When Garth MacKay opened an email from a total stranger in January 2018, he never thought it would lead to a family reunion.
“She said ‘I’ve been looking for my relatives in Prince Edward Island for decades. My great grandparents were Neil and Sarah Jane MacKay’,” he explained. “I emailed back and said ‘My great grandparents were Neil and Sarah Jane MacKay, and my grandfather was Colin. I sent that back to her and she emailed me back saying ‘OMG, I’ve finally found my family after all these years’.”
The woman, Mithriel MacKay, originally from Massachusetts, is the granddaughter of Hattie Belle MacKay, one of Neil and Sarah Jane’s 12 children. Hattie lived with Mithriel and her mother in the final two years of her life, and she would tell Mithriel stories about her life on PEI. Before passing away, she wrote out several envelopes with the names and addresses of all the relatives in Prince Edward Island, Unfortunately, during her first year of college in 1974, her mother cleaned her room while she was away, and the envelopes, along with the connection to the Island, were tossed out.
Over the years, Mithriel tried to regain that connection, but was never able to get any information from when Hattie lived on PEI.
“Finally, I got on Facebook and I found every MacKay I could on PEI and I wrote them all on Facebook and on LinkedIn,” she said. “I knew that Neil MacKay and Sarah Jane Collette were high enough in the family tree that people my age were still close enough to remember or have something in the family tree about them. I just wrote everyone the same letter, ‘If you’re a MacKay and you know who Neil MacKay, born 1843, and Sarah Jane Collette were, if you know they’re in your family, then we’re related, and I’m desperate to find my family. Garth answered me and blew open the whole branch.”
As Garth and Mithriel kept in touch, the idea to have a family reunion came about. The two were helped in the endeavour by fellow cousins Deanna MacKay and Cat Roche.
Neil and Sarah Jane’s 12 children were Annie, John, Hattie, Charles, Florence, Margaret, James, Eliza, Hannah, Laura, Francis, and Colin. Sadly, Laura only lived from 1903 to 1906. Of the 11 surviving children, all but Colin moved to the eastern United States, settling in and around Boston. During the reunion, each family member wore a name tag with a particular stripe of colour on it, symbolizing which of the 11 children they were descended from.
Close to 40 family members were able to attend the reunion, coming not only from Massachusetts, and Florida, where Mithriel and Cat now reside, but also New Hampshire, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia as well. Along with bringing themselves, they also brought pieces of memorabilia with them, including several photos, the family tartan, a safari helmet worn by family member Brad MacKay in both the First and Second World Wars, and a bible purchased by Neil MacKay in 1873.
Of those in attendance, the oldest was Garth’s father, Marvin, age 85. Being able to be part of the reunion has meant so much to him, especially since he was able to talk to the great-great-grandchildren of his siblings, and found out where they went and what happened to not only them after they left the Island, but about other family members as well.
“It means a lot because I’m learning things about our ancestors that I didn’t even know,” he said. “There was 11 in my father’s family, and some of them went up to New England to work, and I’ve never seen them again.”
One of the reasons for having this reunion was the fact that it allowed multiple generations of the MacKay family to come together. One thing discussed was how family members always get together at a funeral and share stories, but that’s usually the only time the younger ones get a chance to hear about the older generations. Garth said his father gets together from time to time with his brothers and sister, but because they’re elderly now, it doesn’t happen much. He said his generation doesn’t really get together at all, so for him, this is kind of a big deal.
The reunion has also meant a lot for Deanna, who has been a social worker for over 30 years.
“I hear lots of stories of loss, of hurt, and healing, and hope, and resilience,” she said. “Every family has their story, every person in that family has their own experience, and this is our story, and we’re putting pieces together.”