Stories are familiar. They tell us who we are and where we’ve been. My sister Mary loved stories, especially our family’s story. Often she would fly to Salt Lake City and pour through the historical records to connect the dots between us and our origins in County Armagh in Ireland.
A few years ago, when her interest was at its peak, she and I visited the farms and graveyards of our ancestors in Central and Southwestern Ontario in Canada. As we toured the home place of our ancestors, she recorded the data from their gravestones and baptismal records, and other information, and composed our family story.
The story of our Irish family began during the potato famine. Half of the family stayed in Ireland, while the other half sailed to Canada to escape the possibility of starvation.
When Mary and I traveled to Ireland, we saw the homes where our ancestors lived. And when we explored where the Conlons settled in Ontario, we saw that the landscape there was remarkably similar to the land they had left.
We noticed that some of the gravestones of first cousins were next to each other in Ontario, yet their names were spelled differently. This suggested to me that those who immigrated were not highly literate.
My fondest memory of my sister’s passion to tell our family story happened in 2003, on the occasion of our Conlon family reunion. It took place on a Saturday evening, at the Community Center in our hometown of Sombra. During that weekend, I was privileged to celebrate the liturgy at Sacred Heart Church in Port Lambton, Ontario, the town where I was born.
During the homily, I talked about my father, who in his later years would sit on the front step of our family home and invite people to join him and tell him a story.
I recalled how my mother, Elizabeth, would join other women in our town at the quilting bee. I suggested that each of us who gathered for the Conlon family reunion were like patches in the Conlon quilt. We were patches from Alberta, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Delaware, California, Ontario, and beyond.
I also said that our family were like Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible. We had been driven into exile because of the potato famine, and had come to Canada. I explained that our story can be told by the names and dates of our ancestors inscribed on the tombstones in the nearby cemetery. It is, you could say, a story told by the St. Clair River and by the first fall of snow that carpeted our town each winter.
At this reunion, we had come to our hometown—which was home to each of us and to our story. It was there that we first learned our Christian story and became people of faith.
During that weekend, my sister Mary shared her genesis story of the Conlon family. She told us how our ancestors came to Canada in 1840, how they found an area that reminded them of Ireland, and how they became lumber merchants so they could make a living and raise families in their newfound land.
As she recited the family genealogy that evening—our ancestral Book of Genesis—Mary joyfully recalled how, after writing to many people in Ireland she thought might be descendants of our ancestors, she had finally received a response. The letter confirmed her research and indelibly forged the connection to our Irish family roots. Following this discovery, she and I visited Ireland, met our relatives, and celebrated our family story.
Our Conlon family reunion in Port Lambton was a great weekend, and it closed with a talent show, in which the children presented a play of the migration to Canada. When I left the hall that evening, I knew that something important and sacred had happened. I had learned again my family’s story.
Recently I listened again to my cassette recording of Mary’s presentation. I remembered how the room had been decorated with family photos that evoked images from her story. It is a story of the unstoppable spirit alive in the hearts of those adventurous souls who came to a new country with hope for a land of opportunity. It is a story recorded in my Celtic genetic coding and inscribed in the St. Bridget’s cross that hangs on the wall of my Berkeley home. It is a story of struggle and sacrifice, a story of adventures and new life.
It is a story that each of us can share in our own form—regardless of the particular origins that have shaped our lives and that have given us a sense of the sacred that feeds us hope.
(originally published September 1, 2017)