How a photo helped a Saskatoon man solve the lifelong mystery of his father's identity

How a photo helped a Saskatoon man solve the lifelong mystery of his father's identity

Michael Sovyn had a lot of questions about his family's past and until a few weeks ago, he didn't think he'd find the answers in his lifetime. 

The 74-year-old Saskatoon man and his family had been searching for his father for decades. 

Growing up, all Sovyn knew about his father was what his mother had told him. 

According to the family's account, his mother Maria worked in a restaurant in Germany at the end of the Second World War. She would have been in her early 20s when she met a good-looking French soldier who frequented the establishment.

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Soon sparks were flying.

"That's where she met this boyfriend of hers," Sovyn said. "He spent a lot of time there. Then he'd go away because he was a soldier. Then he'd come back and go away, come back and visit her." The couple had even gone on a few trips together. 

The soldier's visits eventually ended. Maria was pregnant and left to raise Sovyn on her own.

A note on the back of a photograph

The mother and son lived in a German camp for foreigners when one day she received a jacket, a donation from a family in Canora, Sask. There was a note stitched inside the pocket asking the person who received the jacket to contact them.  

Maria eventually responded, and the family helped her move with her three-year-old son to Saskatchewan. 

All she had left from her child's father was his picture with a note written in French on the back: "To my dear little Maria," it read. It was signed, "Lulu." 

Maria remembered calling him Lulu but was unclear on his exact last name. She also remembered that he was born in Marseille and that his family had connections to the shoe industry.

Maria died in 2005. 

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Sovyn kept wondering about his father and he wasn't alone. His three children had just as many questions and they wanted to help. 

His daughter, Sherri Hrycay, is a milliner and owner of Sova Hat Shoppe in Saskatoon. Her handmade hats have garnered a lot of attention, worn by the prime minister's wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, former Saskatchewan lieutenant governor Vaughn Solomon Schofield and gifted to Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex.

Her talent has led her on trips to Europe, including many to France. Hrycay and her family would take every chance they got to search for clues. 

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DNA test finds a match

A few years ago the family hired genealogist Murièle Gadaut to help with the search. 

Gadaut said the case was challenging but the first real break came through a DNA test. After signing Sovyn up for, they found a match — a cousin in France. 

Gadaut was able to piece together Sovyn's family tree and find addresses for family members. She sent letters and included a photo of Lulu.

In January, a family member finally made contact after recognizing Lulu as her husband's uncle, Lucien Laurent. 

Lucien, or "Papa Lulu." as he was known by his family, had passed away 20 years ago but he had three sons. 

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Gadaut contacted them and helped the families connect. 

At first there were many questions: the family in France wanted to make sure it wasn't some kind of fraud. But now, according to Sovyn, they are talking non-stop, making up for lost time. 

"Our phones are ringing here 24 hours a day. Always somebody phoning, telling who they are and how they're related, and just on and on and on." 

A coincidental family connection

The families are finding they have a lot in common but the real shock came for Hrycay when she found out that her grandfather had worked in a hat factory.

"Are you kidding me? It just blew my mind; it's incredible," Hrycay said. 

Sovyn said it has all been a little overwhelming, but he feels as though his life is more complete.

He is now getting ready to meet his family in Nice, on the French Riviera, where they live.

"I guess the first few days, the brothers are gonna hang out together. We're gonna get to know each other and then the floodgates will open up."

Hrycay, Sovyn and his wife Loraine will be making the trip at the end of March.