Tracing roots: Genealogy event held at Soldotna church

KENAI — In the mid-1800s, Albertine Joan Garner’s great-great-grandfather deserted from the French military, married a can-can dancer — Garner’s great-grandmother — and sailed to a new life in Canada.

While talking to Garner at a genealogy workshop at Soldotna’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Beth Meier said she was also descended from a military deserter, who had left the German army. Another workshop participant said she’d discovered bootleggers in her family tree. Tracy Earll said she had a murderer.

“You win the gold star!” Meier said to her.

“Nobody’s secrets are safe around a genealogist,” Earll said.

The genealogy workshops were part of a nationwide genealogy promotion day sponsored by the LDS church, which counts genealogical research as a prominent part of its tradition. LDS worshippers are encouraged to find the names of their ancestors with a theology that emphasizes family connections and allows baptisms and other rituals to be performed on behalf of the dead. One of the nine genealogical research classes offered was about how to submit names of ancestors for ceremonies by the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Meier, who had organized the event as the Family History Director for the Soldotna Stake (an administrative area of the LDS church), said this was the only class aimed specifically at LDS church members. Others were general genealogy classes that included presentations by and for members of secular genealogy groups such as the Kenai Peninsula Totem Tracers, as well as members of the church and the public.

Meier said her interest in genealogy was passed down from her mother, and had become a personal investigation for her.

“It’s nice to place my family with events in history,” Meier said. “Why did they move from place to place? I try to add in some questions. It’s a rewarding thing to learn about the people who came before me and what they did.”

The Soldotna church’s genealogical research center was also open during the day for the general public to use, as it is on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays throughout the year. The research center offers online access to the LDS Church’s Family Search web service, which allows users to dig through its large database of historical records, as well as offering free access to 12 pay-for-use databases including, collections of military records, documents of American westward expansion, and archives of 19th century newspapers. Meier said that in addition to these online databases, the lab also has copies of local cemetery records.

Garner, a member of the Soldotna LDS church, had a table in the church gymnasium devoted to a few of her 30 decorated scrapbooks and binders dedicated to holding family records, stories, and photographs. She said she began researching her family in 1998, after inheriting a suitcase filled with old family photographs. Since then, she’s discovered that her ancestors include a Mayflower passenger, a wealthy copper-mining executive, women executed for witchcraft in England, and John Nance Garner, vice president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After visiting Europe on genealogical expeditions, Garner traced an Irish branch of her family back to 1690. She said that on her next trip she wants to visit Ulster for more research, and in the future plans to trace the French branch of her family, which lived for several generations in the small village of La Cote St. Andre, back to the year 1111. So far, she’s found ancestors in La Cote St. Andre dating to 1824. While she’s in Europe, she said she may try to visit Buckingham Palace.

“I’m related to the queen,” she said. “I’ve got some Windsors in my family.”

An only child with no children, Garner said genealogy is a very personal interest of hers.

“I have no siblings, and my mom and dad divorced when I was very young,” Garner said. “This is the only way I know the family, through pictures I have found.”

Garner said that after her death, she plans to leave her collection of records and photographs to the Soldotna LDS church.

“I don’t know who else would be interested in them,” she said.

Meier said that even among LDS members, genealogy research isn’t necessarily connected to temple rituals, called ordinances. Meier and church member Marie Jacobsen-Bates said they submit ancestral names for ordinances. Garner said she doesn’t.

“Everyone’s got to find God in their own way,” Garner said.

After controversy arose in the 1990s over the church’s posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims, the rules for temple rituals on the deceased became stricter. Jacobsen-Bates said the temple only does rituals when the submitter can prove direct descent from the ancestor, who must have been dead for 110 years. Exceptions are granted with permission from the dead person’s spouse or sibling. Information about living people is restricted in the church’s database.

“I’m one who encourages people just to learn about their history,” Meier said. “The ordinances (temple ceremonies) are an added bonus. But the main thing is the history of it. The stories you can share.”

Meier said the Family Discovery workshops are a twice yearly event. The Soldotna LDS church will hold its next one in October.

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