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Ellis Island project is a bridge between families, countries

Church joins with foundation, park service to open facility

ELLIS ISLAND, N.Y.— With the opening of the American Family Immigration History Center here April 17, family history research in America took a great leap forward.

Above, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve speaks during ceremony opening new immigration history center on Ellis Island.
Above, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve speaks during ceremony opening new immigration history center on Ellis Island. Photo: Photo by John L. Hart

The official opening ceremony took place in the great hall of what was once the world's largest immigration center, now a museum on a New York Harbor island. The opening coincided with the anniversary of the largest day in that center's history when more than 11,000 immigrants were processed through the great hall in 1907.

The creation of the center and the automation of the records were accomplished through a partnership of the Church, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, and National Park Service.

Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve represented the Church at the event, joining a group of two chairmen of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation; Charles Grodin, television commentator; descendants of immigrant and song composer Irving Berlin; and a few surviving immigrants who themselves many decades earlier waited in this hall to become citizens.

Most of the guests and the small army of press arrived at the island by boat, as did the immigrants. At the ceremony, they were introduced to the latest technological breakthrough: the automation of 24 million names in the immigrant records. Most of the speakers mentioned the significance of the automated records and discussed their own ancestors who coursed though Ellis Island.

Guests, media mingle before ceremony.
Guests, media mingle before ceremony. Photo: Photo by John L. Hart

Elder Nelson, who briefly addressed the ceremony, explained that the work done by the 12,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who transcribed the records from microfilm for the new American Family Immigration History Center was done in support of the family. "Our youth need their families," he said, adding that they need to have something to look up to, something to teach them responsibility, and something to leave them a heritage.

"Knowing one's ancestors helps to unify families and bind them together."

In a later interview, he commented that knowing one's ancestry "engenders a feeling of loyalty and dependability." He noted that he had researched his eight great-grandparents, all of whom had immigrated to America.

"They came before the Ellis Island history. We found the records of their passage, the ships, the dates of departure, the dates of entry. It was a wonderful day when we found the last piece [of information] for the last name. We feel a marvelous sense of connection with our dear great-grandparents."

Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve, who helped start the program that led to the opening of the new history center on Ellis Island, said, "So many youth feel like they are lost, and have no purpose. To tie down roots of their ancestors gives them direction."

Also at the event were Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy and Elder W. Craig Zwick of the Seventy.

Gale A. Norton, Secretary of Interior, said that the American Family Immigration History Center was the result of "an unprecedented partnership without which this project might never have happened."

This partnership "now can be a model for others," she said.

"Imagine what other celebrations we could have if similar partnerships were held in communities across America."

Elder Nelson, center, with Elder Richard G. Scott, right, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson, left, represent Church, along with Elder W. Craig Zwick, at Ellis Island.
Elder Nelson, center, with Elder Richard G. Scott, right, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson, left, represent Church, along with Elder W. Craig Zwick, at Ellis Island. Photo: Photo by John L. Hart

Lee A. Iacocca, founding chairman of the foundation, thanked those who had helped. "Without the volunteers, it would have been impossible," he said. "To transcribe from the manifests and to read them as accurately as they could [was great]. As Mormons are wont to do, they volunteer for stuff. The [Church] had volunteers all over the place working on transcribing. Even some of the missionaries were doing some of that same work. So without them we'd have never gotten it done."

Tom Brokaw, a well-known news commentator, spoke of technology at the beginning of the 21st century, some of which is employed in the center, and suggested that the immigrants were excited by the new technology at the turn of the 20th century. "But what drew them to America was the most powerful idea of all — freedom," he said.

Despite the prominence of the speakers, the press was most attracted to the handful of surviving immigrants, including 103-year-old Marinus deNooyer, who first came into the building at age 5. From his wheelchair, he looked around the great hall and nodded as he noted his recollections.

April 17 was declared annual "Ellis Island Day" by the U.S. governors, the National Genealogy Society and the foundation.

What had started as a general interest program then, with mutual consent, dissembled into individuals seeking and catching a glimpse of their roots. Invited guests and representatives of the press were invited to try out the new software. An hour later, many of them were still there discovering connections of their own among the 24 million names extracted by Church members. After all, that is what Ellis Island is all about: connections of our own.

The center is available on the Internet at: www.ellisislandrecords.org

E-mail: [email protected]

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