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.  At Donna Pointkouski’s suggestion, I’ve made a list of the things that I most appreciate about my Catholic family history.  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 thrilled to see the names and dates recorded on its pages. As a Catholic, it was inspiring 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 share an interest in Catholic family history and you enjoyed reading this article, please take a moment to write a comment including the things that you are thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!