New Britain Herald <>

Genealogical society explores Polish heritage

Thursday, July 9, 2009 10:20 PM EDT

By JENNIFER ABEL, Staff writer

NEW BRITAIN — If you wanted to eat at Jonathan Shea’s house Wednesday morning, you’d have to stand to do it: the dining-room table was buried under thick piles of obituary notices, hundreds of them from newspapers all over America.

Shea and his friends Margaret Jenkins and Wanda Mercier sat at the table assiduously sorting through the clippings. “For the past 25 years people have been sending us obituaries from papers all over the country,” Shea said, but there’s nothing morbid about his interest.

Shea is the founder of the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast, Inc. “We gather materials that enable people to research their family history.”

“We’re trying to organize the obituaries,” Jenkins said as she sorted through the yellowing piles before her. “The eventual goal is to get an index of obituaries online. It has already started.”

“We have several projects we’re working on simultaneously,” Shea added. “We’ve been compiling listings of cemeteries from all over the country, and Europe. People in Poland have been sending us parish cemetery records, or photographs of tombstones ... our main three projects at the moment are the obituaries, cemeteries, and a list of villages people were born in so people can research their ancestors.”

Some think it must be hard to search old records in Poland, considering how much devastation the country saw in World War II.

Shea shook his head emphatically.

“That’s a myth. People think everything was burned, but Poland has lots of archives. The only major destruction was when a church was in the battle line ... my grandfather’s parish has records going back to the 1600s. That’s quite impressive.”

Shea is a full-time foreign language professor at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, and a part-time faculty member at Central Connecticut State University. His language skills — he teaches Russian, Spanish, Polish and Italian, and also speaks French — definitely help his genealogical research. However, he says English-only speakers should not let that dissuade them from researching their family history.

“Language is not an obstacle because you don’t need to learn the whole language, just ‘born,’ ‘died,’ ‘married,’ ‘son of,’ things like that.”

The Genealogical Society has a collection of Polish telephone books which, for research purposes, are more useful than their American equivalents. Mercier said, “Once you have a telephone number in Poland, you usually keep it when you move.”

All three researchers at Shea’s house are of Polish ancestry, despite their last names.

“Maybe you can stick a ‘ski’ on the end of mine,” Mercier said.

In addition to obituary notices, the society also collects old group photos and organizational and parish histories.

“Sometimes people have these old records, and don’t want to keep them but don’t want to throw them away. We ask that they give them to us,” Shea said, motioning to a pile of old books such as the 1977 “Golden Jubilee Souvenir Booklet” put out by Holy Cross Church, and a 1944 volume written in Polish to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sacred Heart Parish.

“There’s patterns of migration; people would be from one village, and all go to the same place in the U.S.,” Shea said. The Polish population in Norwich mostly hails from Suwalki province, Shea said, while New Britain’s Polish immigrants came mostly from three towns: Dabrowa Bialostocka, Myszyniec and Wola Ranizowska.

“One person settles in New Britain, writes home and says ‘There’s jobs here, it’s a good life.’ So more people come. It’s called ‘chain migration,’” said Shea.

In August, the society will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a conference at CCSU. In addition to Shea, speakers will include William Hoffman, an onomastics scholar who will discuss the origins and meanings of Polish surnames; Christine McCarthy from Yale, who will discuss the best ways to preserve old paper and photographic records; and several more.

For more information about the conference, or to contact the genealogical society, check their website at <> .


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