The Victoria Genealogical Society (VGS) recently received a donation of over 100 000 names gathered from 46 cemeteries located on southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Local genealogist Judy Wasylenko made the donation to the VGS as a new addition to their collection of genealogical material, which is available to the public through the society’s resource centre or website.
The VGS, founded in 1978 and currently consisting of 300 members, offers numerous services through its volunteer-run programs. VGS Project Director Merv Scott says, “Through our library we can help people that are researching their family tree, whether they live in Victoria or not. Another part is what we call one-on-one assistance, where we can help a person who needs a bit of one-on-one training on what genealogical resources are out there, and of course if they want us to do research for them, we can do that for a modest fee. We do seminars in retirement homes, we reintroduce genealogy to senior citizens, and we provide that free.”
Wasylenko’s donation had been compiled through decades of research, which she began in the ’80s while living in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Wasylenko says searching for ancestry in Canada was not why she began her research. “I am from the Netherlands, so it wasn’t even that I was researching my own family. I really can’t say how it came about, but just, you know, it’s one of those things. It was just something that you can do by yourself whenever you feel like it, and it just got to be so interesting.”
“When Judy came to us and said ‘I have this, would you be interested,’ we jumped at it, because we knew if we could find some way of promoting it and getting it out there on the Internet, we might be able to help someone do their research,” Scott says. “So it was just wonderful that she brought it to us, but, of course, you have to be able to have the volunteers that can make use of it. So we’re lucky enough to have a large membership compared to a lot of genealogy societies, and amongst them are volunteers that can handle these things.” One of those volunteers is the society’s webmaster, Claudia Boorman, who turned the donation into a searchable database for the resource centre, but also made it into an online index, so that the data would be accessible through the website.
Wasylenko decided to donate her research now because she felt she had completed it. “I’ve always been of the opinion that you share the information you have. None of it is any good to me, not one of them are my relatives, so why keep it in my house? So I’ve always done that. Make it known to as many people as you can,” she says. Wasylenko’s donation is of even greater importance because she didn’t only record the details of grave markers, she also added information from death records and other sources. “It’s never a complete picture. You just try and do what you can, but, like any good genealogist, you do not take anything for granted. You have to get more information from other things, like the census or whatever it may be.”
Wasylenko says it’s surprising how often the death certificate differs from the name on the grave marker. “The older markers used to have it right on the marker, ‘born Birmingham, England,’ or whatever, even things like ‘buried at sea.’ Just that little extra. Then, of course, with all the cremations you just get ‘1895 to 1950’ and that’s it.”
Unless you can talk directly to family members, Wasylenko says, “you are not 100 per cent sure that that person is there. A lot of times it is a memorial, and when they came with cremation it really distorted the records in a way, because you just have no idea whether they’re there or not.”
Scott and Wasylenko are far from alone in their passion for genealogy and collaboration. Scott says, “We’ve seen a lot of discussion in the States, where they figure it’s the second biggest hobby, second only to gardening in the States. There are so many websites out there now, and blogs, smart phone applications. So it’s big, and what happens is everyone is trying to help everyone else and that’s the beauty of it. And that’s why I got involved, because people had helped me over the years, so when I retired I thought it was my turn to help.”