Family Tree search: Luck, coincidence or something more

Donna Stephenitch found the record of Edward Conahan/Connahan's burial at St. Patrick's in Maytown and sent Maureen Acin a picture of the headstone and recommended bringing supplies to make a rubbing of the stone. Four days later, Acin, above, made the rubbing that confirmed that her great-grandfather was buried there.


AMBOY – Maureen Acin, of Lompoc, Calif., and her friend, Christine Cresswell, of Santa Ynez, Calif., left the Amboy News office on a Thursday afternoon in April with a plan to go to the Lee County Historical and Genealogical Society (LCHGS) in Dixon the following day.  A previously scheduled dinner at the Long Branch Saloon with Mary Olson, however, was their next stop.

Was it luck that they had been connected to Mary (Friel) Olson when they stopped in the Amboy News in their search for information on Acin’s maternal great-grandparents, Edward Conahan/Connahan and Margaret (Friel) Conahan? Was it coincidence that Diane Eisenberg was in T&Ts Corner that afternoon to help with documents that Acin had received from the LCHGS months earlier? Or that those documents had been researched by Eisenberg herself?

If she thought that luck or coincidence were responsible, eating at the Long Branch Saloon that evening might have made her think again. Their waitress that evening was Nancy Neal. Neal’s “day job” at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Sublette gave her unique insight to the records available at the parish office. Neal knew that a co-worker at OLPH, Donna Stephenitch, was supposed to be in the office that evening. Stephenitch had received the phone message left at the parish office that afternoon by Acin. Stephenitch called Acin to verify information and then looked up the records and found that an Edward Connahan was buried at St. Patrick’s. She let Acin know she would go to the cemetery the next day and take a picture of the stone to send to her.

When asked if she always went “the extra mile” of going to the cemetery herself, she said, “I try to do it if it is possible to. I want to help the family find their loved ones. In this case, I let Maureen know she needed to bring supplies to do a stone rubbing. The stone was very worn and a rubbing would help her read it.”  There was no record of Margaret at any of the cemeteries that Stephenitch had records of.

When asked about the many coincidences, Stephenitch asked, “Did you know Father Kramer was at the Long Branch for dinner that night?”

Father Kramer, now retired, was a priest at St. Patrick’s and familiar with the cemetery. He talked with Acin and Cresswell that evening. Another bit of luck? Coincidence? It was hard to argue that maybe providence was involved.

The next day, Friday, was a visit to the LCGHS and the Lee County Courthouse for any possible information that may have been missed previously. Census information measured ages in ranges, so anything with a specific date would be very important. No death certificates were found for Edward or Margaret. Unfortunate, because death certificates contain so much information and are very valuable to genealogists. Acin was told by the Lee County staff that it was not unusual for there to be no certificate. There was a fee to have a death certificate made and not everyone was willing or able to pay for one.

A will was on file for Margaret Conahan leaving the family farm to her children. The executor of the will was listed as John Conahan. The will contained the date of death, Oct. 12, 1894. The date of death was a concrete fact that would help in further research. There were also claim notices on file. Acin requested some copies that she would have to pick up the following week.

The weekend was spent in the Freeport area in the search for information for the other side of Acin’s family. Acin’s grandmother, Eleanor “Nellie” Conahan, born in Amboy/East Grove/Maytown, married James Powers, an immigrant from Ireland, who settled in Freeport. Acin already had considerably more information on this side of her family. The Stephenson County Library-Family Research Center was helpful in the search there. Larger cities often have more complete records that make research easier and even one generation closer to present time makes a difference in the availability of information.

On Monday, Acin and Cresswell returned to Lee County to visit St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Maytown. Acin knew what her great-grandfather’s headstone looked like from the picture taken by Stephenitch and she was prepared with the supplies she needed to make a rubbing of the headstone. Finding Edward without Margaret was bittersweet.  Knowing for sure where Edward was answered only part of why Acin was here. Margaret outlived Edward by 19 years and none of the local cemeteries had any record of her burial. 

The search is not over for Acin. She plans to visit Philadelphia to search for records that would tell her if Edward and Margaret were married in Ireland before they arrived, or if they met in America.

“Everyone was so nice. It was a great experience to be in Amboy,” Acin said.  She has hope that someone in the area may know of a family cemetery on farmland somewhere in southwest Lee or northeast Bureau County that could be where her great-grandmother is buried. Many family cemeteries were never recorded properly and over time have been lost. Stories told by parents or grandparents of playing in graveyards on local farms could hold clues that would help Acin and other seachers find the roots of their family tree.

If anyone has information regarding such plots, please contact the LCHGS at (815) 284-1134. If you have information on Acin’s family, please contact the Amboy News office at (815) 857-2311.

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