|Portrait of Gerhard photographed by my uncle, Frank Willems|
Cornelius and Elisabeth Boldt Willems, my great-grandparents, migrated to Canada with their children in the spring of 1900. They were not the first of the clan to make journey. Other family members awaited their arrival. Gerhard Willems’ daughter Elisabeth Willems Quiring (1862-1927), her husband, Johann (1862-1931) and their children moved to the Rosthern area of Saskatchewan April 18, 1899. Two weeks later Gerhard joined them. Not quite one year later, on 12 March 1900, as the family’s first winter in Saskatchewan was ending, old father Gerhard died.
That information comes from a long letter I found in the Zionsböte, the Mennonite Brethren newspaper archived at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Hillsboro, Kansas. The letter was written by Johann Quiring, the son-in-law with whom Gerhard was living. Below is a translation of the section that describes Gerhard’s last days. These are the earliest words written by one of the participants in my family’s history. Johann Quiring was a fluent writer. Reading his words these people who had been just a collection of vital statistics become real:
Zionsböte 11 April 1900
Saskatchewan, Rosthern, 20 March 1900.
Our dear father Gerhard Willms was overtaken by a stroke on March 6th in the morning when he wanted to come to breakfast and he was outside when suddenly he was so wonderfully taken. It was 40 feet from his door to our door. He said he wanted to go left, and he was irresistibly moved to the right, so that he didn’t have his own will, and fell to the ground. It cannot have been longer than 5 or 10 minutes that he laid there, because I had looked at the thermometer glass only a short while before; he had already been there because it was his first job first thing in the morning when he got up. The thermometer hangs on his house. When little Peter, who always slept with him, came to say, “Grosspapa [grandpa] is lying outside,” we all ran to him and because he was a healthy [robust, heavy?] body, I could not lift him well; we brought him into the house as good as we could. He had settled with his hands in the snow and since was 24 degrees cold, his fingers were somewhat frozen. When we had him in bed, he could speak again after an hour. He could no longer move the right side, however, which was so-to-say dead from head to foot, just how we laid him. We had to lift our dear father out of bed, and again lay him down throughout the entire time that he spent this way. He could still speak for three days, then he lost his speech entirely and so he could only nod and turn his head. When he had laid so for three days, we asked him whether he had a joyous hope, when he should depart from this world. Yes, he said, he could believe that Jesus’ blood had redeemed him. Then we sang to him several songs, especially this one:
There shines in the distance a land,
Our eyes of faith can see it well,
And led by the hand of Jesus,
His people will enter there in peace.
Soon, yes, soon, Oh how lovely,
We will also enter there with rejoicing.
Then he said, “Soon, soon, I am there.” He had kept very quiet till the end. On March 12th at 7:30 the hour came when he could go over into the dwelling above, where the struggle has its end, where there is no more affliction and pain. It is so, as the apostle says, “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” On Friday, March 16th, we accompanied him on his last journey to his resting place [buried him], to which a number of neighbors and brothers and sisters [in faith] had been invited. The Lord gave us his blessing there.
May this serve as a report to all his children and grandchildren, because his children live scattered; one still [lives] in Russia by the name of Gerhard Willems, specifically in the Crimea, and one in Nebraska by the name of Johann Willems, and others in Minnesota. The dear father Gerhard Willems reached the age of 79 years, 4 months and 1 day. He produced 16 children, seven of whom have already preceded him into eternity. As much as we know, he became grandfather to over 76 children, 21 of whom have gone before him. He became great-grandfather to three children. He is from the Crimea, South Russia, immigrated to America in 1875, and settled in Minnesota and lived there until 1899. In that year on April 18th we moved from Minnesota to Saskatchewan; in about two weeks he followed us. He has always been quite active and lively; only now and again he had pain in his body [abdomen]. He lived with us almost eight years and it always went well for us with him. We now greatly feel the loneliness, yet we do not deny him the rest. The condition of health is rather good; winter still doesn’t want to lessen, in spite of the fact that spring stands at the door. Today it is very nice. We wish all of the brothers and sisters and readers of the Zionsbote a heart-felt “live well” Johann Quiring
Old Gerhard’s life journey was long, long in distance and years. In the course of his 79 years, 4 months and 1 day he participated in the migration of Dutch/Prussian/Russian Mennonite people from the North Sea to Black Sea; the Molotschna Mennonite Colony to the Crimean Peninsula; the Crimea to Mountain Lake, Minnesota; Minnesota to Saskatchewan, Canada. He embodied within his individual lifespan the history of his Mennonite people. And he left descendants, many descendants. The 16 children Katharina Rempel Willems bore him brought forth many children of their own, who in turn brought forth children of their own, and so it has proceeded until the number is virtually uncountable.
"After [Gerhard] died he was put in 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."
Willems Gen. I. II. III.
Willems Gen. I. II. III.
 Translated by Peggy Goertzen, 13 June 2006, on behalf of Loretta Willems. Peggy is the Director of the Center for MB Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, KS.