Imagine being able to walk into a library and find a history of your ancestors' long-gone Luzerne County church, a photo of it, names of the clergy, church anniversary publications and - definitely - a listing of where the church's old birth, marriage and death records may be found.
Science fiction, right?
Not quite. In June, staff and volunteers at the Luzerne County Historical Society will embark on a multi-year project of updating and expanding the society's Curran Collection of local church information, with the cooperation of area churches.
``Our main goal now is to increase it,'' said Jesse Teitelbaum, executive director of the historical society. ``Our plans are to get more up-to-date information - photos, centennial booklets, any kind of information they are willing to share.''
The Curran Collection is 40 boxes of area church history material compiled by Monsignor John J. Curran, who died in 1936. To historians, Curran is most famous for bringing President Theodore Roosevelt to Wilkes-Barre in 1902 to help settle a bitter strike by anthracite coal miners.
The material was housed for years at King's College, which added to it and then in the 1990s donated it to the Historical Society, where it sits on the second floor of the society's South Franklin Street library and office building.
``It's an important project because so many churches are consolidating, being torn down,'' Teitelbaum said. ``Not only is it important for historical reasons, but for genealogists we are finding out where these churches were and where their records might be.'' The procedure will be simple, but time-consuming. To start, Teitelbaum will have staff and volunteers contact houses of worship in the Wilkes-Barre area and collect material. By summer's end, it is hoped, the group will fan out to other parts of the county.
Once the material has been compiled, it will be filed in the society's library and an index prepared for use of researchers will be kept in the downstairs reading room.
Actual church records, though, are another matter. Churches will be asked where their own files of births, marriages and deaths are, and their answers will be recorded.
``One of the biggest questions we get here is if we have any church records,'' Teitelbaum said. ``We won't have the records here, but at least we'll be able to point people in the right direction.''
A vital part of the research effort will be tracking down data on churches that have vanished. To that end, a questionnaire will ask each existing church if and when other churches merged with it. Also, the society will consult historical sources to pinpoint churches of the past.
Though the original Curran Collection focused largely on Catholic churches, the expansion project is to be comprehensive in the light of Luzerne County's broad religious history and its changing demographics.
``We will also be going to synagogues, mosques, any kinds of religious organizations throughout the county,'' Teitelbaum said.
He hopes for additional volunteers - people who are willing to make church visits, people with photography skills, anybody who can help.
Teitelbaum said he's growing concerned because of news that a once-flourishing Plymouth church has been demolished and others are merging and giving up old buildings.
``That's why this is the perfect time to do it. Before we lose any other ones we have to get started. We really have to do it now.''
Queries: 1) Gwyneth J. Schultz of Maryland is looking for information on two area fraternal organizations of times past - the Patriotic Order of Sons of America and Knights of the Golden Eagles.
Gwyneth, my research shows me that the Sons of America once had a strong presence in the community. A half-century ago they maintained lodges or ``camps'' in 10 or more Luzerne County communities, according to city directories and other sources. But I see no mention of the Sons anywhere in recent decades. Unfortunately, I have turned up nothing on the Golden Eagles. Anyone who knows anything about either of these two associations or their records may contact me at the addresses below.
2) Craig Heberton is trying to find out what relationship his family might have to a section of Foster Township known as South Heberton.
Craig, the Luzerne County Historical Society's reference library has a history of South Heberton, by Charles K. Stumpf, originally published as an article in the regional Panorama magazine. Take a look at it and let us know your results.
3) ``I am very interested in the mining accidents listed on your Web site on Feb. 8, 1916, and also Aug. 8, 1916.'' Becky Bechtel.
Becky, I looked at newspaper accounts of those two multi-death mining disasters, but your ancestor's name (John Sullivan) was not among the victims. It could be that he was killed in a smaller incident around that time. It is the larger incidents that are listed on Luzerne County Genweb. The Wilkes-Barre Record Almanac for 1916 says 201 men died in Luzerne County mining accidents that year, but unfortunately does not name them.
So a different tack is called for, especially since you're not really sure of the year. Do you know what town he lived in, or what church he attended? You might find a church burial record. Then you can go to the newspapers for the story.
Local History Moment: Quick - when did the Wyoming Valley area get its first day care center? The 1960s, maybe? Think again. The best candidate for that honor is probably The Infants' Home, which opened on North River Street, Wilkes-Barre, in 1879. For 10 cents, actually a good sum of money at the time, a woman could drop off her child there in the morning as she was on her way to work and pick the child up at the end of the day. The facility, which was primarily an orphanage, eventually merged with the Home for Friendless Children, the ancestor of today's Children's Service Center.
News Notes: Americans' appetite for knowledge of their past appears insatiable. Crowds have inundated the new Civil War Museum in Harrisburg. ``Nearly 23,000 visitors came to the museum between its Feb. 12 opening and (mid-March), which is about a third of the number that officials expected for the entire first year,'' the Associated Press reports.
Congratulations to the Luzerne County Historical Society for its innovative series of free Saturday programs designed to get children interested in the area's history and culture. Twenty kids from 5 to 9 showed up for the introductory session - a tour of the museum's coal mining and early artifact exhibits and a crafts session. Contact the society at 823-6244 for additional dates.
Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at www.timesleader.com.
Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.
Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711. Email is email@example.com