Family histories hold Fourth of July lesson for many Americans

| June 18, 2012 | 0 Comments

Genealogy is a popular hobby for many people, and I’ve been trying to learn more in recent years about the roots and branches of my own family tree to complement the stories my parents and grandparents told me as a child. The recent release of 1940 U.S. Census data was an opportunity to fill in some gaps and learn a few details I’ve been thinking a lot about as the July 4 holiday approaches.

I located the data about one set of my maternal great-grandparents living on the North Side of Chicago. Stanley and Sophie emigrated from Poland with only a third-grade education to start a new life in the United States. Stanley worked as a welder and Sophie as a “janitress.” The jobs paid enough for them to buy a house and pay the bills as they raised three daughters.

I found information about a set of my paternal great-grandparents living not far away. Also emigrants from Poland, Stanley (it’s a popular Polish name) worked as a laborer in a foundry, while his wife Pearl worked as a “machine operator.” Their formal education ended with the second grade, but their hard work allowed them to own their own home as well.

In many ways, the stories of Stanley and Sophie and Stanley and Pearl mirror the stories of many people who came from Europe in the first few decades following the turn of the last century. They were immigrants in search of economic opportunity and the freedoms on which our country was founded.

Preserving common good

People are still coming in search of those things — not from Europe so much anymore, but from Latin America, Africa and Asia.

They are searching for the same economic opportunity and freedoms that drew many of our forbearers to the United States, and they are facing their own challenges once they get here: an economy that still can’t meet the demand for jobs, anti-immigrant attitudes and even threats to core freedoms like religious liberty.

The lead up to Independence Day is a good time to reflect on these concerns, the values upon which our country was built, and how we as citizens of faith can preserve them for the benefit of the common good.

The U.S. bishops have written a document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” that can help us move beyond the polarization that exists around topics like the economy, immigration and other issues of human life and dignity so we can reflect on them more deeply, pray about them, discuss them in our families and parishes, and then become engaged with them as citizens and voters.

You can find the document at

The lead-up to the Fourth of July is also an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the topic of religious freedom — one of the foundational rights upon which our nation was founded and which is threatened today in various ways, including by provisions of a federal Department of Health and Human Services mandate regarding contraceptive coverage. The U.S. church is observing a “Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21 to July 4 as a time of prayer and catechesis on the topic of religious liberty. You can learn more on the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s website at

Getting involved

The principles of life and freedom we commemorate on this upcoming holiday were won only after much hard work and sacrifice by those who came before us. They are what motivated many of our forebearers to risk everything to leave their homelands for the chance at a happier, more prosperous life. They are what many of our relatives fought to protect. They are what drew my great-grandparents to Chicago.

We honor their memories when we answer the church’s call to be engaged in the political process and when we work to protect human life and human dignity, create a fair economy for families, promote a revamped immigration system that helps newcomers to prosper, and stand in support of our First Amendment freedoms. It, too, will require hard work on our part as well as sacrifice.

The Fourth of July is about more than outdoor barbecues and fireworks. That’s something Stanley and Sophie, and Stanley and Pearl, understood well. It’s something we need to remember — and act on — as well.

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Category: Editorials