligation like All Saints Day, the feast of All Souls is an important one. I like how the All Souls Day page on the Catholic Culture website describes it:

The Church, after rejoicing yesterday with those of her children who have entered the glory of Heaven, today prays for all those who, in the purifying suffering of purgatory await the day when they will be joined to the company of saints…The celebration of Mass, the sacrifice of Calvary continued on our altars, has ever been for the Church the principal means of fulfilling towards the dead the great commandment of charity.

“Le jour des morts (The Day of the Dead)” by French artist William Bouguereau, 1859

Today is indeed the Catholic genealogist’s feast day. It is the day when our research into the history of our family comes full circle with our reason for living as Catholics: to lift our souls and those of our loved ones to Heaven.

Here are a few ways that you can help to renew the memory of your ancestors and assist your family in praying for your ancestors’ reception into Heaven with the saints on this All Souls Day:

    • Attend Mass. Priests have permission to say three Masses on All Souls Day. Attend at least one and pray for your family members and others in need of God’s mercy.
    • Visit a cemetery. Your local cemetery may not have a beautiful candlelight procession on the evening of All Souls Day, but making a visit to the grave(s) of your loved ones or another cemetery within your reach is a traditional and valuable way to celebrate this special feast. If you’re interested, look online to see if your local cemetery has something special planned. (Like the All Souls Event at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery which features “music, warming fires and fragrant teas comfort[ing] the living, public shrines remember[ing] the dead”, and a Celebration Hall where you can “find space and materials to craft your own personal memorials”. Sounds like my kind of event!)
    • Do a little research and say a few extra prayers. Indulgences have gotten a bad rap in the history books, but they are alive and well in the Catholic Church. It may be a good time to refresh your understanding of this special avenue of God’s grace. Making the effort to say a few extra prayers while attending Mass or visiting a cemetery on All Souls Day in addition to making the sacrament of reconciliation is a special way to remember those who have need of your prayers.
    • Print out that family tree. If you’re like me, my family tree gets additions regularly but I don’t often take the time to print out the latest version to share with the rest of my family. All Souls Day is a great time to print a fresh copy of your research, post it on the wall or put it in a book, and share it with family as you pray together for those who have passed before.
    • Bring out the photographs. Set up a display in your home of photographs of deceased loved ones to refresh your family’s memory of those that have passed. If you haven’t done so, start or finish the ancestral family photo wall project you’ve been wanting to do for so long.
    • Make or visit an online memorial. If you are like me, most of your family members are buried far away. Online memorials give us a chance to “visit” the graves of our family members without traveling. I have set up  a number of family memorials on Find A Grave and have appreciated the connections I have made through the site with locals who have taken photos of my ancestors’ gravesites. Make a visit to the site to see if memorials have been created for your ancestors. If not, take the time to set up memorial pages and upload photos of them and their gravemarkers, or request a local volunteer to take a photo for you.

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins. (2 Maccabees 12:43-44)

It is a sobering experience to contemplate the feast of All Souls, no matter how elaborately or simply you commemorate it. As Catholic genealogists we are no strangers to death certificates and cemeteries, yet the prayers and focus of All Souls Day make it hard to ignore our own personal mortality.

French artist Jules Bastien Lepage’s 1882 painting “All Souls Day” depicts a man and two children carrying wreaths for the decoration of graves at a cemetery

The Handbook of Christian Feasts of Customs by Fr. Francis Weiser shares an Austrian All Souls custom:

In Austria the holy souls are said to wander through the forests on All Souls Day, sighing and praying for their release but unable to reach the living by external means that would indicate their presence. For this reason, the children are told to pray aloud while going through the open spaces to church and cemetery, so the poor souls will have the great consolation of seeing that their invisible presence is known and their pitiful cries for help are understood and answered.

If there is any truth to this Austrian legend, I hope that our “wandering ancestors” will look into our homes this All Souls Day and see a sign that we remember them and include them within the prayers of our family.


For more ideas to incorporate into your commemoration of All Souls Day, visit Pedigree Charts & Prayers for the Dead: Honoring our Catholic Faith & Family on All Souls Day

Italians Coming to the United Kingdom


There have been Italians within the confines of the United Kingdom since Roman times, however modern immigration began with churchman, academics, artists, merchants and aristocrats from around the 13th Century. This gave way to an influx in the 19th Century with the vast majority coming from villages in the North of Italy, usually as seasonal workers who had walked across France to the French ports.

During the period of 1820 – 1850 there were approximately 4,000 Italians living in England with around half of them living in London and hailing from the Como and Lucca region’s. By the 1870s this had grown to include the regions around Parma and Liri.

Many of these migrants who came for seasonal work remained beyond the season, often marrying local women or bringing their families with them.

The London epicentre of the Italian community was known then, as now as Little Italy and is located in Clerkenwell. Across many Victorian writings there are descriptions of the cramped and poor conditions which the Italians shared with the Irish population and the English poor. The hope always being that families saved enough money to improve their living conditions, often the reality was very different.

Some of the Italian population spread across the North of England into Scotland and to Wales, although not in huge numbers. The majority remaining in London. By 1891 the Census indicates that the majority of those in London worked as street sellers and organ grinders. The Italian population in Manchester indicates that many were involved with modeling, plastering and tile makers. In Yorkshire many were involved in the cutlery industry especially around the Sheffield area. In contrast, those in Wales were involved with shipping, either working in industries that serviced shipping or as seaman on board British ships. Others worked in the coal industry, for which Wales is famous.

From the 1861 Census in Scotland we can determine that there was only 118 Italians in the region, by 1901 this had grown to a substantial 4,050. These Italian communities were becoming economically stronger often running food or ice cream venues and in some cases moving from the Cities to smaller towns.

The First World War reduced the Italian migration substantially and it remained fairly low until after the Second World War when we see a rise in Italians coming to the United Kingdom.

Some Italians came to the United Kingdom as Prisoners of War and after the war ended remained here, taking an English wife and building a new life. This then lends the way to the post war boom of immigration which often joined the earlier established Italian communities.

Furthermore, from the 1950s there was an influx from the Southern towns of Italy and Sicily. Those regions were often poor with limited work, therefore they travelled to the United Kingdom and became part of a workforce to rebuild Britain after the war. The most noticed communities are in Woking, Bedford, Nottingham and in Cambridgeshire.

Regardless of when those Italian migrants arrived they came bringing with them moments from home, recipes, traditions, language and of course their religion. They say that the Church is often at the heart of the community, and that is especially the case with the Italian population. We shall see over the rest of this 4-part series about the Italian Churches that formed as part of the wider Catholic community.

The Books They Leave Behind: Preserving Family Bibles and Religious Books


When my mother-in-law passed away several years ago, we inherited her Catholic prayer books, Bibles, and missals. Some were obviously very old, others were new and scarcely used. My husband and I carefully examined the books and found Mass cards, newspaper clippings, and other  genealogical gems. Religious books can hold a wealth of family history information, as well as clues to the faith and cultural life of the owner.

As the designated “keeper of the stuff” for my family, I have become the curator for several collections and discovered how to organize and preserve all kinds of family treasures. I share what I’ve learned in my new book, How to Archive Family Keepsakes (Family Tree Books, 2012).

Catholic Gene Author Lisa Alzo also knows what it’s like to inherit a family home and its contents, and recently reviewed my book at her genealogy blog, The Accidental Genealogist. In “For the Packrat and the Genealogist: A Review of How to Archive Family Keepsakes, Lisa writes “I wish How to Archive Family Keepsakes had been available seven years ago!” Me too! It is the handbook I needed when I inherited my first family collection.

For the past two weeks I have been on a virtual book tour with How to Archive Family Keepsakes, and am pleased to make a special stop at The Catholic Gene with this article on safely storing and organizing your family Bibles, prayer books, and religious books. Whether you inherited the treasured ancestral Bible or your great-grandmother’s leather missal, I hope you will take time to safely preserve your family keepsakes for future generations.

The Books They Leave Behind

Many family collections include printed books such as novels, Bibles, and songbooks, or handwritten volumes such as diaries, journals, or notebooks. Sometimes, treasured family keepsakes are a combination of printed pages and handwritten entries, such as found in a wedding or baby book, or a guest book from a funeral. Whether printed or handwritten, your family books will have a better chance of survival from one generation to the next when stored using archival methods.

Before storing any books, closely examine the volume for genealogical clues to your family history. You may find slips of paper or other items used as bookmarks, or written notes or comments on the pages. Family Bibles may hold a special section of Family Record pages listing Births, Marriages, and Deaths.

I overlooked a family Bible in my grandmother’s collection for many years. The badly damaged book had been set aside when I first inherited boxes of papers, photos, and documents that once belonged to four generations.


This photograph doesn’t tell the entire story. The Bible binding and pages are soft with damp and wear. The binding and most of the pages are completely loose from the leather cover. The edges are feathered and torn. It looks like the book was once completely soaked in water (flood? rain?) and never recovered. Some pages show signs of mildew.

Kinsel Bible

Kinsel Bible – inside cover

But. . .

in the center of the book, between the Old and New Testaments, right where you might expect it to be. . . I found the family record of the E.B. Kinsel Family. These pages record the Births, Marriages, and Deaths of four generations. They also give the only evidence of the birth and death of a child whose existence was previously unknown to the present generation.

Kinsel Bible Record

Family Record Pages

Where to Store Treasured Family Books

In many homes, the best, and easiest place, to store family books is with our current volumes. Your bookcase is probably located in the temperate environment of your family room, living room, or den and relatively free from dust, insects, and extreme changes in temperature or humidity.

Avoid storing books or other family keepsakes in basements, garages or attics where extreme temperature and humidity changes can cause permanent damage.

Stable bound books in good condition may be stored upright on sturdy shelving. Many hymnals and school yearbooks are candidates for this kind of simple storage. Rare, damaged, or fragile volumes, however should be stored flat and in special archival boxes. These boxes are available from museum archival suppliers, and are well worth the cost.



Purchase the right size box for your book by measuring height, width, and thickness. You want the box to fit snugly so the book does not slide around inside.

Another option is to buy (or make) an archival book wrap with flaps that fold around the sides of the book to protect all edges. This is a good choice for rare, fragile, or damaged books with loose covers or broken spines.

Fitted Book Box

Exact fit Book Box

Record the History of Your Book

Take time to write a brief history, or provenance, or your treasured books. Include the names (birth and death dates, and addresses if you know them) of previous owners. You could write the information in pencil on the flyleaf of your book, or on a piece of acid-free paper tucked inside the first pages.

If you have a large collection, you may want to catalog the books and include the ownership information in your inventory. Keep a copy in your archive or with your family history records so you remember what books you own and where they came from.

The Heirloom Registry provides another way to record the history of your family book by offering an online registration service for family heirlooms. A unique serial number is used to record history and ownership information online where future generations can find it, and other family members can share the story of your book.

Heirloom Registry numbers are available as attractive stickers or metal plaques that can be attached to a box or book. Individual serial numbers are also available, and could be penciled on the inside cover of your book. I’ve used the Registry service to record the history of a family toy chest, but the idea is the same as registering a book. You can see my Registry record and read about my research on the chest here.


  • Remove bookmarks and pressed flowers from pages of books.
  • Consider removing news clippings and replacing with photocopies on acid-free paper. The acid in newsprint can easily damage adjacent pages due from acid-migration.
  • Take care when removing upright books from shelves. Do not pull the volume by the spine; instead push back on the volumes on either side and grasp the volume to remove.
  • Avoid writing in rare or fragile books. Add identifying notes on a piece of archival paper inserted in the front of the book.
  • Use a hose attachment to vacuum your bookshelves regularly to keep dust-free.


  • Look for book and pamphlet storage options in archival catalogs.
  • Protect the cover or dust jacket with clear archival plastic covers.

from How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia & Genealogy Records by Denise May Levenick (Family Tree Books, 2012). Copyright, 2012, Denise May Levenick. All Rights Reserved.

How to Archive Family Keepsakes
Author: Denise May Levenick
Publisher: Family Tree Books, 2012
ISBN 1440322236
Paperback / eBook Family Tree Books,, Scribd, iBooks, Barnes&
10% Savings Coupon ShopFamilyTree.

Blog Book Tour

Visit the Blog Book Tour for How to Archive Family Keepsakes for author interviews, book excerpts, giveaways, and more. 

Proceeds from the sale of How to Archive Family Keepsakes during the Book Tour will help fund the 2013 Student Genealogy Grant founded in 2010 in honor of Denise’s mother, Suzanne Winsor Freeman.

About the Author

In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” Denise May Levenick is a writer, researcher, and speaker with a passion for preserving and sharing family treasures of all kinds. She is the creator of the family history blog, The Family Curator and author of the new book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records, (Family Tree Books, 2012).

Catholics, Mormons, and Genealogy

The opinions expressed below are solely those of the author.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

Papal Aide: Holy Father there is exciting news. Some of it’s good but some of it’s bad.
Pope:Okay, give me the good news first.
Aide: The Savior has returned to Earth! He’s on the telephone asking for you!
Pope: What could possibly be the bad news then?
Aide: He’s calling from Salt Lake City!

As such ecumenical matters sometimes go, relations between Catholics and Mormons have been relatively without rancor over the past several decades. Despite deep doctrinal rifts, the relationships between individual Catholics and Mormons have been free of the personal hostility which characterizes relationships between certain other denominations. In fact, the Bishop of Salt Lake City has said that Catholics and Mormons work together and get along fine in the Mormons’capital city.

But the facial peace between Catholics and Mormons has been strained by issues related to genealogy. It is well-known that the LDS church has some of the greatest genealogical information in the world in both quantity and quality. They obtain those records by going out all over the world and collecting or copying the original records. What is less well known is the doctrinal motivation for collecting ancestral records. Not being a member of the LDS church I’m hesitant to characterize their purposes other than to say that I am informed that it has to do with so-called re-baptism of non-LDS ancestors. That is the least what the Vatican knew in 2008, when the Holy Father instructed Catholic parishes not to cooperate with Mormon records seekers.

This issue had been brewing for quite a while. In 1995, Mormons and Jews reached an agreement that the LDS church would no longer “re-baptize” or “seal” Holocaust survivors that some LDS members had characterized as their ancestors. In 2001, Pope John Paul II approved a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which stated that baptism in the LDS church cannot be held to be a valid Christian baptism. The statement went on to say that because of differences between the Catholic and Mormon understandings of the Trinity, “one cannot even consider this doctrine to be a heresy arising from a false understanding of Christian doctrine.” L’Osservatore Romano, a newspaper which frequently reflects inside thinking at the Vatican said the ruling “changes the past practice of not contesting the validity of [Mormon] baptism.”  The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time was Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

Nothing much seems to have happened on this issue between 2001 and 2008. But then in January 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter which expressed “grave reservations” about the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism. A few months later, Pope Benedict XVI approved an order that each bishop should not “cooperate with the erroneous practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  Cooperation includes allowing Mormon genealogists to have access to Catholic parish records. Ironically, just 10 days after this order was approved, Pope Benedict embarked on a visit to the United States during which two Mormons participated in a papal ecumenical service. According to the Catholic news service this was the first time any member of the LDS church participated in such a service.

This is a difficult issue for a Catholic genealogist to write about.  Somewhat surprisingly, both the Vatican and the Mormon hierarchy seemed to downplay the impact of the letter on general relations between the two churches.  Father James Massa, an official of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Catholic News Service that while the order had the potential to disrupt relationships between the two churches, the Catholic Church was embarking on a new friendship with the LDS church. At about the same time a spokesman for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City said that he had not seen the order and thus could not comment on it. He went on to say “We don’t have an issue with the fact that the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize our baptisms, because we don’t recognize theirs.”  It’s a difference of belief.”

Other Catholic and LDS spokespersons further emphasized that the ban on allowing parish records to be given to LDS genealogists was not a major rift between the two denominations. The Catholic vicar general of the Diocese of Salt Lake City said that Catholics and Mormons enjoyed a long-standing mutually beneficial relationship. He said that the order concerning parish records was nothing new, because the Salt Lake diocese long had refused to give parish records to anyone “not authorized to have them.”  This policy was much broader than Mormon genealogists.

So how should Catholic genealogists react to the church’s official ban on giving Mormon genealogists access to parish records?

Here are some things to consider: first of all, the Mormons do have the greatest collection genealogical records in the world. Additionally they have been an incubator for new advanced archival technologies.  They allow free access to most of their records and have been known to create digital archives of Catholic parish records for the parish to keep.

I recall on my visit to the parish of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois in 2007, that the priest had labored alone and with great difficulty to get the parish records organized in a computer database. And before the completion of the project is computer crashed and the data was lost. Today, the records of St. Joseph parish in Prairie du Rocher  are available free of charge as part of the set of records of the diocese of Belleville, Illinois on the LDS-run site

Here are some other things to consider: the ban is directed to bishops and clergy, not to individual Catholics. So Catholic genealogists who cooperate with Mormon genealogists will not need the “Get out of Hell Free” cards available from my colleague Sheri Fenley.

Despite the ban,  seems to add new Catholic parish records every week. Curiously most of those seem to come from outside the United States.

Perhaps the LDS spokesman quoted above was on the right track. Why should we as Catholics care that the Mormons believe in something that we don’t believe in? It is, as he said, a matter of belief.

One objection to the use of records by LDS genealogists has been the complaint that some of the Mormon records are inaccurate.  Mormon leaders say that there are inconsistencies and inaccuracies primarily in the IGI. They say that they have taken steps to weed out inaccurate information in the IGI. Finally, the ban on cooperation relates only to the LDS church. No doubt there are many many other faiths with severe doctrinal differences with the Roman Catholic Church, who are not banned from examining parish records. And we’re not going to change their belief system by refusing to cooperate on genealogical records.

One of the ironies here is that the Catholic Church once had the biggest collection of genealogical records in the world. They weren’t centralized  like the LDS records are. But for many centuries, the only place that genealogical records were kept was in the local church.  After the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant churches alike continued to be the main repositories of genealogical records. Civil involvement in matters of birth, marriage and death is a relatively new phenomenon.

Because Catholic records aren’t centralized, there was an opportunity for cooperation that could have led to greater accessibility of Catholic records to historians, genealogists and the general public.

In 2008 I wrote:

“The LDS Church has been more than generous in sharing their extremely costly research endeavors with the world at little or no cost. I would hope that my church, had it been in their shoes, would be as magnanimous. In fact, what the Mormons have done is downright Christian. . .

” . . .  Catholics and our faith are actually strengthened in a way by knowing and understanding our past and appreciating our ancestors. Curiously, we have the Mormons to thank for that.” See Catholics, Mormons at Odds Over Genealogical Records?  at GeneaBlogie.

That’s still my thinking on the matter.  What do you think?

Also posted at GeneaBlogie

A forest path and a favorite rock: Our happy discovery of the stomping grounds of a saint

Playing in the Grotto's spring waterIt was by happy accident that my family and I wandered into St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s old stomping grounds: a forested oasis of solitude a little over an hour away from the busy metropolis of our nation’s capital. We had spent a hectic and exciting series of days in Washington D.C., and were now on our way to spend the rest of the week on a little tour through Pennsylvania. We planned to stay our first night in Gettysburg. How to get there? We spontaneously decided on driving through Emmitsburg, Maryland and possibly making a stop at the National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes.

Our little detour turned out to be a beautiful way to spend the afternoon. After a short drive up Mount St. Mary’s, we parked, entered the gates and walked down the forested path edged by a series of shrines and statues: corners for prayer and meditation inspired by Jesus, Mary and many of the saints.

Our Lady of Guadalupe welcomes pilgrims at the gate

Our Lady of Guadalupe welcomes pilgrims at the gate

The Assumption of Mary

The Assumption of Mary

The Crucifixion of Jesus

The Crucifixion of Jesus

St. Louis Marie de Montfort

St. Louis Marie de Montfort

We had the place almost to ourselves. The kids loved the long walk into the woods and the discovery of each new treasure along the way, including the pool of spring water near the end that had the look of Tolkien’s Lothlorien.

The Grotto’s water comes directly from Mary’s mountain creek

The Grotto’s water comes directly from Mary’s mountain creek

At the very end of our walk, we found the anticipated Lourdes Grotto – the oldest known replica of Lourdes which dates back to 1875. (Although, believe it or not, we didn’t get a nice photo of it.)

We also found another little surprise. At the conclusion of our walk, just before the beautiful Lourdes Grotto, we found a historical marker noting “Mother Seton’s Rock”.

Plaque indicating Mother Seton's Rock

Here, between the grotto and a quaint little chapel, was the spot where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had spent many Sunday afternoons teaching children of the mountain parish in the early 19th century.

Mother Seton's Rock

My own children were thrilled to have the chance to sit on the very rock that she had, and to get a taste of the humble life she lived and the natural surroundings in which she spent many of her afternoons sharing her faith with others.

“Seek God in All Things”: Mother Seton, American Saint

Portrait of Elizabeth from a locket given to her husband William Seton, property of Sisters of Charity, Mount St. Vincent, NYC

Portrait of Elizabeth from a locket given to her husband William Seton, property of Sisters of Charity, Mount St. Vincent, NYC

Today St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is an inspiration to many – to mothers, to teachers, to religious sisters, to those who serve the sick, to converts, to those in many walks of life.  But as a young woman, she probably never imagined that her life would take the turns it did and that she would be remembered by so many people centuries after her death.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born into a wealthy Episcopal family in New York City in 1774, two years before the United States Declaration of Independence. (Read about her and her husband’s genealogy on this Emmitsburg Area Historical Society webpage.)

A child of privilege, young Eliza went on to face much adversity during her short life.  By the time of her death at age 46 from tuberculosis, she had suffered many sorrows.  When she was 3 years of age, her mother died. As a teenager, she was all but abandoned by her father and step-mother.  As a wife and mother, she suffered the death of her husband William Seton, faced destitution with no means to care for her five children, and mourned the loss of two of her children. Yet, despite these struggles, Eliza kept her peace and trust in God.

Elizabeth (Bayley) Seton's home in lower Manhattan still stands today

Elizabeth (Bayley) Seton’s home in lower Manhattan still stands today

After converting to Catholicism thanks to the inspiration of Italian Catholic family friends, Elizabeth (Bayley) Seton went on to leave an incredible legacy of faith in American Catholicism.  She founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s (the first Catholic religious order to originate in the United States, which after her death became linked with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul).  She founded the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, which many point to as the beginnings of the parochial school system in the United States.  In 1975, Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American citizen to be declared a saint.

In 1809 Elizabeth formed the Sisters of St. Joseph, took her vows, and began to wear a habit modeled after the Italian widow's dress and bonnet she had worn while mourning the death of her husband

In 1809 Elizabeth formed the Sisters of St. Joseph, took her vows, and began to wear a habit modeled after the Italian widow’s dress and bonnet she had worn while mourning the death of her husband

Elizabeth became known as Mother Seton after her move to Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809 to found the St. Joseph’s Catholic school for girls. She had a true heart for the souls of children, as evidenced by her Sunday lessons “from the rock”, and many letters she wrote to her own daughters and to other young girls in her care.

Here is an example – a letter Elizabeth wrote to her youngest sister-in-law Cecilia which includes a sweet little poem.

Let your chief study be to acquaint yourself with God because there is nothing greater than God, and because it is the only knowledge which can fill the Heart with a Peace and joy, which nothing can disturb – Father of all Beings how extensive are thy mercies! How great how inexpressible. It is in Thee we live and move and have our being . . . Thy paternal cares are over all mankind. . . .

As a little child relies
on a care beyond his own
knows he’s neither strong nor wise
fears to stir a step alone
let me thus with Thee abide
as my Father guard and guide.

– Elizabeth Ann Seton, letter to her sister-in-law Cecilia Seton, November 19, 1802

I loved reading Elizabeth’s letter to her firstborn daughter Anna Maria (Annina) on her eighth birthday:

This is your Birth day – the day that I first held you in my arms – May God Almighty Bless you my Child and make you his Child forever – your Mother’s Soul prays to Him to lead you through this world, so that we may come to his Heavenly Kingdom in Peace, through the merits of our blessed Saviour.

– Elizabeth Ann Seton, letter to her daughter Anna Maria (Annina) Seton, May 3, 1803

One more example of Elizabeth’s correspondence – a letter giving spiritual direction to one of her former students, reminding her of the religious education she received at her First Communion and encouraging her to place God at the center of her life:

God bless you, my loved child, Remember Mother’s [Elizabeth’s] first and last lesson to you: seek God in all things. In all your actions submit your motives to this unerring test: ‘Will this be approved by God’s all-seeing eye?’

– Elizabeth Ann Seton, letter to a former student, about 1818

Our family was blessed to become a little better acquainted with this holy woman as we made our visit to Mother Seton’s former hometown in this beautiful area of Maryland during our drive that day. From the back of the little chapel that sits just a stone’s throw from “Mother Seton’s Rock”, a statue of her likeness overlooks that spot where for many years she gathered children of the mountain parish on Sunday afternoons to teach them the Catholic faith.

Statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on the back of the Corpus Christi Chapel overlooking "Mother Seton's Rock" (built in 1906 to replace the original)

Statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on the back of the Corpus Christi Chapel overlooking “Mother Seton’s Rock” (built in 1906 to replace the original)

For more about St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life, her shrines and memorials, visit: