Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Straw Church is Alive!

On January 30, we (via Cousin J) received an interesting email from two of the most lovely people who are representing the Straw Church's newly formed Historical Committee. We had sent the church several inquiries over the last few years trying to find out if they still hold the original church records, to which we never received much reply. But the new Historical Committee is full of friendly and helpful energy, and they were writing to inquire about our 6th g-grandpa Georg Sommer who was being considered as possibly the earliest member of the Straw Church congregation. Isn't it a miracle how some things don't actually get lost and eventually do come back around?

Well, we happily provided the Historical Committee with everything we've discovered about our Sommer family over the past couple years. But the question of whether Grandpa Georg was the earliest member depended on, we felt, a current analysis of the original record that recorded his obituary, most probably written in German. We (and probably any other Sommer descendant) have been working from translations handed down to us, one of which comes from the wonderful website called Raub and More:

1785, Aug. 8.  John George Summer, born in Freystadt in Elsas, April 23, 1721. He was a member of this congregation forty-two years* and had eleven children, and blind for eight years, age 64 years, 3 months and fifteen days.

A slightly different translation was on file at the Straw Church, which they provided to us as:

New Straw Church
1785, Aug. 8, Johann Georg Summer, born in Freystadt in Alsace on Apr. 23, 1721. Father of 11 children. Blind for the last 11 years. Died Aug. 6. Age 64-3-15.

We asked if the new Historical Committee could provide us with a digital image of the original record? Yes they could and they did, twice in fact, the second time in a better resolution for zooming in! From there, my very talented Cousin J did her magical translation performance, and came up with:

1785, Aug. 8. John George Summer, born at Freystadt in Elsas, April 23, 1721. He was a member of our parish, forty-two years married, eleven children raised, he was eleven years with cataracts until he became blind, died Aug. 6th, lived 64 years, 3 months and 15 days.

Well, this new translation is interesting indeed! I immediately sent the image of the church record to my archivist friend in Freistett, and he confirmed the interpretation that Georg was married 42 years rather than in the congregation for that long. This particular point was important for us since we feel certain that Grandpa Georg arrived in Philadelphia in 1752, which would be 9 years later than 1743 when he would supposedly have been attending the Straw Church. Also given that we found Grandpa Georg's marriage record in Freistett in 1745, we can agree that he was married at least 40 years when he died.

And to top it off, the Historical Committee has impressively asked their own translation expert to re-examine this obituary record carefully.  Here are this expert's translation and comments:

English:   1785, Aug. 8th.  Johann Georg Summer, born at Freystadt in Alsace, April 23rd 1721.  Had as (a) member of our congregation in a 42 year marriage raised 11 children.  Was eleven years (with) cataract(s) (at) his end blind.  Died Aug. 6th.  Lived 64 years, 3 months and 15 days.

In the translation I tried to preserve most of the original syntax, adding a few words that would make it easier to understand in English and changing word order only where really necessary.

It’s interesting that the wording could let you assume that the membership and marriage were both 42 years, but I’m sure that’s just the scribe’s sentence structure.

So here we are, 229 years after grandpa Georg died, still arriving at a better understanding of the few details left behind about his life. And certainly we can also learn alot here about how our ancestors stories unfold:

  • It's ALWAYS worth it to seek out original records whenever possible, which in itself can take time and effort, but once available still requires a high level of commitment and determination to attempt deciphering and understanding as objectively as possible. There was no quick answer to any question we have ever posed about our Sommer and Menge relations - we've had to keep asking the questions, sometimes in just slightly different ways, we've had to ask for help, we've had to wait, we've had to spend hours/days/weeks/months teaching ourselves at least parts of another language written in a script that is long ago faded and only because we really want to know that badly.
  • It's my experience that genealogy work simply does not happen in a vacuum. Sure, we can thank all the unknown volunteers who are out there helping to digitize and index genealogical records so that we can sit in the comfort of our homes and discover all kinds of previously unknown details about our ancestors. (Thank You!) But this episode illustrates genealogy generosity in a personal way. This very minute there are complete strangers to us in New Jersey who want to know the history of their church better, and in their learning have reached out to help those of us descended from their church members so that we can all share the story together.  Does it matter to me that our grandpa Georg Sommer may not have been the earliest member of the Straw Church? Not one bit. I am thrilled with this process and that we can all benefit from seeking clarification together. It's a wonderful story all told, and it surely belongs to all of us.

Finally, let me here add a plug to send any donations you can to the Straw Church Historical Committee. They did not ask for money when we asked for their help, but we all know that any efforts at historical preservation need some financial support. If you're like me, you'll find great satisfaction in contributing so that our New Jersey story can live long into the future.

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