Know your ancestors?

Martha's Vineyard Family History Open House connects the past to the present.

Bill and Aubyn Veno of Edgartown get assistance from Kelton Truscott of Bellingham (pictured in orange) conducting research on their genealogy. — Photo by Pat Waring

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in Vineyard Haven was a warm, bright oasis in the midst of the damp gray chill of a late January Saturday. The daylong Martha’s Vineyard Family History Open House, on January 24, co-sponsored by the church and the Vineyard chapter of the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists, drew some 50 Vineyarders, who ducked in from the rain and immersed themselves in fascinating explorations of Vineyard history and their family backgrounds. The M.V. Family History Center operates as part of the church.

The welcome was warm too, as church representatives greeted visitors at the door and invited them to tour the informative displays, or to sit down and get started on family research.

The spacious facility took on the atmosphere of a busy classroom or library, humming with activity, as visitors paired up with host experts at several computer stations. Members of the LDS Church and the genealogists’ society guided attendees through the daunting steps of launching a search for long-lost relatives or family details. The guides were patient and thorough, prompting visitors to ask the right questions that could provide a key to gaining basic information needed to get a family search underway.

Brent Brown of Oak Bluffs, president of the Vineyard LDS Church congregation, worked with Susan Fraser of Chilmark as they tried various spellings of her mother’s name, hoping to locate her on a long-past census record. Nearby, Sister Virginia Flores assisted Barbara Armstrong of Menemsha in exploring early family details.

The scene was repeated around the room again and again throughout the day. Visitors left with new information and newfound confidence about continuing their family research.

Sister Jessica Bentley was one of several youthful church missionaries assisting patrons. She said that after fulfilling 18-month missionary assignments, these young people will return to daily lives and work.

“Family is central to everything we believe and do in our church,” Sister Bentley said. “So from a young age we’re taught to search out our ancestors.”

Along with opportunities for hands-on personal research, there was more to learn in displays of books, brochures, and illustrated family history charts by local genealogists.

Island author and genealogist Alfred Woollacott III was brimming with enthusiasm about his latest volume, The Immigrant, the historical saga of his early Scottish ancestor, John Law, who became an English prisoner of war. (See review of The Immigrant on C5).

Mr. Woollacott, who has focused on genealogy since 2006, said the work is captivating. When he teaches the subject at Adult and Community Education of Marthas Vineyard (ACE MV), Mr. Woollacott said he issues a warning: “Caution: Genealogical research can be addictive, and may even lead to compulsive, obsessive behavior.”

Kay Mayhew, M.V. Museum’s longtime genealogist, shared information on Vineyard genealogy and oversaw a table of museum resources. The Massachusetts Society of Genealogists offered materials with research tips and membership benefits. The group’s president, Pat Stano-Carpenter, traveled from Marlboro for the event.

Nearby, Marna Waller, president of the society’s Martha’s Vineyard chapter, said the local group boasts some 20 enthusiastic members who gather at the LDS Church for monthly meetings. “We have a good ongoing relationship,” Ms. Waller said gratefully of the church. Meetings feature occasional guest speakers or workshop sessions where members share and seek input on their current research projects.

Elizabeth Villard presided over a table heaped with compelling information on her gravestone-restoration project. Ms. Villard, an Edgartown cemetery commissioner, was promoting her determined effort to preserve ancient gravestones in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven. The project has already received $5,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) grants from both towns for assessment by an expert, and she hopes that voters will pass another $10,000 each in CPA monies to begin the actual restoration work.

The bustling activity continued all afternoon, with attendees sitting at computers and exchanging ideas. Mr. Brown said he was delighted with the turnout for the church’s first-ever family history open house. He said that because of its popularity, the group will likely offer another next year.

“I think our big success is helping an individual find another date or name or piece of important information to help continue their family tree,” he said. Mr. Brown explained that the LDS Church highly values family history and connecting with one’s forebears. “We believe that by seeking out our ancestors, we can connect with them and help them out in the hereafter,” he said.

Mr. Brown said that knowing family history can have an important impact on an individual. “It grounds them, it steadies them, it gives them the ability to overcome,” he said. Mr. Brown explained that someone going through a life crisis could look back at how ancestors coped.

“Hey, if they can do it, I can do it,” can be the positive response, he said.

The LDS Church in Vineyard Haven offers genealogical research consultation and guidance free of charge. Those seeking assistance may make an appointment by calling 508-693-8642. The LDS Church also provides an online search of the millions of names in its International Genealogical Index, available to members and nonmembers, at familysearch.org.