My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Gerhard & Katharina:

Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) & Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875)

An Invitation to a Willems Reunion 1980[1]
 “Dear Relatives,
       Our great-grandfather, Gerhard Willems, was born in Holland (or Prussia) on Oct. 3, 1820.  He was married to Katharina Rempel in 1841.  They spent some years farming in Russia.  Great-grandmother died in Russia in 1875 at the age of 52.” 

Willems Gen.  I. II. III.

“Gerhard and his family moved to Minnesota in 1875; however, his wife Katarina died just shortly before they left for America.  Gerhard moved from Minnesota to Canada.  After he died he was put into a grave and it was covered with boards.  In the Spring when some of the sons came from Minnesota his body was viewed and then buried.”
            Gerhard Willems (1820) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875) are my paternal great-great-grandparents.  They were completely unknown to me till my mother sent me a mimeographed invitation to a 1980 Willems Family Reunion to be held at Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Saskatchewan.  The people invited were the descendants of Gerhard and Katharina, and the invitation listed twelve children born to Katharina and Gerhard with birth and death dates for most of them.  It noted that some of the information might need correcting and invited people to bring pictures and other information they might have about the family.

              I was not able to attend the reunion and learned nothing further about Gerhard and Katharina and their children until a 1994 visit to my Aunt Mary (Willems) Davis in Dinuba, California.  I had just finished my doctoral dissertation and was finally turning in earnest to writing about the story of my Willems grandparents and their family. I told Mary about my project, and we talked about her parents and what she knew about their families.  She said she had something I might want, then searched in her papers and took out a mimeographed sheet of data that was given to her by one of her cousins.  This document, Willems Gen. I. II. III,  gives the same names and dates as those on the 1980 Willems Reunion Invitation but with some additional dates and information about locations of births and deaths.  It was probably put together and distributed after the pooling of information at the Reunion.

            Two years later, in the winter of 1996, I was able to return to Dinuba, this time for six weeks, two of which I spent with my cousin Joanne who lived in Fresno.  I slept on her couch and each weekday morning drove with her to the high school where she was teaching.  She got out of the car, and I continued on to the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Fresno Pacific University (my family was MB).  The rest of the day was spent immersed in the Center’s resources.  Kevin Enns-Rempel, the archivist, introduced me to the archives and other primary and secondary sources.  He also entered the information on Willems Gen. I. II. III into a computer data base, the Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry, referred to as “GRANDMA.”  That information brought up an ancestry chart that gave exact dates for Gerhard’s birth and marriage to Katharina Rempel as well as information for Katharina’s parents.

            GRANDMA was just getting started when that first genealogical chart was printed.  In the years that followed, much more data was gathered and entered.  In April 2006, I was able to attend a genealogical workshop at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, which also has a Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.  The workshop was conducted by Tim Janzen, a physician who is also deeply involved in the GRANDMA project.  After the main program, Tim met with us individually.  When I gave him my Willems-Rempel material, he said that he was corresponding with a relative of mine, Gerhard Willems (b. 1955), a great- grandson of the Gerhard (1844-1916)[2] who stayed in the Crimea when the rest of the family emigrated to North America.  This living Gerhard Willems was born in Kazakhstan but moved with his family to Germany in 1988, just after the fall of the Iron Curtin. Gerhard (1844-1916), the son who stayed in Russia, died during the terrible years of the Russian Revolution, but his descendants were not wiped out.  They not only endured they were able to preserve important family records that is now in GRANDMA.  In those records were the names and dates of birth four children who were not on the list that I’d received from my family. 

            Gerhard and Katharina had a total of 16 children, and we know all their names and dates of birth.  We also know the date of death of all but one of them.  

To read the full story of Gerhard and Katharina, click on their names listed under "Pages" in the column to right of this text.

[1] Sent out by the Reunion Committee: Sam Willems, Waldheim, Sask.; Wes Willems, Saskatoon, Sask.; Elmer Andres, Hepburn, Sask.; Herman Berg, Hepburn, Sask.
[2] This Gerhard’s son Peter (1877-1942) was born in Kutyki, Crimea, but died in Spasskoyi, Kazakstan.  His son, Gerhard (1908-1997), was born in Yalantusch, Crimea, married 1940 in Crimea, had children in Kazakhstan and died in Germany (GRANDMA).