- Audio: Diana Hookham on multicultural family research
I'm a very amateur genealogist and my interest in genealogy was actually sparked by the fact that we were going to migrate to Australia. So I wanted to know a bit about my family and where we came from. And having then done a lot of research on my English family, which is quite simple and rather boring I will say, I then thought I might have enough expertise to now start on my husband's family, which was a little bit daunting as you'll see when I go through the story.
So I joined, Ann mentioned, the International Settlers Group, because I thought well I'm going need help with this because these are countries that a lot of people perhaps haven't done a lot of research on. And I thought, well how am I going to approach this?
So, obviously one of the things that we had to do initially was talk to the older people, but because we'd migrated here the only people I had to talk to were his parents. And there was a little bit of a reluctance to start with the talking about what's gone on in the past, but bit by bit we chipped away and that's where we did get a lot of their initial information. And once we got his parents interested, they actually then started to be a little bit more forthcoming and some of the documents that I started my research with obviously came from his family. They did eventually trust us with them. So, then I had to collate and collect all these documents.
The other thing was though that I then looked at other places that I could obtain documents from and particularly one of the most important things, of course, is if you are an immigrant to this country, or your family were, is actually sourcing all the information you can from the Australian archives first, because it's amazing what documents will give you information about where your ancestors came from because you, particularly in some of these countries, you must know the village they came from, not just the country. You've actually got to know the village and that information is probably here on the Australian documents.
And finally, I've been very fortunate in that my husband works mainly overseas, in different countries, and we had the opportunity to travel and actually go to some of these countries and without that I probably wouldn't have been able to further his family history. So that's a lot of the information out the way, so now we'll have a look at what we did.
That's my husband. Ok. Pierre was actually born in Khartoum in the Sudan but he's not Sudanese. And his family migrated to Australia in the late, mid-to-late 1960s, because of the political unrests there.
Now, when we started talking to his family, his father said ‘well, I have this cousin who lives in Canada. She knows a lot about the family. I'll write and ask her’. And this is the letter we got back. This is her idea of a family tree. And this is where the translation issues start, because within his family they all have married into different cultures, live in different countries now, but the common language between them is French, so this is written in French.
Now fortunately I did do French at school, so I could work out a little bit of this but, and my husband speaks fluent French, so we didn't have too much trouble interpreting this but it was matter of finding your way around the diagram. We did actually learn from this letter that there were, and even his parents learned from this letter, that there were a couple of siblings that he didn't know about and clues as to where they came from. So looking at some of the family documents first is a good idea.
Right, to put you in the picture of how I'm going to go through this. This is the a little mini family-tree here. So obviously, my husband born in Khartoum in the Sudan. And in talking to his parents we know his father was born in Cairo in Egypt, and his mother was also born in Cairo in Egypt. And if you look at the names, Palian is actually an Armenian name and his father's Armenian. Italia Romeo, I wonder where she came from? Yes, Italy. So already we've got now two different cultures, but also born in a country, another different country.
And I'm thinking ‘my goodness, how am I going to do research in Egypt?’ We know from his parents who the grandparents were as well. And we know that his grandfather, who was Armenian, was born in Turkey. We know his grandmother, who was Armenian, was born in Egypt. And we know his mother's, both her parents, were born in Sicily in Italy.
So I mentioned before, we start with Australia and perhaps the documents we have here. And unfortunately, and I don't know whether it's because we are very late arrivals here, but we haven't actually been able to find any immigration documents here, which I find interesting. But, anyway we'll go into that later.
So I had to look at their passports. We were able to get passenger cards from the Public Record Office of Victoria. Within their passports—I actually have their visa numbers stamped there, which I thought might help me at the Immigration Department—we would like to look at their applications for immigration but, as I’ve said, we've not been able to find them, naturalisation papers. And particularly if your immigrants came to Australia in or before 1950 you can get a lot of information off the naturalisation papers as well.
So, this is the passport of his mother and that shows you her visa and the visa number, the date they arrived here and the fact that they are going to settle.
This is the passenger card for his father. So this is 1966, 67. And it's an airline passenger card. And this tells us. Now he says his nationality is Sudanese, which I thought was interesting. It tells us his occupation. It tells us where they came from and that he's going to be a settler here. So there's some little information even off an airline passenger card.
So, obviously with my husband being born in Sudan that's perhaps where we should start. And that's where the Sudan is.
Now his birth certificate, which we were fortunate enough to get from his parents, this is where we start with all the translation issues.
As you know, the Sudan was initially under a lot of British influence. So fortunately the forms in the Sudan whilst they are in Arabic, they're also in English. And because it's fairly modern, it's actually typed, so I can read it. And I'm reading it and I'm thinking, well yes that's not his date of birth and also they haven't quite spelled his name right. Well that's obviously because the person giving the information may not give the right information. The person who doesn't speak that language, because you've got an Armenian giving an Arabic person the information and then it's got to be written in English. So already that's where some of the slight, minor mistakes occur.
My husband was baptised in Khartoum. His father's Armenian Orthodox and his mother was Catholic, but the only church there was the Anglican Cathedral. So, he was baptised in the Anglican Cathedral. So, fortunately, I've got a very British looking document here. And this actually gives his correct date of birth, which is the 5th of January. And it again it lists his parents, where he was born, and it actually gives the name of all his god-parents. So, I've got two documents about him and confirming his parents.
Did I skip one there? Yes, I did. So, so now we have to go to Egypt to look for his parents. And this is just to prove that I actually did go.
So if we concentrate on Egypt now, we're now looking at his parents, Farhram and Italia. So the problems we had in Egypt is security. It's not a, it's not an unsafe country to travel to and perhaps it's not as safe as when we went now, but there were problems with security and they are a bit suspicious if you, if you're wanting to find documents, you know, sort of why you want to do this? A lot of problems with trusting people there. So you needed an introduction, which we didn't have. And also, of course, language issues again. We were unable to read, write or understand Arabic in any form and, of course, the documents that we were primarily going to look at for his father were Armenian and neither of us read or write Armenian either. So we had to actually translate our information. We had to find somebody who could translate it from English into Arabic and then from Arabic into Armenian.
Now the other complicating factor, of course, was when his family lived in Egypt, which was in the early 1900s, the actual official language was French. So again, we've got another language.
Now, if you're not a student of Arabic or Armenian, there is actually no way you can really even try and guess at what it says.
With his mother, and I'm going to get her out of the way a little bit quickly at the moment, because I'm going to spend a lot of time on her later and I've got to be mindful of the time that I have.
We did actually try and visit the church and try to get Italian records in Egypt, but we were very unfortunate in that the church was not open when we were there. And even though we've been to Egypt three times now, it's been closed on every occasion. So I haven't had much luck unfortunately with records in Italian. However, I did have her baptism certificate and you can see with the certificate here, this is perhaps mainly in Latin. So again, another language I had to learn.
However, I have some other documents from other family members from Egypt and depending on the time that they were issued. As you can see with this one. Again, this is typed, probably written more in Italian and, but the actual side of the documents is in French. So again you've got to sort of work your way around that. A death certificate from much earlier though, again, is all in Latin.
So, because we didn't have much luck with trying to find documents or even finding people that would tell us where to go, we decided well we could do other things while we were in Egypt. So we actually sourced out and tracked down where their house was. And we found the street after a bit of difficulty and took a photo of where his mother was actually born and brought up.
Another interesting fact, I did some research on the internet because, because her family were Italian. In World War II…that's right…her father was, had to be interned in a prisoner of war camp because he was Italian. And he was actually at the Camp Fayid prisoner of war camp in Egypt. And just an interesting anecdote is that my father, who served in the British army, actually was stationed at the Fayid war camps. Now how's that for a coincidence? The trouble is, both of these people are now deceased and we haven't been able to ask them whether they knew each other. Possibly not, but you know just, just a little interesting anecdote to your stories. And whether his father, his grandfather, I beg your pardon, is in that photo or not, we're not really sure.
So, now let's concentrate more on the Armenian side because we did actually have a little bit of luck with this. We had his original birth certificate. And, as you can see, this birth certificate is in Arabic and French, but it's actually completed in Arabic this time. So we had to find, and we did this in Melbourne actually, we had to find somebody who could actually translate the Arabic for us to give us the information. And this actually told us whereabouts he was born, the house, the street address and everything. So, that gave us a little bit of information.
When we were actually in Egypt though, we managed to get an up-to-date couple of certificates. And this is one is actually the marriage extract for his parents, entirely in Arabic and computer printed, but and again I've had that translated to make sure it is what they say. Because that's another problem, if you don't actually speak the languages or you haven't got any idea, you've got no idea what one translator's saying to another person, so you don't even know if you've got the right document.
We discovered from his father that he actually went to the American University School in Cairo and we know that they had good records. So my husband wrote to them. And within a week by return mail from Cairo we had this, his complete school record while he was there, including a photograph of when his father was about 15 years of age. And one of the interesting things we noticed on the bottom of this document is the signature at the bottom of Zed Baloni, which we know is actually a family member. So we, we found it interesting because obviously this person, perhaps was a teacher at the school. Is that why he got to go to that school? I don't know. So you never know what you're going to find on, on these other documents.
One of the other resources I found from the internet too was a 1914 census of Heliopolis. Heliopolis is a suburb of Cairo, which was quite new and developed in the early 1900s. And so this lists everybody who lived there in 1914, which was quite early. So—and I've given a copy of that to the genealogical society—so anybody else that had relatives perhaps who lived in Cairo at that time might know. Beyond there.
The other thing we were able to obtain from a book that was given to us by a family member were some maps of Heliopolis as it developed. Because his family bought and built their house in Heliopolis in about 1920, or a bit later than 1920 I think. Yes, so roughly around about the time that they first met there. And by 1937, you can see how it was built out almost. So this again is another little interesting part.
And we actually found the house. And I'm going to spend just a brief minute. What happened was, my husband wanted to find this house and he, a person at work that was there visiting on business said, ‘Look I'll take you. We'll find this house.’ And, of course it was after work, about five o'clock in the evening, and they're going by taxi and they didn't really know where it was. And it took quite a while to find it and by the time they did it was getting a bit dark. But they did. And the guy said to my husband, ‘Go and knock on the door, you never know who's there’. ‘Oh, I can't do that you know’. ‘No, go knock on the door’. So my husband goes up and he notices on the door that the Palian name is still there. And he's ‘ooh, well I know I'm in the right place’. Anyway, he knocked on the door and after a while this person answered. And of course a bit suspicious at night in the dark and my husband sort of very sheepishly says ‘Look, I have to explain who I am’ and the person said ‘No, no, no, you don't have to explain’. He said, ‘I know who you are. You look just like your grandfather.’ And my husband goes, and he said ‘you probably don't know who I am but I'm actually a distant relative of yours and we bought the house from your grandmother when we sent her to Australia to be with you. Come in!’ You know, so this was, you know, sort of one of those things you can't believe happened.
So my husband actually got to go into the house. And this is a photograph of him taken sitting on the balcony with the furniture, which as you can see, we have a photograph of his grandparents sitting on their balcony on the same furniture. So that's rather interesting. And you'll note the little dogs they have. You wouldn't believe this, we've got a dog almost exactly the same as that. I don't think you can say that's an inherited thing, but…
And this is the distant cousin that he met. And inside the house. And one of the interesting things about the inside of this house. His grandfather was very good at making things himself and particularly out of metal in the very art deco thing, and he actually made that lamp, light fitting. So, we've now got a photo of something his grandfather made.
Now, we go to the church where we were going to get records from. Saint Gregory the Illuminator was built about 1930, so we know his father couldn't have been baptised there because he was born before that. But that's what the church looked like probably when his father was a little boy and actually started going to that church. And beautiful wide boulevard and trees.
This is what it looks like today. With a double-story freeway built over that road and the church is sort of tucked in down underneath to one side. So we did find it with difficulty and work out how to get there. At this church is the patriarchate, which is the head office basically of the Armenian Church, and this distant cousin took us there and introduced us to people so that we could actually look at the records.
We've been back to Egypt on subsequent visits and thought we knew everything now; we can go there and we can do this ourselves. Well, you don't have an introduction, you don't have someone who is a member of the church and basically the sort of the wall comes down and didn't want to know us. They were polite but we didn't get anywhere the second time, which was unfortunate because I actually knew what I was looking for the second time and couldn't get the records.
Translations issues again, as I said, Arabic on the right hand side, which this lady translated our English into the Arabic, and then the gentleman had to read the Arabic and translate it into Armenian so that he could then look at the registers and find the records. And they just took the registers out of the cupboard and with us together we went through them. And these are a couple of the records that belong to my husband's family. So I was very lucky and actually I could get a photograph of the original entry.
They also gave us a computer printout because these registers now have all been filmed. And if you can read Armenian that's great. But they, they've, it’s also been computerised. So they could actually print out a couple of the entries we were interested in. But once you've asked for one or two you won't get anymore and that's the reason why you have to keep going back. Very expensive trip.
Another thing we thought we would do there, and this was on the suggestion of a cousin, he said ‘Well’, he said, ‘we can probably find their graves’. So he took us to the cemetery. This is the old Armenian cemetery. There is a new one in Heliopolis. They weren't buried there. They were buried in the old one. And we went to this cemetery and there's an Egyptian caretaker there and there's a tiny little office, probably about six feet square, and a little wooden desk in the middle with a tiny drawer in it. And this chap jiggles the drawer and brings it out and there's all these loose leaf papers in there, of which this was one of them, which were the maps of the cemetery and a list of the names of people buried there. And in picking it up, he dropped them all on the floor. Well, the floor there is just dust, dirt. And then we picked them up again and we were all looking at them and I took the opportunity to photograph it too. But it was just amazing that the records were just kept there. Because of the dry heat, of course, they'd been fairly well preserved I think.
This is the cemetery and I can't say so much for the graves, which haven't really been preserved at all, because, of course, there are very few Armenians there anymore and they don't look after them. So, as you can see, we were searching around and we did eventually find the grave. One and two, and took photographs of them, but no headstones or anything. So without that map we wouldn't have known which ones they were.
Just another interesting point while we were in Cairo, another person who acted as translator for us said he's a direct descendant from Mohammad. And anybody in Egypt—and they can prove it because this is a specified person who actually keeps the records and keeps writing them down as family members are born—and with the modern age now they actually get an identity card and that includes all his information on there in a chip that will tell him his line of descendency. So that was rather impressive.
Ah, just to tell you the lengths I had to go to get my documents.
All right, so I think we've done Cairo now and as I said we had three trips there. Our first trip, we got the most information and after that, even though we thought we knew what we were doing, didn't get much more.
So now we're going to move on a bit to the next generation. So we're now going to look at his grandparents and what sort of records I could get for them. I have Zabel's passport record, because she, we actually had to bring her to Australia when her husband died. And this really are the only documents I have for her, because we weren't able to get any in Egypt. But this passport actually did tell me her exact date of birth and the fact that she was born in Cairo. So hopefully, bit by bit, maybe down the track, and perhaps if some of these records do come online and get translated, I might get the official documents. But we're really at a dead-end there. We knew who her father was, but we've had a little bit of trouble working out who her mother was.
That's her immigration visa to Australia. And she was actually denied immigration the first application she made. Accepted the second time. But again, we have not been able to find her records here in Australia.
Other documents that can be very helpful. When his grandmother died, we discovered she had a little bible that was actually given to us to remember her by, and on the front page was this Armenian writing, which we thought probably was a ‘gift to you on your confirmation’ or something like that. Well, eventually when I had a bit more time, I actually did find somebody who could translate this for me and what we found actually was this bible was a gift to her mother when the mother's brother died. And the mother's brother was, as you can see, the name Baloni. So that's where we worked out on the school records. There's a big connection here somewhere. And her mother's brother was actually a priest in the Armenian Church and so, therefore, quite important and there were quite a few records on him. And I was actually able to get photographs of him and that from the church.
So, if we look at his grandfather’s passport though, I wasn't quite so lucky. It did tell me he was born in Istanbul. Wow, that's a big city. So, and it says 1891, no actual date or month. So, this is not a lot to go on.
Again, identity cards were very important in Egypt and did give quite a bit of information. But actually, when we did get it translated we didn't learn anything further about that.
We have a copy of his death certificate as well, which his grandma, which his wife, his grandmother actually brought him, when she came to Australia and I got that translated and that actually did tell me who his father was, so that was another clue. She also, in her possession, had a clipping from the local newspaper written all in Armenian and what was interesting of course, it actually mentions his family in Australia, but it also tells us the names of the other relatives in Canada, and that's how come we wrote to them to get that family tree, the first document I showed you. So it's surprising where you find bits of information.
Ok, so we now know he came from Turkey. And so we thought on our next trip, when I went to visit my husband overseas, instead of going to Africa we'll go to Turkey. And, beautiful place Istanbul, I must admit. So we're now concentrating on Michram Palian. And I know from his death certificate that his father was Gibrionos. We also know his mother’s name though because she was alive in Turkey and her name was Setanite Papasiano. We know they were both born in Turkey.
Photos. So Turkish research, again we were faced with this conundrum. We had no contacts in Turkey at all. We don't speak Turkish. The other problem of course with Turkey is the Armenians are persecuted there and we had to be extremely careful. You can't talk to anybody there openly about the fact that you're Armenian. So, we had to find some contacts. And I was consulting with a patient once day who's a history professor and she said to me, ‘Oh, I know someone in Sydney who's an Armenian researcher and goes regularly to Istanbul. I'm sure he can help you’, and she gave me his email address. We corresponded, and he very kindly gave us a contact to somebody who would translate for us and who would be an introduction into the Armenian Church, and the name of a researcher there who could help us with the archives and documents.
Our translator was a lovely person and we definitely got good introductions into the churches there but he had no idea about research, or documents, or archives, and that was a bit of a problem because he was more interested in taking us out for lunch and things like that, which was very nice.
And unfortunately when were got to Turkey and we rang the researcher, she kept turning her mobile phone off, so we never even got to meet her. So we were a bit daunted by that. That's having lunch, of course, with our translator.
Now, the other problem is, of course, because they're persecuted there, you try to go to an Armenian church in Turkey, you can't get in. They're completely behind walls. They're locked and not only that you need to have somebody who will introduce you, but then they also really need to vet you by a member of the church. So, fortunately with that translator who gave us the introduction, we could then get in, and some of their churches are quite pretty inside.
So, in this photograph you'll see me, obviously, doing the research. The two people bending over the book, one is the priest at the church, the other one is our translator. And the tall man standing there is the person keeping an eye on us and making sure we don't pinch anything, who's a representative of the church and just making sure everything's ok.
This was at a different church and again the same process with different people. And that little black cabinet in the corner holds all their church records. So we take them out, book by book, and because we didn't have a specific date they were very kind. They just sat there and we went through page by page. And every church we went to, and we went to quite a few, we could not find, except in one church, did they have a record of the surname Palian, which then sort of beginning to think. Well, A. It's very uncommon then and B. perhaps they didn't come from Istanbul, who knows. Although his passport says that's where he was born.
In one of the main churches though, we were introduced to this gentleman. There happened to be a funeral there that day, so we couldn't actually look at any of the church records but we got to talk to this man who was 94, I think, and he was a doctor and a poet. But he would have known the family if they had existed and he couldn't recall the name at all, which was interesting. Maybe his memory wasn't that good, I don't know, but he didn't seem to think that family actually was known in Istanbul.
Again, we found the cemetery and thought maybe we could look around and I had the Armenian translation of the Palian name and thought I might be to find a grave. But the cemetery, unlike the one in Cairo, was actually huge and we were lucky enough to stumble on an office and find someone and with sign language and that they looked at the books and no burials of Palians in the cemetery at all.
The other thing we did was before we went there, we had written to the Patrocad in Istanbul to see if we could look at the records there. Well, it took a lot of communication and we were very lucky one day when we rang to get someone who could speak English. And this was a priest who'd actually been to America to study for a while, so he could speak English. He agreed to meet us, but he would not meet us at the Patrocad. We had to meet in a very open, public place. And it wasn't really to be known that we were trying to look at church records.
And it was quite funny, because I thought we were meeting in this secret place. And he turns up in his priest's uniform. I thought this, this is a bit obvious. But we sat at cafe and I got out all my documents. And he was quite helpful and he confirmed that he thought the name was definitely a very old type of Armenian name and whilst they might have lived briefly in Istanbul he thought they came from a different part of Turkey altogether.
And we sort of said ‘Well you have access to the records, can't you do some research for us?’ And ‘Oh yes, maybe, maybe’. But we've never heard anything again either. So, unless we have the opportunity to go again, I guess, and try and push a bit further and go to a couple of the cities that he suggested they may have come from, I can't see that we're going to be able to do that.
Again, so I then look at the internet to find out what else I can just embellish the family story with. A 1941 census of Turkey, but it only gives it by your nationality or your ethnic background, it doesn't actually give names or anything else and the Armenian, even then, was quite small. And that was just before the 1915 genocides. So, quite interesting. That just shows you more in a bar graph.
So, I guess if we're now looking at the other part of the family, his grandmother's side, and his great grandfather's side, they were born in Armenia. So maybe I need to go to Armenia now. I haven't got there yet. But these, these are the people that we're looking at to now further our research.
We looked at the documents that were handed to us by his grandmother and she'd kept a lot of his, her father's paraphernalia. In Egypt, he was quite an important man. He was quite wealthy. He was a philanthropist. He was a member of a lot of societies. And amongst these documents, we actually found that he was a member of the Free Masons, and we had his lodge certificate and low and behold on his lodge certificate gives his actual date of birth and the village where he was born. That village was one that was completely wiped out in the genocide. So there are no records surviving from that village, so I would never have found them.
And there has been a gentleman in America who's put together a history of Arabkir, where he was born, and has collated a lot of stories from survivors from there. So we have a little bit of information in that book, which has very recently been translated from Armenian into English, and we've just received a copy of it. So, at least, I've got something to sort of explain about the village where he came from, but we'll never know who his parents or his lineage were.
Talk about Armenian genes. This is my daughter who looks nothing like me, but look at how much she looks like her great-great-grandmother. Amazing.
So now, I'm going to talk about Italy and I'll probably race through this fairly quickly. I'm not quite sure how much time I've got left.
Italy, I thought, well this will be a breeze after everywhere else. And yes it was not difficult, but it wasn't easy either. I had a lot of help from Paolo Barachi at ... I've had help from my mother-in-law, who can read, write, speak Italian and knows the legal processes there on how to obtain documents, and she wrote a lot of letters for me, which allowed me to get a lot of information.
Italy is divided into regions. But knowing the region your family came from is not enough. You have got to know the village. So fortunately we knew that, because my mother-in-law is a minefield of information, got a memory like an elephant. So we are looking at Sicily and then, particularly on the right-hand side of Sicily, villages based all around the base of Mount Etna. So what a lovely place. We just had to go there.
So, if, now we are looking at the two ones in red. Michaela Romeo and Maria Piccardi. Now we were very fortunate also to have an on the ground translator there, whom we had actually met in Australia. And the story is a little bit complicated here and my husband found a website on the internet one day about somebody in Sicily doing research on people that had emigrated from Sicily and was trying to put together stories of their immigration.
She was a history professor at the local high school. And the year equivalent to our year 11, 12 students, their project for the whole year was to interview people and put together stories and trace their ancestors out to the countries that they came to. And a lot of people from that area migrated to Australia, to Cairns, to work on the cane fields. And so she brought a group of 20 students to Cairns, and they continued their project over here interviewing descendants of the people that had migrated and then went down to Sydney and presented all their findings at a conference at … in Sydney.
Well my husband, very bold that he is, wrote to this lady and said, ‘Well my mother migrated from Sicily and my wife has done her story and wouldn't you like to know this?’ And of course ‘Ooh yes’, she said. So the upshot of that was I actually took my mother and my daughter and we went to the meeting in Sydney, to the conference there, and met her and her family history was part of the exhibit there too. So when we decided we were going to go to Sicily, well of course, who do we ring and who do we make contact with to help us with our research there, because who would know all the local things? And it was very good that we did, because it's in Sicily, again, a little bit of mistrust about foreigners there and trying to access or even a foot in the door there to the church.
So we're talking about Italia's parents now. Now Michaela Romeo was actually in Siracusa and because we found so much about his grandmother, Maria Piccardi, we never got to go to Siracusa, we had to cancel that part of our trip. So, I actually haven't done any research on him. So, I'm sure I'll have to do that another day too.
So, I'm going to concentrate the last bit on Maria Piccardi.
Maria. I had the fortune to meet Maria before she died, and didn't have a language in common so I couldn't communicate very well with her. But one of the stories that we got from her was that she said, ‘Well my father was the grandson of a baron’. And of course we all said ‘Oh yes’. And I said to my husband, ‘Well, you know, we can prove that or disprove it, you know? We’ve just got to find the records.’
So we start off with her baptism certificate, which we had a copy of in the family, which told us the village she came from in Italy. So, our first port of call was to go to this village, Motta Sant'Anastasia. Beautiful little medieval village. And as you can see the original part of the village is right up on that hill. Driving in Italy is a nightmare. And we finally got to the outskirts of this village and my husband parked the car and says ‘I'm not driving any more, we're going to walk from here’. So we had to walk all the way. That's the church by the way, up on the hill, that great big building. And this is the church, and as you can see look at how big they are. It's just a massive thing and that's my husband standing under the tree on the bottom. You can see the blue bands around the church too. And unfortunately this building was so old and falling apart that it was deemed unsafe and we couldn't go in, which was very unfortunate, because they'd only been put on in the last year or two. However, next door to the church, they had a little museum.
They have, I suppose, what would be equivalent to our Family History centres, but they're, they're not, they're not actually genealogy centres. They're more on stories and stories of people related to the town. And the young curator there was so excited that we've come all this way and that we had a relative there and she actually helped us. She introduced us, told us where the Commune was, which is the Civil Record Office, and she took us there and actually demanded that the lady there look some records up for us, because otherwise they wouldn't have done it. ‘No, no, no we're too busy don't have time.’
So we did actually get a record of a sibling of Maria that nobody in the family knew about. So she must have been born and died in Sicily. The baptisms and the civil records actually give their street address, where they were born, because in those days they were always born at home. So we actually sought out the street and I've got a photograph of the street where his grandmother was born. And of course the registration also will then give you the name of the parents.
So we now know who her mother was and so I could look for this lady's records. And we know from that Commune they said, ’No, they didn't come from Motta Sant'Anastasia. They came from Bronte’, which is a bit further round the mountain. So we keep going round the mountain. So we actually went to the Commune in Bronte. And we were very fortunate actually with Bronte, because we arrived in the week when the records offices were being transferred into a brand new purpose-built building, which wasn't open to the public and because we had the history professor with us, and she sweet-talked her way in, we actually got to go in and, of course, all the staff in there had nothing to do and they bent over backwards trying to help us find all the records.
One of the interesting things about Italian villages too, you see, you get all the death notices get posted in the streets and the publications of marriages too. So you can just look them up if you know, if you do know family that still live in that area.
So this was in the in the Bronte Commune, and that's the officer who was really helpful for us, and we're getting records and we're arguing with him and finding things. And these are all just the books, all sitting now on nice new shelves and easily accessed. And he said ‘No, no, no’. He said, ‘Well you don't, you don't just want these records. You, you actually want to look at the parish registers. And, ‘Oh yes, please, you know.’ So he said, ‘Come on, I'll take you. I'll introduce you to the priest.’ And again, with the history professor and this chat and the priest, ‘Oh, no, no, no, I'm too busy. I've got an appointment. I can't do this.’ Argue, argue, argue, he said, ‘Fine’. He said, ‘If you, if you go away and have a cup of coffee, come back in half an hour and I'll meet you’. And that's what he did.
So we actually got access into the church, which was being renovated at the time and being painted. And he went into this little annex room there, amongst all the paint pots and everything, and picked up these tomes and brought them out and put them on the bench. And these are the original registers going back to the early 1500s. And we found the baptism of his grandmother. And I did find some other records as well, but I'm not going to show all those. But this is the original register hand-written by the priest, all in Latin of course.
So now we know who her parents were, and we've got an idea of who the grandmother was, and her baptism record gave me her parents. So now we've got to follow Cono Picardy, who is supposedly the grandson of the baron.
We discovered from their marriage records that he came from Adrano, which is another town from around the mountain. And so we went to Adrano, but we had no luck there. Priest wouldn't even speak to us let alone let us into the church. So we went to the municipal offices and by this time of the day, of course, it was about midday. And what we didn't realise in Italy, of course, everything closes at 12:30, 1 o'clock. It's too hot. Everybody goes home, has lunch and a siesta. ‘No, no, no. Too busy, can't see you today.’ And my husband, fortunately, because he speaks Italian, not Sicilian, but he did make himself understood, was able to convince one of the officers there that we were from Australia. This was the only day we had in Adrano. We just had to look at these records. And he agreed to stay behind and help us.
And I had some information from some of the Latter-day Saint's films that have been digitalised here. But, we, we, there was a lot of controversy over the marriage, because we couldn't find it in Bronte. But we did, we did eventually find it on other documents. But then we've actually got the birth record here of Cono, which told us who his parents were and that they actually came from another village. I said to my husband, ‘We can't go back to the hotel’, which was miles away and a long drive and we always got lost, ‘we've just got to go to this village and while we're here because it's only ten miles down the road’. And from Adrano we did actually did get the marriage too, so we knew who the parents were.
And this was the village that we had to go to, which was now actually in a different province of Sicily too. So we're now going more inland and very picturesque spot, very beautiful. So we arrived in this village. Parked in the square there. And again my husband's, ‘I’m not driving any more. This is terrible. Got to have a cup of coffee.’ So there's this little bar there, so we go to the bar. And this girl looks at us and there's all this suspicion and she can tell we can't speak Italian properly and what you are doing in this tiny little village, you know, they don't get visitors there. And he tried to explain and she said, you know…two minutes later, we're sitting outside having a coffee, and this policeman comes up. Oh, my god. Oh my god. And he wants to know. And I think he had a better command. My husband's talking to him. He says ‘Ok’. He says, ‘I finish work in about 10 minutes and I'll help you’. He said, ‘Just, just stay there’. So he goes back and finishes work in 10 minutes.
He stayed for the 10 minutes at the bar having a beer with his friends. Typical Australian, isn't it. And then we hear all this commotion and noise and back slapping and chatting. And then he comes up with this tall gentleman, well-looking man, and he introduces him. This was the mayor. What they'd done is, they'd rung the mayor to say, ‘Do you know we've got visitors in the town who claim to be descendants’ whatever. And we go, ‘Oh, you know’. So we're sort of treated a bit like royalty here, and ‘No, no, no. You have to stay here tonight. You can't go. Everything's closed now. You know, you've got to be here first thing tomorrow morning. I will take you. We, there's no hotels here, but there's one down the road. The policeman will escort you’. But I haven't got, I haven't got any bags with me. I haven't got a toothbrush, nothing. My husband said ‘You can't say no, you can't say no’. So, we get a police escort to this hotel about ten miles out of the village and the couple there, beautiful couple, we hadn't, we'd been all day and hadn't had lunch, and she just sat down and prepared a meal for us straight away. And the policeman obviously explained why we were here. And in the morning we had to drive back and meet him at 8 o'clock in the morning in the Piazza. And we thought, God what's going to happen here?
Well, 8 o'clock the next morning, of course, he comes and he takes us to the Commune, introduces us, tells us the people at the Commune are like this, you know. And there's a line of other people, locals wanting to get their documents stamped or whatever. And because we jumped the queue, and again we got one record, and my husband said you can't ask for anymore there's too many people here. And so, we thought, oh well anyway we're thankful. We left. And so my husband says always go to the library.
So, finding the library was a bit of an issue too, in this medieval little town. So we finally found it up these stairs. And the librarian there was extremely helpful as well. And again, she got us an introduction into the Mayor’s office too, where we were presented with a book of the history of the town. But she also introduced us to a historian who, that was the Commune where we got the record from, which is the record I got. And subsequent to that, because I now know where to look in the films, I've actually got there, sorry I'm jumping around a bit here, but, but I actually got on this record and if you can read, written down somewhere where it says Filia, sort of. That one about six lines up from the bottom. Filia Baroness. So he was the son of a baron. Story proved.
We got to meet this elderly gentleman through the librarian, who was the researcher of the history of the town. And he said, ‘Well I have got a map, which shows you that your family were very prominent in this town’. And on this map at the top. This big long street. You can probably see that it's got the name Picardi on it. And in the middle of that street there's a little piazza called Lago Picardi, which was named after them. And opposite that Lago Picardie is a big building, which was their Palazzo which is still there today. Derelict unfortunately. Empty. If we had money we could buy it, couldn't we? Oh.
He also told us that a lot of that family were very prominent in the church and he took us to a church, which is actually a priest and a convent. It's not really a public church. And inside the church is a tomb to one of the ancestors who was a priest, or a bishop, or something like that. With the name Hieronymus Picardi. So I've now got to try and get back that far.
We were able to get a photograph of the original fount where his ancestors were baptised, which is no longer in use because it's too dangerous. It's very old. And of course, subsequent to all that, we did actually catch up with all our family that still live in Italy. That's my daughter and my husband with our Italian cousins and another branch of the family, the Picardis. So one was the Romeo family. One's the Picardi family.
One of the important things is when you have trips, write up your research before you forget. So the minute we got on the boat to leave Sicily, that's what I did.
Now, of course, if you're tracing the Palian family history, because of where my husband's been working, you'll find us on the census in Saudi Arabia. And I've got a copy of that to prove that we were there.
Thankyou very much.
'one of the important things is to write up your research before you forget'
– Diana Hookham
About this recording
Gain insights into the family history journey as amateur genealogist Diana Hookham speaks at Family History Feast 2014, sharing personal anecdotes from her search for her husband's many-faceted family tree.
This particular tree includes a rich mix of Armenian, Egyptian, Italian, Sicilian and Turkish branches, and Diana recalls the many steps in her travels that took her from the Australian archives to tiny villages overseas.
She talks about the people she met along the way, both strangers and family, the documentary paper trail she followed, the linguistic complications and the vast range of resources she pursued.
Hear more from Family History Feast 2014
- Jenny Harkness on FamilySearch: Don Grant Lecture 2014 (video)
- Liz Denny on researching the records of Chinese miners on the Ballarat goldfields (audio)
- Andrew Griffin on Australia's non-British migrants (audio)
- Dr Moya McFadzean on collecting migrant stories at Museum Victoria (audio)
- Walter Struve on on German family history resources (audio)
Dr Diana Hookham is an amateur genealogist, whose interest in family history was sparked when she learned that she would be migrating to Australia. Beginning with her British family background, she then began researching her husband's far-flung, multicultural family.