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Family historians find their way with help from Mormon records

Monday, April 05, 1999

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a small room at the Church of Latter-day Saints in Green Tree, you may find Pat Stavovy huddled over one of nearly a dozen microfilm machines searching for clues to her past.

 
  Head librarian Jeri Potts adds new microfilm shipped from Salt Lake City to the files at the family history center at the Church of Latter-day Saints in Green Tree. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

"I've been compiling my family history for 27 years," said the resident of Canton, Washington County. She has 12 books of notes, a collection of small maps and dozens of photographs that connect her to her roots.

Stavovy, 50, is no stranger to looking into yesteryear. Her job as an assistant law librarian for the Washington County Courthouse has her directing people to legal sources, genealogy documents and other records all the time.

Her work has taught her that in trying to uncover your ancestors, you need to "fish with a big net." For Stavovy, that has meant reaching out to cousins, family friends and - even though she's not a Mormon - the family history centers run by the Church of Latter-day Saints, where family and lineage have always been a focus of the faith.

By tracking down their ancestry, Mormons believe it is possible to offer the souls of deceased family members who were not part of the church a way into their religious community.

This belief has led them to compile the fullest genealogical records in the world.

The church maintains 3,200 family history centers across the globe, including 1,700 in the United States. Some centers are large and complex, like libraries, while others house only one computer.

There are four family history centers in the Pittsburgh area - in Mormon churches in Green Tree, Indiana County, Washington County and Butler County. Having access to any and their volumes of resources is like having the past at your fingertips.

The centerpiece of the Mormon archives is the ancestral file, which is continually updated on computer and contains 35.6 million names linked to various family trees. It grows by 5,000 rolls of microfilm and 1,000 books - anything related to individual family history, state histories or genealogy - a month. There are more than 2 million rolls of microfilm including information on baptisms, deaths, governmental records and public census information from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Vasterhaninge, Sweden.

 
  Related link:

Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints Family History Center online, including an interactive page for finding Family History Centers around the world.

   
 

The files, the majority of them British and European records, reach back into the early 1500s.

There is also the international genealogical index, a computerized list that contains about 300 million individual names.

Documents such as microfilmed copies of birth and marriage certificates and such things as slave and tax records are also accessible through the centers. Currently, the church is working to obtain and put on microfilm the Ellis Island records, which show that 25 million European immigrants passed through the New York port on their way to making a life in America. The centers are also finishing up a 17-year task of putting the 1880 U.S. census on CD-ROM.

That census is significant to many Americans because it could provide a link with ancestors who may have been part of the heavy immigration that was occurring at that time.

According to church officials, it is also the first year the U.S. census lists heads of families and records relationships of all the members of a particular household.


A growing habit

Meanwhile, in homes across the country, checking out the family tree flourishes as a pastime. Reportedly, it is the third most popular hobby in the United States, falling behind coin and stamp collecting.

The pursuit of the past rustles a lot of pages at the Mormon history centers. At the main branch in Salt Lake City, it is estimated that nearly 3,000 people a day use the archives and close to 80 percent of them are not church members, said Dan Rascon, a Utah-based spokesman for the church.

 
  Norma Doyle and Paul McCauley, both assistant librarians at the Church of Latter-day Saints in Green Tree, look through microfilm. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Like any good record-keeping system, there's a backup in place. About 25 miles from the church's master library in Salt Lake City is a vault containing duplicate records that are protected by a massive steel door and buried under a 700-foot granite mountain that should withstand nuclear - or other - attack.

Locally, the history centers are simple, user-friendly affairs, where information can be accessed or ordered from the Salt Lake City center.

For those just delving into their past, a recently released CD-ROM from the Church of Latter-day Saints may lighten the load even more.

The CD - "Guide to Help You Find Your Ancestors" - doesn't pinpoint individuals, but it does display the types of records and sources you'll need to find what you're looking for.

"Like having a librarian at your side, it'll help you get where you're going," said Rascon.


In the beginning

The world's nearly 10 million Mormons - 5 million live in the United States and about 5,000 in the Pittsburgh region - track the family orientation of their religion to its beginnings in spring 1820. According to church beliefs, that's when God appeared to 14-year-old Joseph Smith in a wooded grove in Palmyra, N.Y.

Church doctrine teaches that God the Father, and his son, Jesus Christ, appeared before the young man and commanded him not to join any of the existing churches, revealing that through him God would restore to Earth the church as originally begun by Jesus Christ.

By 1827, Smith lived for awhile with his father-in-law in Central Pennsylvania in what is now Oakland Township in Susquehanna County. Shortly afterward, he left for a small cabin on an adjacent farm. It was there that scripture was given to him on metal tablets by a resurrected being named Moroni. God enabled Smith to decipher the tablets, which became the Book of Mormon and contains accounts of Jesus' ministry in America after he was resurrected in Jerusalem.

Officially, the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints was organized April 6, 1830, in Fayette, N.Y. Latter-day Saints, while Christian, are neither Catholic nor Protestant. Key to their doctrine is that God the Father, his son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost make up the God Head. They are one in purpose but separate in being.

Church doctrine also reveals that family unity in this life and in eternity is at the core of the gospel of Jesus.

According to Stephen Beus, president of the Pittsburgh congregation, a body of 11 churches, marriages are sealed "in earthly and eternal unions," an assurance, he said, that couples will be together forever. Marriage with multiple partners, once recognized by the Mormon church, has been prohibited since 1890.

There is also scriptural evidence, Beus added, that there can be spiritual progeny after this life.

The tenet that family is paramount and everlasting is what pushed the Church of Latter-day Saints into genealogy.

Latter-day Saints believe the true church was lost with the death of Christ's 12 apostles, said Jan Shipps, an Indiana historian who has studied the Mormon church.

As a result, she said, anyone who died before the church's restoration in the 19th century didn't have access to redemption.

To address that, church members believe it is necessary to search out ancestors in order that the living may serve as proxies in carrying out certain rites of salvation for the dead.

What's important to remember, said Shipps, is that the secret rituals of proxy baptisms only provide the dead souls with the opportunity to join Mormons in the "great congregation in the sky." It's an offer the souls can reject.

About five years ago, their "baptism of the dead" caused a brouhaha in the Jewish community when it was discovered that Latter-day Saints were offering to baptize the souls of Jewish Holocaust victims into the Mormon church. Jewish leaders complained and Mormon officials ordered the baptisms to stop. As a result, the names of 380,000 Holocaust victims were purged from the genealogy list.

It also caused Latter-day Saints church leaders to scale back on proffering the gospel to the deceased. Now the baptisms are offered only to the ancestors of current Mormons and to other families that agree to the immersion for their progenitors.

This is a marked departure from the earlier days of the restored church when Mormons would freely present names of the deceased from all faiths and offer baptism into the church.

For a non-Mormon such as Stavovy, finding links to her past wasn't part of a religious plan, but she was welcomed at a family history center without hesitation.

The Green Tree facility gave her overseas documents that reached back at least five generations and located the baptism record of Casper Ritchie, a Swiss relative of her grandmother's father.

The information helped her to build upon the history that had been passed down by her husband's grandfather, who had done his own research.

"He was able to travel and talk to people," said Stavovy, who can't do that because of job and family responsibilities. So, the centers offer her the chance to "play catch-up."



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