category: Genealogy

The mystery of the bricks

As I was going through some photos of my grandfather’s, I came across this great shot of him I presumed was from the 1930’s:

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Note the “With all my love” scribbled at the bottom. I’m guessing he gave this to my grandmother while they were still dating.

Naturally the question came up, “Where is he standing? Is there any significance to the location?”

I posted to Facebook and Metafilter to see if anyone had any ideas:

A few things worth noting:

  • Initially, I thought the “927” was an address, but I think it’s more likely the year (“1927”)
  • This was almost definitely taken in Philadelphia, PA
  • The brick configuration is unusual in that they’re all lined up [called a “stack bond,” I later found out]
  • Perhaps a church, given the cross, but the simplicity of the door may be more indicative of a church-related institution (like a school or convent)
  • My grandfather was Catholic, but that may or may not be relevant

I did some initial searches of Philadelphia buildings built or dedicated in 1927, but couldn’t find any images that seemed to match that unusual brick layout.

I got a bunch of good suggestions from the Ask Mefi thread that I followed up on: a company that does historic brick restoration in Philly (I wrote, they replied but didn’t recognize the building), the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Center, and @roccopalmo (tweeted at him, no reply).

Things went quiet for a while until I was digging through a large box of photos my mom had brought by for me to scan and archive. Digging through some very small prints, I came across one of my grandmother that made me pause:

Irene Chmielewski - March 28, 1937 - Easter Sunday - McAdoo - Front

No doubt, that’s the same building that my grandfather was standing in front of. To make things more interesting, the back had an inscription:

Irene Chmielewski - March 28, 1937 - Easter Sunday - McAdoo - Back

Turns out that my assumption that the building was in Philadelphia held me back from finding the answer. I’m going to let my mom take over the story from here:

I Googled “McAdoo” and found that it is a small town in Pennsylvania. I thought perhaps it was a place where mom’s oldest sister, Sister Albertilla, had been stationed. I searched for Catholic schools in McAdoo but couldn’t find any pictures. Then I searched for “Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth McAdoo, Pa” [Sister Albertilla’s order] and found reference to St. Kunegunda Parish. I looked at a biography we received from the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth when Sister Albertilla passed away and sure enough she had been stationed in McAdoo. It went on to say that “in the school and convent of St. Kunegunda, Sister served as principal and local superior. Here, too, she played the organ, gave piano lessons, and painted lovely pictures of nature in addition to her other responsibilities.” I did a search for “St. Kunegunda School McAdoo, Pa” and found a real estate listing for the building. Fortunately, it had a wonderful picture so we were able to compare the brickwork, doors, etc. After so many years the date was no longer visible [or they could have been standing in front of a different set of doors elsewhere on the building -ram] but we were pretty sure we had solved the mystery.


I then did one more search and found a PDF of “A Brief Historical Sketch of St. Kunegunda’s Parish.” Next to the last paragraph on the first page this was written: “On Sept. 23, 1927, the new school was blessed: the following year, Sept. 23, 1928, the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth of Torresdale, Pa., opened the doors of the St. Kunegunda School to the increasing student enrollment.”

There was further proof! The year “1927.” It had to be the same building! Mom and Dad probably went to visit Sister Albertilla and took pictures of each other in front of the school.

What satisfaction to have finally solved the mystery of the building with unusual brickwork.

Well said, Mom.

Update: December 2, 2015

This past weekend as I was on the way home from northern Pennsylvania with my family, I noticed an exit sign that read “McAdoo.” “Folks,” I told them, “We’re taking a short detour.”

Less than five minutes later, we were parked in front of the former St. Kunegunda School and I was taking this photo:


There are spaces I visit frequently (ie. my parents’ house) where my grandparents had also spent time, but being able to take this shot today sent some chills up my spine. My grandmother was only 18 at the time and my grandfather 24, so standing in that place 78 years later as a 40-year-old was a connecting experience for me. The older I get, the more these odd little moments of connection to the distant past move me.

(Thanks to Chuck and Huyen for taking the shots.)


Important unimportant goals for 2015

Every year there are certain goals that repeat themselves: be a little better of a person every day, finish that album I should have finished in 2007, write more, etc. This year, I decided to instead think about the little things I wanted to do or learn that would make this year more fulfilling. And preservation, both in the forms of archiving digital and analog materials as well as digging deeper into family history. I’m approaching 40 and the big career goals and life goals don’t interest me quite as much. They’re still there, of course, they just occupy a further corner of my mind.

The theme for my list of 2015 goals is “doing stuff almost no one cares about (or has forgotten about) because that’s the stuff that’s most important (or not).” Interestingly, these items all have to do with history, archiving, or revisiting some part of my past. Maybe it’s the age inspiring reflection. I don’t live in the past, but I do like visiting.

  • Release one (two?) albums of old material, including some stuff I’ve never put out into the world. I’ve already started the process of the getting the first re-(re-)release ready to go. This may be up in the spring.
  • Bowl a few games of Canadian 5-pin. Requires going to Canada, so we’re getting our passports in order. Prerequisite: teach myself 5-pin scoring (even if I bowl at lanes with automatic scoring).
  • Finish archiving SJAUG Candy Apple newsletters from 1990. I got a good start on these last year and want to polish them off this year.
  • Launch the Raw Deal Radio archive. This Normal Bias spin-off site is underway but still needs a fair bit of work before it’s ready for the world to dig into. (Done as of Apr 4)
  • Learn more about the nuts and bolts of digital preservation (and digital preservation of analog content). Listening to podcasts. Taking classes. Talking to people.
  • Play and finish “A Mind Forever Voyaging.” I still have the original box and all its goodies, so I can have that beside me as I either play on my Apple IIe or as I fire up an emulator. I never finished it as a kid, but the game drew me in and inspired me to start on a few of my own pieces of interactive fiction.
  • Read up on the story behind (and impact of) the Attica prison riots of 1970. This will likely involve reading A Time to Die (done, 8/31) and watching Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica, if I can find it.
  • Finally launch my protected family history site for my family (with audio, stories, etc.) (Done! Announced it to family before I published this post.)
  • Figure out the mystery behind my great-grandparents’ life and trip to the US. The story is that my great-grandfather was scheduled to be executed for organizing labor strikes and he and his wife escaped the country (which we assumed to be Poland but may have been Lithuania) and came to the United States, their months-old baby dying the day after arriving at Ellis Island. This will likely take hiring someone in Lithuania to hunt down records, land deeds, etc. to build a picture of who they were and where they came from.
  • Run 1000 miles in 2015 (added 4/10/2015)

There are other more “important” goals, too, of course, but those are less fun to share.

Genealogy: Get that dang family tree started today!

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but it took a post by Chris challenging bloggers to post more frequently and a personal request from the same Chris for some information on this topic to finally make me sit down and write it. And it still took me a few weeks.

Let me start by telling you this: no matter how long you work on your family history, you will never, ever type genealogy correctly the first time. Now, with that out of the way…

Growing up, I remember one member of my family (hi, Aunt Jeanette!) who was known as the person in the family taking care of researching family history. She worked on it for many years and got some outstanding information. I always thought it was great that she was doing it, and an interest in genealogy started to spring. I put a simple tree together with my dad, presumably for a class project.



Though my interest waxed and waned, I never really did much aside from buy a piece of family tree software, install it, and then forget about it. But eight years ago when my daughter was born, the interest came back with a passion. I wanted to put together a family tree with her as the root and research not only both sides of my family, but my wife’s family as well.

This post outlines the approach I took and what I found useful, then develops a set of steps around it for others that might just be at the cusp of getting started with their own family tree.

Choose a platform

Before you do anything, give some consideration to how you want to keep track of all the information you’re going to gather. While there quite a few choices, the good news is GEDCOM. GEDCOM is a simple file format developed back in 1984 that (almost) every piece of genealogy software that exists can export to and import from. So, if you choose a tool that you end up not liking, you’ll be able to transition to another tool with a minimum of fuss.

While it might be tempting to use an online service as the primary location to store your tree, I’d highly recommend instead choosing a piece of desktop software that syncs with online storage. The two major choices here are MyHeritage Family Tree Builder, which syncs with the MyHeritage site, and Family Tree Maker, which syncs with It’s quite a crowded field, of course, so set aside some time to try out a few.

I ended up choosing MyHeritage’s Family Tree Builder because I liked the interface and the price is right (free).

Just get started

With software in hand, jump in. Pick the root of your tree and start entering everything and everyone you know off the top of your head. If you know a name, but not a birthdate, that’s OK: add them and what you know you about them. I promise you that you’ll be circling back around to every person in your tree multiple times over the years adding more and more information. And if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong.

Ask family

At this point, you’ve done your initial brain dump and probably gotten pretty used to it. Now’s the time to start reaching out to family members for additional names, details, and stories. Ask for paperwork, photos, family bibles, death announcements, newspaper clippings, and anything else you can think of.

I found that family started getting very interested in the project once I started asking questions. I think genealogy is one of those things that everyone gives a passing thought to, but few end up making the leap into heavy research.

Sign up for a service (or more than one)

Another reason I liked MyHeritage is that their online service has a decent free tier, allowing a tree of up to 250 people and 500 megs of storage for photos. As you get further into your tree, you’ll probably want to move up to a paid version of a service not only for storing your tree, but for doing research.

The two major sites, again, for this are Ancestry and MyHeritage. Which is better? Which should you subscribe to? Here’s my wishy-washy take: either and, at times, maybe both.

I have an ongoing subscription with MyHeritage that covers storage for my growing tree of over 1200 family members and also a fair number of databases for research. However, every so often Ancestry will run a really good promotion and I’ll sign up for six months with their service as well. Ancestry’s database depth, particularly worldwide, is better than MyHeritage’s, but it’s also more expensive.

Research, match, contact

Once you’re signed up for a service (or more than one), dive into your research. This is simultaneously fun, informative, time consuming, and exasperating. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve spent digging through records, entering data, and then looking at the clock through bleary eyes and shaky hands realizing it’s 2am and I really need to get to bed.

Beyond just researching records, though, family tree storage sites are also excellent for their ability to match members of your tree with members of other trees stored with the service. This is what ended up breaking open the most doors for me. My own tree went back a little over a hundred years, but there were lots of questions. Thanks to research others had done and shared, I was able to expand certain branches of the tree back as far as 1300s Germany (when I didn’t even know I had any German ancestry in me!). Granted, you’re putting a lot of faith in other people and there are plenty of garbage trees out there with questionable data (parents four years older than their children). But, if you know this and go into this stage of research with an open, but skeptical, mind, you’ll get leads that you never even imagined.

The last part of this step involves contacting others beyond your own known relatives. You’ll start bumping into third cousins all over the place and reaching out to them can help illuminate sections of your tree you’re getting stuck on.

DNA services

At some point, when you’ve been at the research thing a while, you’ll want to test technology even further and try one (or more!) of the DNA matching services. The main ones are 23andme, MyHeritage’s Family Finder, and Ancestry’s AncestryDNA. Again, there are pros and cons to all of these services and you need to spend some time comparing and contrasting to decide which you want to go with. You may decide on none, or under certain circumstances, you may want to try all of them. If you’re going to go in, do so knowing all the risks that come with DNA testing (would you be comfortable finding out you were adopted? outing a relative as a parent of an unknown cousin?). “Uprooted” gives a good rundown of the new privacy implications we’re just beginning to run into with widespread DNA testing.

I decided on 23andme and found the results quite interesting, though it took almost a year before I made a connection with a new relative–a third cousin–solely through DNA matching. She had tried all three services in an attempt to find out more about her father’s side of the family, which she knew nothing about. After matching with me and one or two other cousins, we found out we shared great-great-grandparents. She also turned me onto GEDmatch, a completely free site that allows you to upload your DNA (creepy!) and compare it with others across DNA testing services. No matter which of the three major services you go with, consider uploading to GEDmatch as well.

The next level

At this point, you may need more information than can be found online. Large amounts of data have yet to be digitized and indexed, so at this point, you’ll want to look for genealogy experts living in various parts of the world to do feet-on-the-ground research or maybe even plan a research trip yourself.

I’m not here yet, but I’m getting close.


The great thing about working on your family tree is that you’ll never be done. There’s always more to find out, more paths to follow, more stories to archive, more mysteries to solve. Keep looping back around and enjoying the process over and over. It’s a blast.