My father was clearly proud of his German ancestry, and claimed he was predominately of German descent. Despite his obvious pride, he knew little of his family heritage and no one in the family could tell me where the immigrant ancestor had been from, except to nebulously say, “Germany.” This was one of the most challenging branches to track because of the lack of any information, but that may be because the family tried to shed its German appearance during the two world wars. The surname became Americanized and the children began to learn English. By my father’s generation, their German customs had largely been abandoned and only my grandfather spoke German, and that was limited to exchanges with his siblings.
This same scenario holds true for most of my other branches. I have some English, Irish and Scottish branches that may never be tracked back. My father’s grandmother came over relatively late from Ireland (after the famine) and no one knows where in Ireland she was from. This great-grandmother of mine seems to have never spoken about her family as her death certificate was blank in many places. Queries of my grandmother and her siblings about their mother went unanswered. No one knew anything about her.
The family belonged to the same parish in Minneapolis for years, Holy Rosary, being some of the earliest parishioners. Back around 1900, I suspect the parish was quite vibrant, filled with a smattering of immigrants. These parishioners were blue collar workers who found employment in the city. My great-grandfather was a well-digger and most of his sons, at least for a time, followed him into this trade.
Today, Holy Rosary sits in rough inner-city neighborhood. I’m sure the area would be unrecognizable to the generations of my family that used to live there. Trying to get an idea of what their lives were like back then is harder with the ever-changing and constantly-growing city than with other branches of my family who lived out in the country.
So many churches within the cities are much different than what they once were. Time has brought about progress and change. St. Ambrose in St. Paul used to be the thriving heart of an Italian neighborhood. Not too long ago, the Archdiocese closed the church and sold it to a Baptist congregation. St. Ambrose was then reincarnated out in the suburbs, with only the name of the great saint to hint at its Italian ancestry.
Back in Minneapolis, I have relatives with large Catholic families that have provided the church with several religious. The families used to attend St. Stephen’s, not too far from Holy Rosary. This parish has seen change, but much of it is in its theology, becoming one of the most liberal parishes in the city.
Oddly, the churches of my forefathers I have visited in other countries have remained largely intact. Granted, most of these parishes are not in the big cities, but in tiny towns. In talking with one elderly Irish relative I visited, the parish he belongs to has remained the same for centuries. However, the whole of Ireland is changing and it’s only a matter of time before this parish feels the effects. The beautiful cathedral in the city, St. Brendan’s, is a work of art. But while the structure remains the same, the soul of the parish is changing.
The church my Swiss ancestors attended remains almost exactly as it was when it was built in the 1600s. The area is in a remote valley in the Alps and the people there clung tightly to their Catholic faith and resisted the Protestant changes brought about by Zwingli and those of his era. Life there hasn’t changed much, but industry is moving in. The small town is blessed with a natural spring that was recently purchased by Coca Cola. A ski resort and spa there are also quite popular. I am glad I had a chance to see the town before a great deal of change entered.
Now that I have located where they are from, way up by Ostfriesland, I hope to get to the parish my father’s German ancestors attended and some distant family still remain. The parish is nestled in a small farming community, but I’m not sure what to expect. Germany has seen many changes in the nearly 200 years since my ancestors left. Catholicism in Europe has seen many changes. If I get to make a stop there this spring, I’m eager to see what I will find.