'Everyone has a story': Edmonton genealogist unearths hidden histories

Colleen Murray knows something about tea leaves, but she’s no fortune teller. She helps people delve hundreds of years into their past.

'If you just dig deep enough, you'll find something'

Colleen Murray is a professional genealogist in Edmonton. (Colleen Murray)

Colleen Murray knows something about tea leaves, but she's no fortune teller.

She helps people delve hundreds of years into their past.

After selling her retail tea shop business in Edmonton three years ago, she decided to pursue professional genealogy full-time.

"It really depends on the person. Most of my clients, they're looking back for their connection back to the old country," Murray said Tuesday in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"Everyone has a story. And if you just dig deep enough, you'll find something."

'I just got hooked'

When her husband was offered a new teaching job in Ontario, she had to transition from life as an entrepreneur to a stay-at-home mom. 

Small children took up most of her day, and practising genealogy was something she could do in spare moments to "maintain my sanity," she said. 

"I had to sell my tea shop, we were having kids and I had no friends. I knew no one," she said.

"And so we instituted an hour-a-day rule where could you do your own thing and weren't going to be bothered by the kids, so I was hiding downstairs on the computer and started Googling my family and I just got hooked."

Murray would spend an hour each day researching her own family history. Fascinated with what she able to find out about her own lineage, she started taking genealogy classes.

"I started taking just a few classes to see if I liked it and to improve the quality of my own work as a hobbyist," Murray said. "But after some time, I realized that people actually do this for a living, and I thought it worth trying to see if I could be one of those people.
A Lamoureux family photo from Colleen Murray's great-grandmother's collection. (Colleen Murray)
 "I seem to like obscure careers, so I decided to give it a try."

In 2010, having moved back to Edmonton, Murray started researching genealogy educational programs.

She became a genealogist for hire after earning a certificate with the National Institute for Genealogical Studies in 2015.

Since then, she's helped people around the world learn about their personal histories — adding missing branches to family trees and delving into the forgotten history of Edmonton heritage homes.

Her specialties are Irish and French history, which is also part of her ancestry.

She often blogs about her work, and continues research into her own family tree.

She spent many hours studying the French-Canadian side of her family and used church records to trace her relatives back through the generations to her original immigrant ancestor, Louis Lamoureux. Her ninth-great-grandfather came from France to Quebec around 1663.

More recently, after digging through old land deeds, she found out her own distant relatives once lived on the same property where she currently lives, 70 years ago.

Her focus on Irish genealogies has brought her to the Emerald Isle three times on research trips, but she's rummaged through dusty archives all over the world.

People looking to explore their own origin stories should start their research with a specific question in mind, and start looking for any documentation they can find, Murray recommends. 

"Some people want to know about one particular line, some people want to prove a story. Some people want to look for their father," she said. "I ask people to provide me with copies with documents they have that might shed light on their questions.

"It could be funeral cards, it could be obituary clippings, it could be a family history that your grandparents wrote, anything that people have that speaks to their question can provide clues."

People are becoming more hungry to know about their family histories, Murray said, and she's passionate about helping people find out where they came from.

"Genealogy is an older person's game. I have decades of work in front of me."