by:  Jeanne Rollberg

When convention goers gathered in Grand Rapids for the National Genealogical Society Family History Conference earlier in May, many of us also explored Kent County resources and nearby places in pursuit of our own families’ histories. In Grand Rapids, a priest helped me find the luck of the Irish.

Fr. Dennis Morrow, a Catholic priest who has served for nearly 43 years come August, was instrumental in helping locate our family’s Irish immigrant history in Bowne and Caledonia. Fr. Morrow often assists information seekers with locating hard-to-find birth records and other critical family information from a bygone era in his role as Grand Rapids Diocese Archivist since back in the 1970s.

An article about the Grand Rapids native from several years ago explained how the priest-historian he came to love local history. “The people I was with, my grandfather and my parents, they all had fantastic memories.” It further explained that “they knew history, the neighborhood, the country.” In his vehicle, Fr. Morrow carries a historic family timepiece – a Westclox Scotty pocketwatch.



Fr. Morrow’s Expert Assistance

It was more than two years ago when, frustrated by a lack of information about the Dunshaughlin, Ireland family of my great-great-grandfather, Robert Bruton, in Bowne, I contacted the church office. Having searched fruitlessly for months in other locations, I was overjoyed when, within minutes, Father Morrow provided birth information for Bruton children born in the 1850s. Many Irish like ours had migrated from New York to Michigan.

Fr. Morrow also took extra steps, finding extended Bruton family birth information for other Brutons, local church and land information, documentation about a family Civil War soldier, and helpful historic context.

We corresponded off and on since 2016 before the May conference. He eventually offered to take us himself to the suburbs where Bruton ancestors lived, once again exceeding expectations. After we walked through St. Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery in Bowne, he reminded me: Each person we bury is a library who deserves our respect and to have a tidy accounting of their lives. He also explained the history of the cemetery.

Fr. Morrow drove us past nearby farm land and the golf course that has now replaced my immigrant grandfather’s farm home area. We stopped by the Bowne Township School Museum. Though it’s obviously different now from the Civil War-era Bowne and Caledonia, the sights Fr. Morrow showed us were still largely agricultural. Standing there led me to suppose that what was before us wasn’t terribly different from what Robert Bruton, his wife, and their five children had found before he died in the Civil War. That was after escaping the Irish Potato Famine only about 15 years earlier. It felt uplifting and even magical to stand on that Michigan historic land.

Post-Bowne Activity

Fr. Morrow suggested that we take a lunch break at the Charley’s Crab on Market Avenue, a longtime favorite of his where servers he knew were friendly and solicitous. There, he provided more Grand Rapids history, some surrounding the firefighting career of his father, Capt. Bud Morrow, who retired in 1979.

He drove us by Engine House #6 that was built in 1879 and used as a fire station more than 100 years. Michigan’s oldest still standing. He explained about other neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, including the the Heritage Hill Historic District with the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home. We saw the Rosa Parks statue and Civil War statues. Fr. Morrow served on the Grand Rapids Historical Commission for six years, creating collections, and his depth of knowledge about the community was clear as we traveled.

We saw the rapids from beside the Grand River, Michigan’s longest, and he explained about the need to rescue boaters who miscalculate the water’s depth and strength. His work with police and firefighters put him direct contact with this. He explained about the changed neighborhoods from his days as a boy in a home at Eighth Street and Front Avenue. He memorized street names as a child, he said. (That was, we agreed, before GPS on cell phones made us believe we don’t need to know addresses ourselves.)

The Local Genealogy Travel Experience

Whether in Kent County or elsewhere, when you undertake genealogy travel, it’s to see, smell, feel, and hear the locations where ancestors dwelled. It’s to capture their heartbeats. It enables you to connect the historic dots in new ways when a historian/archivist such as Fr. Morrow shares not only critical historic family records but also great personal knowledge of several communities. Fr. Morrow does it with enthusiasm.

Without him, absent a miracle, I suspect we’d have never found the rich unknown details of our immigrant families’ lives because Fr. Morrow’s church information provided other clues and leads. Nor would we have thus seen where the Brutons lived and died. I have been, as the Billy Joel song intoned, “a fool for lesser things” than family history; the visit to Grand Rapids convinced me again how history and genealogy intersect in this explosive, exciting era of genealogy research and new DNA tests. New family connections don’t take years; they now happen daily.

Archivists and historians like Fr. Morrow – who dig back through hard-to-read old records and often share their own connected history to newcomers, too, are critical in that sacred journey.

Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who is also on the boards of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives and the Arkansas Genealogical Society. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas.