Death is what usually prompts people to begin researching their family’s history, says board-certified genealogist Connie Lenzen, who is also vice president of the Oregon Catholic Historical Society.
“Most of the time,” says her husband Gerry Lenzen, who also has been bitten by the genealogy bug.
The two often can be found in Southeast Portland at the Genealogical Forum of Oregon, a library and genealogical center for both professional and neophyte genealogists.
“We do a lot of hand-holding here,” says Lenzen.
People share that they want to keep the memory of their loved ones alive. “There’s a feeling that as long as they’re not forgotten, then they’re not totally gone,” Lenzen says.
Her clients also mourn that they never took the time to talk with their departed loved one about family history and ancestors. Once their father or grandmother is gone, the survivor is driven to learn it anyway.
Lenzen, a parishioner at St. John Fisher in Portland, can understand the need to investigate: The stories of ancestors bring history alive for her and prove a never-ending source of intrigue.
Lenzen’s work has also informed her family. Her granddaughter at Seattle University says she knows far more about history than her peers.
That’s because Lenzen placed their ancestors in the context of the era, making history real because it truly happened to a grandfather or great-grandmother.
The stories figure into wider history. For instance, Lenzen’s grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, likely suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome. That probably explains his inability to keep a job.
“Bobby Burns was chopped to pieces,” the grandfather wrote in his diary one day.
That was the last entry he ever made.
Funerals also bring another kind of contact to the center, one that’s harder for Lenzen to fathom. People drop off boxes filled with old family photos and genealogical research done by the deceased. No one wants the stuff.
Lenzen understands the point of de-cluttering. “For socks,” she says. “Not for family history.”
Still, she’s grateful that those donating the boxes aren’t just recycling them. Volunteers at the center sift through the information, scanning pages and photos to save them.
When a loved one’s passing awakens an interest in genealogy, the learning curve can feel daunting. Lenzen says the internet is the right place to start, specifically cemeteries.
New researchers should know about Find a Grave (findagrave.com) and BillionGraves (billiongraves.com).
Lenzen cautions that genealogical discoveries found on the internet should always be verified from the source.
Tim Corbett, director of the archdiocese’s cemeteries, seconds that. “The information isn’t always accurate,” he says.
Once an ancestor’s grave has been located, calling or visiting the cemetery comes next. Cemeteries often have additional information.
Mount Calvary cemeteries in Portland and Eugene and Gethsemani in Portland, like many cemeteries, have established a searchable database (ccpdxor.com/search-our-database) and have staff who can help people find family graves and also information associated with the grave.
However, “the further you go back in time, the less we have,” says Corbett. “And we’re often asked to provide contact information, which we can’t do. We’re more aimed at helping find a loved one’s gravesite.”
Cemeteries can also often say which funeral home was involved.
“We can give information that has already been made public, like the obituary,” says Davis LaMuerta, funeral director at Caldwell’s Hennessy Goetch and McGee in Portland.
Between the cemetery and mortuary, researchers often can discover where the deceased went to Mass. However, various churches and dioceses have differing norms on sharing baptismal, marriage and death information. The Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, has searchable online databases up until the year 1900. The Church of Latter-day Saints volunteers preserve as many records — of people of all faiths and none — in its huge database of ancestry (familysearch.org), another free and fertile source of information for genealogists
The Archdiocese of Portland’s records prior to Jan. 1, 1930, are available to genealogical researchers; requests must be submitted by mail.
Once new researchers have a finger hold on an ancestor or two, a visit to the Genealogical Forum of Oregon might be in order, either to their website (gfo.org) or to their massive library, secreted away in the basement of the Ford Building in Southeast Portland. Here long stacks of genealogical resources reach into distant corners with 40,000 books, maps, audiotapes, CDs, DVDs, city directories, microfilm, microfiche and more.
This is where ancestors might begin to take on life, and where a grandfather’s experiences might begin to come alive.
“Do we have any witches in our family?” another grandchild once asked Lenzen.
She looked into it and sure enough. There was a witch — or at least an ancestor accused of it.
“We like the stories,” says Lenzen. “The stories help us understand history, our family and ourselves.”