Family History, part III

Well, folks? This will be my final post about my recent Family History vacation. And what remains to be said?

There is something magical about returning to the land of your fathers (or in my case, the land of my mother’s fathers). To walk there, to breathe the air, to look upon the fields and the Cass River, to drive on the roads and see the old homesteads where their friends and neighbors lived–it is magical. It brings history to life. It takes names and dates that we’ve known in ink–on birth, marriage, death, census records, etc–and photos and memoirs, and it pulls them out of some obscure thing called “the past,” and makes it part of the here-and-now. In a sense, it brings our families back to life.

But what is especially magical, I think, is having family that still lives in those places. I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The few towns I’ve ever lived in my life have been “small towns,” so I know the great honor and the great entrapment of being “a local.” Those families that have lived somewhere forever, and know all the weird little stories–that’s what the Schmitzers are in Frankenmuth. I love being able to sit at my Uncle’s house and listen to the stories of our family’s home. It’s all those odd tidbits that I was never going to find on the internet.

And…it’s more. You know, I mentioned before (and will likely mention many, many more times before I die) that my uncles’ interaction with each other reminded me so much of how my own brothers (Steven & Jer) banter. As John and David were talking about David being Grandma’s favorite, and how John would get in trouble for things that Dave instigated (which I can totally believe, by the way), all I could hear in my mind was Steve and Jer telling the story of the time they tried to move the washing machine. And the freezer. Totally unrelated story, of course (it had nothing to do with either of them getting in trouble), but…the back-and-forth banter would’ve been the same. You knew that they were going to tease and mock and blame each other without mercy, and yet, you also knew (without question) that they’d been in it together.

That’s the thing. Family History isn’t just about capturing the names and dates of your ancestors. It isn’t just about building an impressive Family Tree. It’s so much more. It’s about bringing to life the characters who’ve shaped the context we find ourselves in. It’s about seeing the similarities–not just between siblings, but among extended relatives who have no reason to be behaving the same way that you are. It’s about connecting to those who belong with us. It’s about understanding how and why we do belong with one another.

In all of this, I am quite overcome by two distinct feelings: First, it is the realization that the Schmitzer line is only one of the many I have to research, and Second, it is the awareness that it’s not enough to capture the past.

Somehow, I must also learn to capture the present.

Family History, part I

I made it! I’m home! And I am…maybe…ready to start writing about the few short days I spent in Lower Michigan. What an overwhelming and wonderful experience!

You need to know that I went with an Itinerary. In fact, further, you need to know that I’m a pain to travel with because I always get wound up tight about things being “unplanned.” So I made a plan. Mom and Jer made the trip with me, and they were so good about deferring to my Great Agenda. And OH! what an Itinerary it was! I had such high hopes. Unfortunately, my Itinerary was out the door about an hour and a half before I was–yeah, I overslept. Right. Great way to start a trip. Hehe.

Friday began at the St. Lorenz church office in Frankenmuth. In my search for birth and baptism records (trying to confirm some information I’ve known but have not been able to prove thus far), my camera batteries died. Listen, after oversleeping, being seated next to a very self-concerned family of four at the Tiger game, and scorching to a very blistery sunburn that left my face raw, the batteries were about my breaking point. I was ready to head home.

And then it happened. We found it.


Mom had told me many years ago that the Schmitzer name was Americanized, that in its original form, it was spelled with a “u”, or possibly a “ue.” That’s a nice story, of course, but until that moment in the St. Lorenz library, I had never seen evidence of it. What an unimportant revelation, in the whole scheme of things!–except that it blessed my heart. It was a tidbit that I hadn’t come expecting to find; it wasn’t on my Itinerary.

After going through birth and baptism records, we met with a church historian for a tour of St. Lorenz. Let me just offer a shameless plug here: If you are ever looking for an historian in Frankenmuth, Dave Maves is your man. We were very impressed, not only with his wealth of knowledge, but with the flow of information and his character. We could tell he was genuinely interested in the history of the church and community.

The church itself is spectacular. I’ve never been so impressed with a protestant church before. Jeremiah was blown away–and I’ll leave him to share all the interesting tidbits with you. Dave walked us through the stories of each of the stained glass windows, which was so incredible! I remember thinking how very powerful it must be to sit in that church every Sunday with the reminders of your past and your founding all around you. It must be humbling. It’s so sacred!

But if you want to know the best part about the church (and I bet you’ll be surprised), you have to see the organ!

Why am I so in love with this organ? Firstly, just as a musician, it is a gorgeous instrument. But more importantly, my Grandpa Schmitzer played the organ. Now when I was growing up, we had an organ in our church–but it as not an enormous pipe organ like this. So when my mom used to tell me how Grandpa played and how beautiful it was, I really had no idea what she was saying. Let me tell you–after hearing this instrument, I am a convert. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. It will never replace the love I have for the piano, but I am seriously amazed. I wish, more than anything, that I had heard my Grandfather play! My cousin Trisha can tell you a great story about Grandpa and this organ.

We spent Friday afternoon in the St. Lorenz cemetery, searching for graves of our ancestors and finding more than I’d anticipated. There were two really great moments there for me: First, when Jer and Mom began saying, “Bickel–you said we’re related to a Bickel; here’s a Bickel!” And, “Which List did you say we were related to? Was it Johann Adam?” At that point, I realized I’d sucked them into my filthy, wonderful world of genealogy. They weren’t just helping me find Schmitzers anymore.

Second, when I found Johann Michael’s grave.

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you know that I wrote about Johann Michael Schmitzer last year. Even though I know who Mike’s parents and grandparents were, I have felt a strong connection to him and the events of his life. He accomplished so much, sacrificed so much, loved so much. He came to this country as a young man, a teenager, and committed his entire life to his new home. I can only conclude, based on what I know of him, that he didn’t merely come on his parents’ convictions: Johann Michael Schmitzer came to America on a mission. He didn’t leave his heart in Neuendettelsau. What an amazing young man! His grave was the reason I wanted to do this trip–I wanted to touch his grave, see his name for myself.

That’s all I have for tonight.

Pax Christi,