Visitors root around for roots; Family History Library a gold mine for genealogy buffs

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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SALT LAKE CITY – Prince Albert probably knows all he needs to about his royal lineage.

But the rest of the Monaco bobsled team decided to ask the Mormons for help finding their roots.

Thanks to an unusual religious belief, the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints is the world’s biggest and best resource for people researching their genealogy. And many of those in town for the Olympics are sneaking into the church’s Family History Library here between events.

“I’ve heard a lot about this place, and I want to see what they have about my family,” said Greet den Hertog, whose niece Andrea Nuyt is competing in speedskating for the Netherlands. “I want to see my roots.”

In the last few days, the library has seen several visits from athletes, including most (but not all) of the Monaco team, and many more from coaches and spectators.

“We’ve seen figure skaters, we’ve seen IOC officials – we’ve seen everybody,” said Larry Piatt, the library’s deputy director.

The Family History Library is the largest collection of genealogy records in the world. It has more than 2.2 million rolls of microfilm. Its records include the names of more than 2 billion dead people – equal to the populations of North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Russia and Germany combined.

For Mormons, genealogy isn’t just a hobby – it’s a tool of their faith. Mormons believe that they can retroactively baptize their non-Mormon ancestors and thus give them a chance at eternal salvation. Church founder Joseph Smith said researching genealogy was a spiritual obligation of all the faith’s members.

The practice has been controversial in the past, such as last year when researchers for the Simon Wiesenthal Center objected that many Holocaust victims and prominent Jews – Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud among them – had been baptized by proxy. So have Napoleon, Hitler and Ben Franklin. Church members believe that those baptized after death have the ability to accept or reject the baptism.

But many of the Olympic visitors are more interested in their own genealogical research than post-mortem baptism.

“My family tree is very difficult to track,” said Fernando Scrimini, a 26-year-old Argentinian of mixed Italian/Spanish heritage. He’s in Salt Lake City as a spectator, and he’s also in training with hopes of qualifying for the 2006 Games in slalom. “Everyone here is so nice. I found all these relatives in France I
never knew about.”

The 2006 Games will be held in Turin, Italy, and Scrimini hopes to track down some of his Italian relatives before then.

“My kids have done some research into the family tree, but they wanted to see what they could find here,” said Ron Deatrick of Ottawa, Ohio, who came to the Olympics with his family.

“We follow our family history very closely in my country, and I want to compare what they have here to what we have at home,” said Mi-Hyun Kang, a South Korean working at the Games.

“Ten days ago, we were having very little international traffic,” Piatt said. “Now it’s a lot heavier, and it’s still building.”

Piatt said that, despite the increased traffic from international and out-of-state visitors, the number of visitors is down from normal. The reason: “regulars” who normally come every day are frightened away by the traffic and parking problems around the library’s downtown location.

But he expects that, as the Games move on and more events conclude, the number of Olympics-related visitors will increase. “For a lot of the athletes, I imagine they’ve got their minds on something else at the moment,” he said.