“More Than Names,” Ensign, Jan. 1987, 12
The page was faded and yellowed, and jagged, uneven holes punctuated the spidery script. It was the record of a christening that had taken place in Spain on the nineteenth of February 511 years ago.
The date had been fairly easy to decipher. A concerted effort, seasoned with years of experience and a fervent prayer, had eventually given the worker the name of the father, then the mother. But the child’s name simply was not there. Years, mildew, and hungry mice and insects had gnawed away at the page, leaving it illegible.
The extractor had come across the entry on the microfilm the day before, and after a diligent effort had gone home, resolving to return to it after a day of prayer and fasting. But today the record was still impossible to read. The worker had gone on, but was compelled to return to it often throughout the afternoon. Finally, she determined to give it one last try before forcing the unsettling entry out of her mind.
As she turned the microfilm knob, the name almost leapt off the page. She stared unbelieving at the clearly formed letters.
“Elena Gallegos, the name is Elena Gallegos,” she excitedly called aloud. A handful of workers, aware of her struggle, quickly clustered around, marveling at the name plainly displayed on the terminal.
As she hurriedly copied the name, a warm closeness encircled her. “I felt as though I was being hugged,” she explained afterward. Later when she returned to the entry to double-check her work, the words were once again illegible.
To those working in the Church’s extraction program, such experiences are common, though there is nothing common about them.
“Spiritual experiences happen almost daily to those involved with this work,” explains D. Norman Allred, coordinator for the extraction program in the Camp Verde Arizona Stake. “Many of us don’t have spiritual experiences every day. But this work is akin to temple work; a special power attends you.”
For almost fifty years the Church has been microfilming genealogical records throughout the world as part of its mission to redeem the dead. Now the Church vaults contain more than 1.5 million rolls of microfilm, a number that is growing by about four thousand rolls a month. Copying vital information from the films is the role of the extraction program and is an essential part of the Church’s genealogy program.
The number of names extracted yearly has grown from about twenty thousand names extracted in 1977 to more than thirteen million names in 1985. About 875 stakes throughout the Church have extraction programs, with roughly 12,500 volunteers participating. About 85 percent of the names sent to the temples for baptisms, endowments, and sealings come from this program.
The efforts of the name extractors in the Camp Verde Arizona Stake are representative. For nine years the stake has consistently met established goals and standards, both in quantity and quality, with well over two hundred thousand names extracted annually! The approximately thirty “genealogy missionaries” in their stake donate thousands of hours yearly, with an impressive accuracy rate.
But the real story is more than numbers and statistics. It is a story of commitment, dedication, and—above all—love.
The Camp Verde Stake, made up of seven wards and two branches, lies in the heart of Arizona about two hours north of Phoenix, covering an area roughly 140 miles wide by 85 miles long. The Verde River bisects the stake, providing a nautral physical division between the spectacular red rock beauty on the west and the pine-covered mountains on the east.
In 1978 John E. Eagar, president of the new Camp Verde Stake, set out to bring the blessings of genealogy work to the members of his stake. The seeds had been planted years before when President Eagar had served as mission president in the Costa Rica San Jose Mission. While there, he represented the Church in obtaining permission from Costa Rican officials to have thousands of government records microfilmed. President Eagar had developed a firm testimony of genealogy work and now petitioned Church officials to allow his stake to do extraction work.
The Church Genealogy Department had just completed a pilot extraction program in St. George, Utah, and felt the experiment was successful enough to duplicate on a widespread basis. Camp Verde was given the go-ahead to establish a Spanish name extraction program.
President Eagar turned to Lauritz G. Petersen, a stake high councilor who was also a professional genealogist. Brother Petersen had recently retired from his job as a researcher for the Church Historical Department and was teaching genealogy classes at Yavapai College in Cottonwood, Arizona. Would he accept the call to set up and oversee the extraction program in the Camp Verde Stake?
Of course Brother Petersen would serve wherever asked; it was a bonus that the calling happened to deal with one of his great loves, genealogy. But establishing the program—finding space in already-full meetinghouses, coordinating the work, ordering equipment and supplies, and calling the right people—ran head on into more obstacles than anyone had anticipated.
“I’m sure Satan was waging an all-out battle against us. He didn’t want us to be successful,” says Brother Petersen, reflecting on the difficulties nine years ago.
The first year was tough. Despite the efforts of dedicated people, the fledgling program seemed doomed to fail. Lauritz Petersen was depressed and ready to quit. Sincere prayer, fasting, and soul-searching for days that stretched into weeks, then months, had brought no clear answers.
Finally one evening, after a particularly anguished prayer, Brother Petersen settled into bed, telling his wife, “That’s it, I’m quitting. This just can’t be worth what it is costing the members of this stake.” He finally drifted into an uneasy sleep.
He was awakened hours later by a voice calling his name. He turned to check his still-sleeping wife.
“Lauritz, Lauritz Petersen.”
Puzzled, he glanced toward the foot of the bed, but the bedroom wall had disappeared, and hundreds of people filled the room. A dark-complexioned man of medium height detached himself from the crowd and came toward him, repeating his name insistently.
“Lauritz, what do you see over here?” the man asked, gesturing to where the dresser should have been.
“Many people, singing and dancing in a circle.”
“That’s right,” the man affirmed. “They are those whose names your stake has extracted. Because of your work, they have been able to have their temple work done. What do you see on this side?” he continued, gesturing to the left.
“Can you hear what they are saying?” he prompted.
As he strained to hear the voices, suddenly the sounds became distinguishable. “Father, please bless Lauritz Petersen,” they pleaded. “Bless him to carry on with this work and not quit.”
“These are the people whose names are on the records in your possession, but have not yet been extracted,” the man explained.
“Who are all of these people?” Brother Petersen questioned, pointing to the multitudes straight ahead, whose eyes stared into his own.
“Their names are on the records that will be sent to you if you carry on with the program,” the spokesman continued. “Lauritz, this is an important work. Please don’t quit.”
“I won’t,” Brother Petersen promised. Then the room was once more empty and he found himself gazing at the bedroom wall.
“I knew the Lord wanted the extraction program in this stake,” he says. “It didn’t matter who ran it or what problems we had; it would be successful.” Brother Petersen lay awake for the rest of the night, making plans to revamp the program. But one thought kept haunting him: “‘How did all of those people know my name?’
“It was certainly a testimony to me that the Lord knows each of us individually and cares about what we are doing,” he adds now.
One of the answers he received that night was that Norm and Sandra Allred should be the program’s coordinator and trainer. Today, anyone involved in the Camp Verde program will tell you that Brother and Sister Allred have been the key to this program’s success. Like so many in Camp Verde’s program, the Allreds are totally dedicated to genealogy extraction. Besides being parents and grandparents—the youngest of their five children is a sophomore at BYU—they each have an outside job, yet they spend from twelve to twenty hours a week at the extraction center in the Cottonwood meetinghouse.
As trainer, Sister Allred is responsible for training the extractors and managing the project. She orders supplies and schedules workers for the three four-hour shifts held daily, except Monday evenings, when the center is closed. Extraction centers, each managed by an assistant trainer, are set up in five different meetinghouses to make the locations more convenient for the workers.
As batches of microfilm are received from Salt Lake City, Sister Allred reviews each batch and logs the dates received, batch and film numbers, and workers assigned. Then two people, each working independently, copy the names and dates from each film on separate cards. A checker then compares both sets of cards, correcting any discrepancies. The cards are then audited by another worker, who checks randomly selected entries against the microfilm for accuracy.
If the batch meets preset accuracy requirements, it is sent to Salt Lake City, where another audit is performed. Batches that fail this audit are returned to the stake for further work. Accepted batches are entered into a computer at one of twenty-two data-entry sites throughout the Church, where the names are made available to the temples for ordinance work.
Although extraction is a complicated and often tedious process, filled with repetition designed to ensure accuracy, the spirit of the work is unmistakable. “We usually call people to serve for eighteen months, but many won’t give it up. They actually plead not to be released,” says President Eagar.
When 72-year-old Arthella Williams was called to be an extractor six years ago, she was hesitant to accept the job. She had no knowledge of Spanish, and the microfilm readers seemed complicated and intimidating. Eye problems made reading or watching television difficult, and she had trouble sitting for more than a few minutes at a time.
“When the bishop set me apart, even though I hadn’t told him of my physical problems, he blessed me that my eyesight and other physical difficulties would not prevent me from serving in this calling.” That blessing has been fulfilled. Sister Williams’ voice trembles with emotion as she talks of her love for her calling. She didn’t want to leave when her eighteen months were up, and has since served as extractor, checker, and auditor, and now is assistant trainer.
“We are working on fifteenth-century christening records from Old Spain. The writing is difficult to decipher and the language is much different from Spanish today. Many of the records have been through so much in the last four hundred years that they are practically impossible to read,” Sister Williams explains. “The Lord doesn’t give it to you easily; you have to really puzzle it out. But then the information that you need suddenly comes through. It happens over and over, and each time is a delight.
“This work isn’t just for the dead, it also benefits the living,” she adds. Many extraction workers agree with her.
“Grayce Palmer was petrified when she was first called to be an extractor,” says Sister Allred. “She said she didn’t think she could possibly find the eight hours a week she was asked to put in. Now she loves it and often spends much more time here than her scheduled hours. Her bishop has commented on how happy she seems now.”
“I didn’t know any Spanish, and didn’t think I could do it,” agrees Sister Palmer, a widow for six years. “But now I love it. I am more self-confident and more spiritual than ever before. When I feel restless or uneasy I come down here and work for a while. I always leave feeling peaceful and close to the Spirit.”
A single roll of microfilm may contain the records from a single parish, recorded by the same priest, over a fifty-year span. By the time a worker has extracted the entire roll, he feels that he knows many of the people and families whose names show up repeatedly in births, marriages, and deaths. The priests, who often inject so much of themselves into their writings, also seem like dear friends to the extractors, who labor with those records over several weeks.
Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles suggests that this turning of our hearts toward the dead is an essential step in redeeming the dead and in our own salvation. “Any one of us, by himself, can care about all of those who have died, and love them. That came as a great inspiration, for then I knew there was a starting point.
“Whatever the number, we can love them, and desire to redeem them. Any one of us has within us the power to expand our concern to include them all. If a billion more were added, we can care for them also.” (Ensign, April 1977, p. 2.)
“Sometimes I’ll think, ‘This poor woman, she has had a baby every year. She must be worn out,’” says Sister Palmer. “Or, ‘That’s the third child this family has lost in two years. How can they cope with that?’ You really get caught up in these people’s lives and wonder how things turned out.”
Sister Allred tells of a big, burly former bishop who sat one day at his microfilm reader, crying. “What’s the matter?” she questioned.
“Oh, Sandy, all of the babies on this page have no mothers and fathers,” he answered, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“The whole purpose of this program is to seal families together eternally,” says Sister Allred. “When you don’t have the information to do that, it can really tug at your heart. But when you know you have been instrumental in helping families be sealed, you get such a warm, sweet feeling as the Spirit burns brightly inside. That is the spirit of extraction.”
Monreve Hardy comes in five times a week at 5:30 A.M. to begin her four-hour shift extracting American census records, which part of the stake switched to a few years ago. She is currently working on a microfilm from eighteenth-century Louisiana. Although in English, the records are often as difficult to decipher as those from Old Spain. “Sometimes I have a real problem reading the names. I go home and fast and pray and when I come back, they are as clear as can be,” she says. “That happens often. There are a lot of people on the other side that I look forward to meeting, and I think they’re anxious to greet me, too.”
“My patriarchal blessing tells me I will be a ‘Savior on Mount Zion,’” says Dorcie Ball. “I feel that refers to this work. Sometimes I feel as though this room is filled with the spirits whose names we’re working on,” she adds. “We do more missionary work here in a single day than many others can do in a lifetime.”
“Missionary work is not limited to proclaiming the gospel to every … people now living on the earth,” said President Spencer W. Kimball. “I hope to see us dissolve the artificial boundary line between missionary work and temple and genealogical work, because it is the same great redemptive work!” (Ensign, Jan. 1977, p. 3.)
Bessie Watson, a seventy-year-old widow, serves as an extractor and an auditor. A few years ago Sister Watson was called to be a worker in the Mesa Temple. But when the temple officiators discovered that she was an extractor, they told her she was already involved in temple work and the work she was doing was too important to interrupt.
For Arthur and Louise Chesley, this work is their way of doing missionary and temple work. When Sister Chesley’s health prevented the couple from working in the Los Angeles Temple, they moved to Pine, Arizona, and were soon called to be extractors. Brother Chesley admits he was skeptical at first. “I just didn’t see myself doing this kind of work,” he admits. “But now I like it better than any Church work I’ve done. You really feel you are doing something worthwhile.”
Sister Chesley has been hospitalized four times in the past several months, and at times a nursing home seemed to be the only solution. “But I kept praying to be able to come back and do this work, and here I am,” she says, grinning.
“This program has had a tremendous influence on the spirituality of our stake,” says President Eagar. “It has been especially beneficial to older people who have retired or lost their spouses. This work helps give their lives purpose and meaning; it fills up empty hours and gives them the chance to grow by serving others. We have some younger people involved, too; in the summers we often call high school students on short-term genealogy missions. They get as excited and love it as much as the older workers.
“Our extractors have had numerous spiritual experiences, and many of them have grown immensely. The program has reactivated some who were less active. It has even renewed a few failing marriages when couples have been called to serve together,” he explains. The enthusiasm in his voice is infectious as he adds, “This program is just a part of the gospel, and we love the gospel.”
At the dedication of the Washington Temple, and again at the rededication of the St. George Temple, President Spencer W. Kimball said, “The day is coming not too far ahead of us when all temples on this earth will be going day and night. There will be shifts and people will be coming in the morning hours and in the night hours and in the day hours.” (From You to Your Ancestors, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1978, p. 2.)
When this prophecy is fulfilled, perhaps the extraction program will be relied on even more heavily to provide the names for this important work. The task is enormous, but one which is being tackled one step at a time by dedicated workers all over the Church, including those in the Camp Verde Arizona Stake.