Mary Joan Cornett (contributed photo).

Red Deer genealogical society celebrates 40 years of helping people discover their roots

“It broadens your horizons,” says member

Those commercials are true: It is possible to grow up thinking you’re Irish and later find out you’re Italian.

“A lot of people don’t know their grandparents. They may not know their fathers,” said Mary Joan Cornett, of the Red Deer branch of the Alberta Genealogical Society.

For 40 years, her local club has been helping people get in touch with their roots at meetings held on the third Thursday of the month. While it’s gotten easier to investigate one’s origins through DNA tests and online records, Cornett always advises people to start by listening to whatever family stories are available to them.

“Talk to your grandparents, if they’re still alive… elderly aunts love to talk about their histories, but no one ever asks them any questions…”

The local club that started with 12 members in 1978 has grown to 65 members, who will celebrate four decades as a society at a potluck supper next week.

Cornett has heard that genealogy is becoming a popular pursuit — and she thinks it’s great, “because the world is an enormous place. It’s important to appreciate other countries, and realize that your culture is not the only culture.”

Cornett’s own recent family history wasn’t hard to discover, since her relatives arrived to homestead in 1894 near Fort Normandeau.

Her great-grandfather, Robert Alexander Cornett, was lured from farming by the promise of Yukon riches. But he died in a northern mining accident during the Gold Rush. His body was returned to Red Deer and is buried in the Red Deer Cemetery.

His son — Mary Joan’s grandfather, Roy Cornett — ended up taking over a downtown Red Deer pharmacy from one of the sons of city founder Leonard Gaetz. It was turned into the Gaetz Cornett Drug Store, which was then operated by her father, Tom Cornett, on Ross Street until 1981.

Cornett has traced her roots back to the 1500s on her Mother’s English side of the family and early 1800s on her father’s Irish side.

One of her more colourful discoveries was that a great-uncle was a First World War deserter, who ended up in hiding, running a saloon and pool hall in Montana.

Genealogy isn’t just a case of finding births, marriages and deaths: “It broadens your horizons,” said Cornett, who has made several trips to England and Ireland — visiting the actual farms her ancestors worked on.

“There’s a feeling of amazement that people have come from being poor tenant farmers… to making a better lives for their children.”

She invites anyone interested in learning more about their ancestry to the next society meeting after summer break — on Thursday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m. in a space donated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 3002-47th Ave.

Members are always willing to help someone new get started, said Cornett.

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