Looking for Ned Sager

Marlene Simmons
Courtesy M. Simmons

Posted 03.13.06

SUTTON, QC | Dave Lepitre, our resident genealogist in the Border area around Stanstead, conducted this interview with Marlene Simmons, whom he considers a genealogist par excellence. Ms. Simmons' database, he says, is one of the best sources for genealogical research help in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

Marlene please tell me how you ended up in the Mansonville area of Quebec, and about your former profession?

I met my husband, who grew up here in Glen Sutton, when we were both at university in Ottawa. I finished my degree and went on to work for the national wire service, The Canadian Press, where I was a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery as well as their medical and science reporter.

My husband's heart has always been here in Glen Sutton. He's a country boy at heart. Eventually we built a small log cabin on land his father gave us and we moved here full time in 1977.

My family was in the Outaouais region of Quebec six generations, but I grew up in southwestern Ontario and don't speak French well enough to work as a journalist. I turned my hobby of gardening into a job, working for my brother-in-law's landscaping business. When my knees started to give me a lot of grief, I knew I had to find something else so I turned another hobby, genealogy, into work.

How did you become a provider of genealogical information on such a large scale?

It was never planned. I just kept buying microfilm. When I finished one reel, I'd buy another for another nearby area. It all radiates out from Sutton Township, where I live. I started indexing this region and then started working my way outwards, kind of like starting from the center of a puzzle and adding pieces all around.

How did you become interested in genealogy and when?

My husband does a lot of odd jobs, mostly small carpentry repairs. When Gordon Bullock retired as the grave digger for Brock Memorial Park, the cemetery in Glen Sutton, he approached my husband to take on the job, which he did. This is such a tiny community that burials are few and far between.

We went up to the cemetery together to meet Gordon to talk over the job and as I looked over the cemetery I could see all these depressions in the ground that didn't have any gravestones. Clearly someone had been buried in these lots, but who?

Although our cemetery goes back to the early 1800's, I soon found out that its records reach back less than 100 years. I thought it would be an interesting project to find out who was buried in the cemetery.

Here I am, twenty years later, and I still can't tell you exactly who is buried in Brock Memorial Park. It's a wonderful microcosm of all the problems that face anyone trying to do genealogy here in the Townships.

Ministers wrote burial records without saying in which cemetery someone was buried. Being so close to the border, it's very possible that some of the people buried in this cemetery were served by Vermont clergy, who took their records back across the border.

There are gaps in church registers on both sides of the border. Sometimes people didn't bother with clergy. I have gravestones in church cemeteries that don't have a burial record in the records of the church itself.

I found records in the Chateaugay Valley and the Drummondville region where the minister states that someone was buried in the church cemetery without clergy being used. I guess the ministers decided to record the death, even though they hadn't actually performed a burial, to help keep records for the cemetery.

People expect their ancestors to leave a detailed paper trail, but it didn't always happen. Many communities were far off the beaten trail and didn't have easy access to clergy. The whole system in Quebec was pinned on the notion that everyone would use a church, that there would be at least a baptism and a burial record. But not everyone could, or chose to, get their kids baptized or had clergy available when they needed them.

Also, the clergy didn't always include much information in their records. I have seen a lot of marriage records that only say the equivalent of "John Smith married Mary Brown on July 1, 1828." No parents, no age, no place of residence, no marital status given. Yeesh. Piecing together early Protestant Quebec genealogy can sometimes sap a person's will to live.

How much work have you done to get to where your database is today?

I have indexed over 650,000 records now, over 300,000 of them church records. It's hard to explain how much work that is. Only someone who has squinted at reels of microfilm, forced themselves to deal with poorly exposed or out of focus films, not to mention the atrocious handwriting of some of the clergy, knows what that means. I never did keep track of all the hours. Probably just as well.

I have also indexed almost 30,000 gravestones. That is summer time work and only someone who has braved swarms of mosquitoes and blackflies for hours at a time knows what that means. Please don't think I'm whining, because I'm not. If genealogy didn't interest me, I could never have kept plugging away like this.

What you are offering to the researching public? What area do you cover?

I primarily offer church records, most of them Protestant records, most of them up until 1899. I've indexed everything on microfilm for Quebec Protestants prior to 1800 and after that I've done most of the north shore of the St. Lawrence, Argenteuil County, which is west of Montreal, the district of Beauharnois, which is southwest of Montreal, the District of Bedford which is between Lakes Champlain and Memphremagog, the District of St. Francis 1880-99, the Beauce, and the Gaspé.

(If you have the Internet, you can see a complete list at http://simmons.b2b2c.ca/attach2.htm)

At present I'm doing Quebec City records. After that I have some mopping up in the North shore, some Megantic County records and then I think I'll turn my focus to the Ottawa Valley where my own people started out.

Is it satisfing work?

Yes, it can be very satisfying work. Today I got a letter for a man who has been looking for his family for 35 years and I had the marriage record he needed to take his family back to Ireland. I know he's not a young man and it's kind of nice to think that now he can pursue his search a bit further.

Tell me about he most interesting or successful hunt you have had?

The most challenging hunt I've ever had was for the McFadden family. They were itinerant tinsmiths who roamed all over this province. I have found children for this family in every part of Quebec but the Gaspé and District of Beauharnois. They even had one child baptized in an isolated church mission attached to an aboriginal village. If memory serves, only two or three non-native children were ever baptized in the records of that church, and sure enough, one of them was for this roaming McFadden clan.

The most interesting hunt involves a woman who will remain nameless. Her descendents in New England knew her as a very prim, devout Catholic woman. It turned out that she had been born Protestant, had two illegitimate children, and was probably instrumental in breaking up the marriage of a man old enough to be her father, a man she eventually married. She converted to Catholicism, was widowed relatively young because of the huge age difference between her and her first husband. She married a second man her own age and they moved to New England where she closed the book on her past.

Her family had no idea that she began her life in another faith, that those first two children, or the first marriage, ever existed. Fortunately, they found it intriguing.

How many customers have you helped, a ballpark figure?

Oh, gosh, that's a tough one. I would guess it's in the region of 1,000 people now. Remember, a lot of people only order one record from me. They're looking for one tiny piece of information they haven't been able to find. Very few folks come to me looking for a complete tree.

Are you still adding to your database?

Yes, at the moment I'm doing Quebec City records. Genealogy is really history writ small. In history books we read about cholera epidemics sweeping through Quebec City, but the scope of it didn't hit me until I started indexing the records of the time and saw all those thousands of burials. It was stunning.

The clergy were simply overwhelmed by how many burials they had to do. At some points all they could do was write down a name and date of burial, nothing more. They had no time to collect date of death, ages, names of parents (if it was a child), place of origin, or names of spouses. So much death. So much loss.

Any funny little story or words of wisdom to give to the readers?

When I was in journalism school, my profs all drummed into me the idea that you don't take anything at face value and it's a good idea to get as many sources of information as you can. It is the very best advice to give someone doing genealogical research.

When I was indexing the Abbott's Corner Cemetery, I came across a small stone which read, "In memory of Ned Sager, died Nov. 19, 1908 aged 4." So of course I assumed that a family called Sager had tragically lost a young child. Only they hadn't.

The cemetery's caretaker, Sherman Young, told me in April, 1996 that this was a stone for a beloved dog. I can't remember the particulars of how the stone came to be in the cemetery-perhaps the family sold the home farm and decided to move the dog's stone into the family lot in Abbott's Corners. All I know is that it would have been a merry chase trying to figure out into which Sager family young Ned fit.

Copyright © 2006 David Lepitre/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.06