A spiritual family tree

Genealogical research can be addictive, especially when you can do it on your computer late at night. When I decided to dig into family history, the internet was my first stop. Sure, I had seen those Ancestry.com ads on television, recounting heartwarming stories all made possible by getting your “first leaf.” But I didn’t understand that rush of excitement until I saw my grandparents names and ages handwritten on a list by a 1920 census taker, and my husband’s great-grandfather’s signature on a US passport application.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve discovered a treasure trove of information. I knew very little about my father’s side, and some of what I did know, has turned out to be wrong. I had always heard that his mother was Dutch. But another person on the website had researched an overlapping ancestor, and had been able to trace them back to an area of Germany near France and Luxembourg. Because of the work she has compiled, I now have that branch all the way back to the 1500s! Similarly, I now know that my paternal grandfather’s family arrived here before 1700, and that they weren’t English or Scots-Irish, as I had been told, but Welsh. When I finally saw the name of someone who had died here, but was born in Wales, I knew why almost every generation of Potts’ had a son named David. David is the patron saint of Wales.

On my mother’s side, I’ve been able to go further back than I thought would be possible without traveling overseas to knock on the doors of village homes and parishes. With the help of others who share a common ancestral thread, I have not only names, but some addresses. It’s amazing that I can actually see my great-grandfather’s little village--population 27--on Google Earth.

Some of the people who have helped me were happy to get the information that I had. Searching my grandmother’s maiden name on Facebook put me in contact with a distant Slovenian relative who now lives in Dublin. He had visited my great-grandfather’s little village, but didn’t know which of the eight or nine houses was the family home. No one there could tell him for sure. But my mother’s cousin had sent me a copy of a list of all our ancestors who were born there. At the top of that page, written in 1931, was the house number.

At this point, I have over five hundred people listed on my family tree. Some lived long lives in interesting times, and others died in childhood or childbirth. Some lived the entirety of their lives in the same house. Others travelled across oceans in search of a new life. I have known a very small number of them personally; most are only names to me. Yet, all of them have contributed something to my existence, my place in history, my green eyes, and small feet, and singing voice.

What continually astonishes me is that behind every name is a real human person; one who had faults and gifts, a favorite food, a special song, a nasty neighbor and a best friend. Every one of them had something he or she loved to do, and someone he or she loved best of all. Some of them were active in their churches, others not. Some were loud and lively, others quiet. They lived their lives, bore the consequences of their choices, hoped and dreamed and worked. And when they departed this world, they left behind them a stream of human history that continued to flow into the future well beyond them.

To me, reading the list of my ancestors’ names feels a lot like hearing the First Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. Cosmos and Damian, Perpetua, Felicity and Agnes: we recite the names of people we have never met, and don’t know much about. Yet, they have all contributed to who we are as Church. And they gather with us around the altar of Christ.

All the saints, canonized and not, are a spiritual family tree for every Christian. They had their own personalities and tastes, predilections and opinions, sins and sanctity. We may know very little about them. But we are part of the same stream of God’s Kingdom that flows throughout human history. God was present to each one of them. He guided them, instructed them, forgave them, and strengthened them. And above all, He loved every one of them, as He does every one of us.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.