During these unsettled days, we have been working away at our genealogy project in quiet places like archives and churches and libraries, where the loudest noise can be the ding of the elevator bell or the squeak of the wheels of a book cart. We have been rewarded with new and intriguing glimpses into parts of our families we hadn't studied before.
In Passaic, New Jersey, amid the bodegas and thrift stores, where the cemeteries are walled with chainlink fence and the old factories stand with broken windows behind fence and barbed wire, we found the church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was the childhood church of Bob's mother and many of the other Slovaks in Passaic -- although some were Greek Catholic, and a few were Lutheran. We arrived just as a funeral crowd was leaving. Around the corner we rang the doorbell at the rectory, where Mrs. Mihalik unlocked three deadbolts to let us in.
The church books are all there, more carefully kept than in some other churches we've visited. They go way back to the days when thousands of young Slovaks came to work in the Passaic factories. The old records are in Latin -- we knew that those high school courses would come in handy some day! It was a glorious success -- not only did we find the baptismal records for the three children of Bob's grandparents, but also his grandparents' wedding record, naming their parents and their villages in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but is now the Republic of Slovakia.
The church itself is a lovely building with light walls and pews and beautiful stained glass windows. It reminded us of some of the bright baroque churches in Europe. It's just one of dozens of churches clustered near downtown Passaic. The congregation has changed, of course; there are more Hispanics in the neighborhood, but Passaic is still an attractive city for young Slovak immigrants to the U. S.
Now we are in Boston, the home of the bean and the cod. And also the home of the New England Historic Genealogical Society which occupies six floors of an impressive building in Back Bay. It's a comfortable, well-equipped library, specializing in almost 400 years of New England family history. Bob is discovering that all his relatives on his father's side seemed to have sprung from old New England families, and Elsa improbably came upon a Huguenot ancestor named Shumway, a name derived from the French "chamois" - the Alpine goat with the incredibly soft skin.
The Protestant Huguenots were at first encouraged in France, but then proscribed, so many of them emigrated. Peter Shumway, her immigrant ancestor, was a dedicated killer of Indians, first responding to an attack on his family, then joining the organized colonial forces. His grandson, David, born in 1713, moved with his family to the town now named Sturbridge. David built his first house by placing boards between two large boulders. At night he could hear wolves prowling across his roof.
It's appropriate that Elsa, who majored in French Literature in College, should be the first to find a French ancestor, Peter, her 7G grandfather. (in genealogical notation that means you string seven "greats" together) Bob is still holding out hope that some of his English ancestors were in fact Normans. Anyway, the more foreign countries we find from which our ancestors came to America, the more countries we'll have to visit to look for long lost relatives!
With two great libraries a few blocks from our hotel, we're getting spoiled. It feels like those lovely days in College when we wandered the stacks of the library, finding all these treasuries of arcane secrets. Doing genealogy seems a bit like that to us; we're discovering history through the lives of our ancestors.