It was with a warm smile, a few words in Portuguese, and a briefcase in hand that Leland Moon greeted me in the lobby of the main FamilySearch building in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“This is the Disneyland of genealogy,” he would comment a few minutes later.
Moon, a family history expert, is a volunteer researcher at the impressive documentation Center maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Church of the Mormons.
“Here in this folder is a bit of what I found about your family,” he told me, with the certainty that I would be surprised to see there, printed, a copy of my maternal grandmother’s birth certificate, a photograph of my older cousin, and the marriage certificate of one of my uncles, all of them already deceased.
Owner of what is considered the world’s largest genealogical collectionFamilySearch is the product of an effort started by Mormons nearly 130 years ago.
In an immense vault that covers more than 6,000 square meters in the Granite Mountain, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, in the United States, are kept 3,500 million of copies of documents of all the world.
They are birth, marriage and death certificates, photographs, immigration forms… Anything that can help establish identity and demonstrate the relationship between people.
Access to this immense archive is highly restricted, even for experienced volunteers like Moon, who confesses that he has never set foot there.
“It’s for safety reasons, to ensure the quality of the preservation,” explains Jason Harrison, the institution’s director of research services. The Church’s head of press relations, journalist Irene Caso, notes that FamilySearch also “maintains high-quality digital copies” in “various locations around the world” as a precaution and backup measure.
“We follow global archival standards to ensure that there is uninterrupted access to the collections,” he explains.
At FamilySearch headquarters, therefore, what we see is the tip of the iceberg. Which is not little. There, all this huge collection is microfilmed. And all the time, dozens of volunteer researchers who use the center perform scans, both for their personal interests and to contribute to what can be seen online.
That means that, increasingly, the FamilySearch website, created in 1999has millions of pages of judicial, ecclesiastical, municipal and notarial record books from all over the world, as well as copies of civil and religious documents from the most diverse sources. All open. All free.
Baptize the ancestors
This is so, because the motivation of this work, for Mormons, is religious.
They started the project in 1894 (the church was founded in 1830 in the United States). Caso says that at that time, the institution “realized that in order for its growing population of members to build and share family histories, they needed access to the world’s repositories of genealogical records.”
“Then it started collecting books, then it went on to offer its own record preservation and file access services around the world, and today digital record preservation and access to registrars, individuals and families,” he adds.
The idea of cataloging all humanity seeks to comply with one of the pillars of this religious denomination: the fact that, for them, family ties are eternal. More than that, they defend the right to baptize dead ancestors in the same faith, by proxy; for that, it is necessary to know the basic information about that relative.
They believe that in eternal life the whole family will, from the beginning, be together, an idea that makes it impossible not to think of those long, often tragicomic Sunday lunches with grandparents, uncles, brothers-in-law, cousins, and all sorts of distant relatives.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that families are the central unit of healthy and strong communities. The more we know about the ancestral shoulders on which we stand, the stronger our sense of personal and family identity will be,” explains Caso.
“Knowing our family history also gives us a legacy to dedicate ourselves to. The church teaches that cherished family relationships can continue after death. Accordingly, the church provides the services of its nonprofit FamilySearch organization free of charge to help all people discover, reunite, and connect with their family through family trees, research records, and keepsakes.”
Therefore, there is an incentive for every member of the church to know at least four generations before yours. And, in that sense, the work of the pioneers of the church, who made genealogies in notebooks, ended up giving rise to this impressive fully digitized database.
But the big leap, without a doubt, was the opening they had to the non-religious world.
Aware that most records of births, marriages, and deaths belong either to civil institutions or, especially considering the oldest, to the Catholic Church, Mormon researchers formed and still maintain alliances in which they often offer complete digitization of collections in exchange for keeping a copy in your database. With that, FamilySearch became big.
Currently, according to Caso, 200 digitization operations are being carried out around the world.
In addition to the headquarters building, there are other 5,000 local centers around the world and more than 1,000 research units operating in public libraries, museums, and visitor centers. If opening up to non-Mormons meant a considerable increase in the database, this philosophy also applies to users.
Curiosity and the search for foreign citizenship
“Our purpose is to create inspiring experiences that bring joy to all people as they discover, reunite with, and connect with their families, past, present, and future,” Caso says. “And when we say ‘all,’ we really mean ‘all’ families.”
“In other words, all individuals, throughout the world,” he says.
The FamilySearch website is available at 34 languages and receives 20 to 30 million visits per month.
My first contact with FamilySearch was in 2017 when I was running family searches. My motivation was far from religious; a miserable but essential piece was missing in my genealogical puzzle to be able to gather all the necessary documentation for my process of recognition of the Italian citizenship. In this case, the birth certificate of my great-great-grandfather, Nicola Castelluccio.
There were discrepancies in the information she had managed to gather about him. His marriage certificate, issued in Brazil, did not say where or when he was born. His death certificate also did not indicate how many years he had lived. In the family’s oral tradition, there were mentions of at least four small Italian towns as possible birthplaces of his ancestor.
“From Italy we have practically everything,” Moon boasted, when I began to tell him this story. In my case, after I discovered that FamilySearch had the entirety (with a few pages unreadable due to weather damage, it’s true) of the 19th century record books for the four small towns my research was targeting. , all he had to do was draw a decade as an estimated cut from when old Castelluccio was born to undertake a painstaking investigation that lasted a few weeks.
“Many people today use our services to satisfy the curiosity of their ancestors and also to obtain useful information in the citizenship processes”, acknowledges Moon.
“The interest in personal family history is not exclusive to any particular religion,” adds Caso. “People of all faiths, or even those who don’t, and all regions seem to be interested in where their roots began and how they got to where they are today.”
As recorded in handwritten entry number 106 of the birth certificate book of the city of Lagonegro, province of Potenza, my great-great-grandfather Nicola Castelluccio was born at 2:00 p.m. on August 28, 1871, in that town, the son of Felice Castelluccio and Brígida Say Cillo.
Attention to the new generations
In addition to the website, FamilySearch promotes initiatives that encourage interest in genealogy. On one of the floors of the headquarters building, for example, there are all kinds of equipment for anyone to walk through and digitize family memories.
Do you remember that old VHS tape you don’t have anywhere else to watch? They have equipment to convert it into a digital video file. Is the tape Super-8? Also. Old DVDs? Yes of course. The counterpart is the request that part of these family memories be archived at its base.
On another floor is the impressive library, with 500,000 copies dedicated to family histories from around the world.
FamilySearch also contains approximately 20,000 historical maps. They were especially useful before the internet existed so that researchers could trace migration histories and even verify the names of cities and towns that appear in ancient documents.
On the ground floor is what would be the closest thing to the “Disneyland of genealogy” announced by Moon.
It is a multimedia center that, to the delight of the new generations, allows a journey through the history of families that is far from boring.
There, for example, if you log in with your profile on the FamilySearch website, a multimedia terminal will retrieve information from your family tree to tell you the story of your family.
For those who live in the American continent, it is best to see the parallelism with the historical context that propitiated the movement of migrations from Europe to the New World. At the same time that your family is shown, facts of a historical dimension are presented, giving an overview.
It is also possible to print the family tree in large dimensions, take a selfie with a false background that alludes to the place of origin of your favorite ancestor and there are even some study rooms where families are invited to schedule appointments and record their memories.
Mormons dodge the question of how much it costs to maintain all this structure and services. They claim that the action is fully financed by the church, with the help of valuable sponsors, all of the same faith.
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