FEATURE – If you’ve ever wondered if you’re related to someone famous or if those family rumors about distant relations are true, you can find out at the new FamilySearch Center in St. George, which officially opens Tuesday.
However, in advance of the official opening, I was fortunate enough to attend an open house Thursday at the new center, located at 237 E. 600 South, just south of the St. George LDS Temple. While there, I learned I am a distant cousin of Brigham Young, yet the prevailing family rumor that there are familial ties to the outlaw Jesse James could not be confirmed.
During the open house – which continues for the public Friday and Saturday – our group was given a tour of the new facility and showed what made this family history center unique among the many thousands of centers around the world maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As a highlighted member of the group I was in, parts of my ancestry were shown in order to display the many features of the FamilySearch Center.
In a section called “My Famous Relatives,” connections to U.S. presidents, famous inventors, entertainers and leaders of the LDS church were displayed. Family connections often appeared as a distant cousin so-many-times removed.
I learned that Brigham Young, the second president of the LDS church, is an eighth-cousin five times removed, and we share a pair of common ancestors from the 1500s. Among U.S. presidents that popped up were Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Other notable – yet distant – relations included Wilbur Wright of the Wright brothers and Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the television.
No sign of potential ties to Jesse James, though. Either that family myth has been busted, or a familial connection just hasn’t been found yet.
It should be noted that while the LDS church runs the FamilySearch Center, it is free and open to the public to come and investigate and enjoy.
“This facility will be open to anyone in the community,” J. Kevin Ence, a regional LDS church authority, said while welcoming people to the center.
In addition to finding those famous relatives, you can also find out where your ancestors originated.
To my surprise I learned the majority of my European ancestry is Dutch. Before this I thought it was German. This breakdown was displayed on a map that showed where my ancestors had lived and also ultimately emigrated to the United States.
“Learning about our ancestors helps us understand where we are today,” said Mickal Merrell, who serves as an area temple and family history consultant and helps oversee the new facility with his wife, Linda.
Those words stuck with me throughout my visit, particularly as I caught sight of a relative named Herman J. Winkler. He was born in Richfield, Utah, in December 1866 and was the son of Swiss immigrants who had joined the LDS church. He was also one of my second-great-grandfathers.
While I knew bits and pieces about Winkler’s life, I never really took the time to get to know him through the personal history his daughters had compiled about him – not until my visit to the FamilySearch Center, that is.
One part that stood out to me about the man was his sense of humor – and if you know me or my family we have a sense of humor that can be described as a bit goofy and eccentric.
His father, Hans Winkler, was worried about his son “not being married early in his manhood” and told Herman if he waited too long he would be old and ugly and no woman would want him.
Herman laughed at this and said he’d bring his wife for a visit so the rest of the family could meet her, but he warned, “She wasn’t much to look at.” The rest is best told from the account written by his daughters:
Herman had a sense of humor, and I can see the twinkle in his eye when he told this to his people, as my mother was a very beautiful woman. I have her tell how out of place she felt when he introduced her to his family, because they all stood speechless. They were expecting to see a much different looking girl. Of course this was a joke to Herman and to her later when she found out what the joke was.
So if the FamilySearch Center’s intent was to inspire me to learn about my own ancestors, it has proven successful.
What I have described above barely scratches the surface of what the FamilySearch Center offers.
Another part of the center includes recording studios where families can come and tell life stories that are subsequently recorded for posterity. There are also smaller, individual studios for those who want to share and record their own stories in a more private manner.
The center also has over 130 computers visitors can use to look up their ancestors online and also take part in free genealogy classes.
While the primary purpose of the FamilySearch Center is to connect the generations to each other, Mickal Merrell said, it is also meant to stir new excitement in the pursuit of genealogy. It is also designed to appeal to today’s youth through its heavy use of interactive technologies.
“The tech here is all up-to-date,” said Russ Cashin, an interfaith minister with the Free Spirit Community and a member of the St. George Interfaith Council.
“It’s all touch screens and interactive,” Cashin said. “I love the Xbox kind of feel where you can bring kids in and they’re (already) familiar with the tech, so it will bring more of them in for research.”
As of a couple years ago, across the LDS church’s 5,000 family history centers, only an estimated 3 percent of the church membership was actually engaged in genealogy, Linda Merrell said, and that had to change. A new way to get people excited and engaged in family history needed to be hatched.
“What we have here at the St. George FamilySearch Center is fabulous,” Linda Merrell said. “This is a start.”
The pursuit of family history has long been a practice of the LDS church. The church teaches that families are sealed together for eternity and that locating ancestors through family history and performing religious rites on their behalf in temples helps further that goal.
“That’s one of the concepts behind this building and the temple,” tour guide James Orman said.
So far, the FamilySearch Center is just one of three of its kind in the world. The other two are located in northern Utah.
The FamilySearch Center’s open house continues Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. both days.
The center will officially open Tuesday. Normal center hours will be Monday, Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Ed. note: The personal anecdotes of the writer of this article are included to better illustrate how the FamilySearch Center features may be used.
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