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Mormon church helps people of all faiths find their family tree

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 11:25 PM
TAMPA -

Jim Smith is not ashamed to admit it.

"I'm obsessed," he says matter-of-factly. "How often am I at this? 24-7."

It started with a simple quest. He wanted to know more about his namesake uncle, a 22-year-old pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force lost in action in 1945 in the Bay of Bengal in the East Indian Ocean.

Everyone always told him: You're just like Uncle Jimmy. But no one could tell him much about the man who died along with his crew in the Liberator bomber.

Not only did Smith learn about his heroic uncle - whose name is engraved in a Singapore war memorial - he started unraveling his widespread family roots with a zealous passion. Now the gung-ho genealogist details his searches on a blog and volunteers at the Family History Center run by the Tampa Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He loves the thrill of the chase. Days turn into nights, with Smith scanning foreign-language documents, seeking clues on reels and reels of microfilm and researching old periodicals, Census rolls, military papers, birth certificates, wills and church records. His diligence has tracked ancestors all the way back to 1650 on his mother's side. He's uncovered blood connections in at least a dozen countries.

"I just keep looking for the next clue that will open the next door and I keep on going," he says. "Not bad for a guy with the most common name you could have."

Smith isn't alone in his addiction.

According to a Harris Interactive survey, some 87 percent of all Americans have an interest in their family history. The hobby spawned an NBC reality television show starring roots-seeking celebrities - "Who Do You Think You Are?" Its second season begins early next year.

Ancestry.com, the world's largest family-history resource on the Web, claims 1.7 million subscribers who pay $12.95 a month for access to the site's 5 billion digital historical records. Yes, that's 5 billion. Some 9.8 million unique visitors drop in on the site monthly.

"We knew we would attract a lot of retired people who had time on their hands," says Heather Erickson, a spokesperson for the Provo, Utah-based company. "But honestly, we've been pleasantly surprised by how people of all ages are intrigued with this."

Besides an exhaustive collection of records, the company also offers DNA testing and hired-gun expert genealogists to help customers who need additional sleuthing. With 700 employees worldwide, Ancestry.com is always updating and adding to its database. Its newest offer: a black-sheep collection featuring convict records and mug shots of inmates once housed in high-profile prisons such as Alcatraz and Leavenworth.

"Can you imagine finding out you had a mass murderer in your family line?" Erickson says.

No one could have predicted the site's fast growth. The company seized the moment, launching a national advertising campaign last year on cable television that includes real-life customers sharing amazing discoveries they made using the service. "It's a hobby you can pursue in your pajamas right at home," Erickson says. "Think of it as a never-ending puzzle. There's always another piece to look for. You never feel your family history is complete."

There's power in numbers, which explains the emergence of genealogy groups where fellow enthusiasts to share tips and personal stories. The Florida Genealogical Society celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago; members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Florida can participate in a monthly genealogy group that meets the third Friday of every month at Lake Magdelene United Methodist Church in Tampa.

The group takes field trips, brings in lecturers and offers a show-and-tell for its participants. Member Trev Wonderlin, who spends about two to three hours a day on her family research, says computer takes you only so far.

"It's a beginning, but there's so much more," she says. "That's why it's a good idea to join local societies and visit local libraries where your family is from." Her most important advice for beginners?

"Sit down with your older relatives and interview them. Take notes and ask a lot of questions," she says. "Because once they're gone, some of that information goes with them."

While building a family tree may be a recreational pursuit for most people, it's a fulfillment of prophecy for Mormons.

Church members turn to Malachi, who wrote of the Judgment Day in the Old Testament: "He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse."

Heeding that Scripture, Mormons seal their families together for all eternity. The baptism ordinance, performed only in temples, allows church members in good standing to serve as "proxies" for the dead. To help followers find and baptize as many family members as possible - living and dead - the LDS church has amassed the world's largest family history library. Its main archive, founded in 1894, is housed in a five-story, 142,000-square-foot building in Salt Lake City. The collection includes more than 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical records, a database with some 600 million names of deceased people, and an estimated 400,000 books and periodicals.

What makes the library even more valuable is that most of it relates to people who lived before 1930 - whose information would not be found online. Mormon missionaries are currently dispatched in 45 countries where they're digitizing records with 200 cameras. The church welcomes the public at no cost to utilize its library, which records an estimated 1,500 daily visits, or any of its 4,500 branches worldwide. For those who live outside Salt Lake City and want to order a microfilm to view, the cost is $5.50 for a month - and that pays just for the shipping.

"We're the best-kept secret," says Jane French of the Tampa Stake's Family History Center in Odessa. "I'd say 95 percent of our visitors aren't church members. When they come here for the first time, they realize they've stumbled upon a treasure trove."

The center, open three days a week, contains more than 9,100 microfilm rolls, thousands of books and periodicals and access to tens of millions of names - in less than 500 square feet. In her 18 years as a volunteer, French's enthusiasm to help others navigate their search hasn't waned.

"To see someone find a connection for the first time, it's still emotional for me," she says. "I can't even go into a Cracker Barrel and see those old-time pictures without getting a little teary-eyed. Those are real human beings, all with a story, and they were part of a family."

Anyone who has gone on a history hunt knows the most feared obstacle of all - "the brick wall," French says ominously. In her eight-generation pedigree chart, detailing both her and her husband's ancestors, she points to one name that took her 15 years to track down: Alexander Sims, her great-great-great grandfather.

As leads went cold and searches came up empty, French followed a hunch. Maybe he was an orphan? She searched records from Virginia, where he was from, and voila! With both parents dead, the teenager had been assigned an apprenticeship through the courts.

And that wasn't all. Turns out Sims was the town crier for Fairfax, Va., and an acquaintance of George Washington.

"When you get stuck, you've got to have a theory, you've got to have a hypothesis," she says. "Most important, you've got to have patience."

For practical purposes, French made an unsettling discovery about her heritage; on her mother's side, there were multiple deaths at relatively early ages due to hypertension, cancer and heart disease. Not knowing whether she inherited a predisposition for those illnesses, she's more motivated to make healthier lifestyle choices.

Every seeker has an "aha!" moment. Deborah Owens, a Catholic mother of five who volunteers at the center once a week, has recorded many. Because she doesn't fully trust computers, all the records she collects are photographed on acid-free paper and stored in acid-free folders. "You've got to be organized and you've got to be methodical," she says. "You need patience to slog through old church books and civil records. It's like peeling an onion. There are so many layers to uncover."

Among her discoveries: her lineage to a judge and law professor from Hamburg, Germany, circa 1480, whose sons and grandsons were ordained Lutheran ministers. Owens found her husband was a descendent of a Portuguese slave in the Virginia colony. The slave was owned by a physician - who happened to be the governor's brother. In more current times, she's learned that some of her cousins died in concentration camps after World War II in what is now called Serbia. She's found long-lost relatives in Florida and Illinois, and gets together with them for extended family reunions.

One of her connections led to a family member who kept the dog tags of her husband's grandfather, a World War I veteran. Though Moses Bird Owens died from the effects of mustard gas at age 30, his memory has been carefully preserved by Owens in a framed display of the tags, vintage photos of him in France and his memorial Mass card.

Her children don't yet share her passion for genealogy. If they're driving down the road on a family outing and pass a cemetery, Owen braces herself for the inevitable whine from the back seat: "Aw, Mom, we're not going to stop, are we?"

She just smiles. Owens knows one day, all of this will matter to them.


Michelle Bearden takes a tour of the LDS library in Odessa on her "Keeping the Faith" segment 9 a.m. today on News Channel 8. She can be reached at (813) 259-7613.

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