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, March 8, 2013

The Death of Cornelius Willems (1855-1902)

Rosthern, Saskatchewan:
            “…August 12th.  Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord!  I greet you with peace.  This time it is a message of sadness which I have to share with the dear readers: it has pleased the dear heavenly Father to call our dear Brother Cornelius Willems out of this life into the beyond.  He was buried today in our new cemetery near the meetinghouse with great funeral participation.  The dear brother brought his age to 47 years, 5 months and 21 day.  He lived in marriage 21 years, 4 months and 14 days.  His dear wife and nine children mourn his death.  His sickness was liver disease and dropsy [edema, fluid retention].  He had already been suffering for a long time, but at the last he was critically ill for five weeks, and he often had great pain.  He lived in faith [as a believer] for 13 years.  He was a faithful member of our church till his death and we feel the loss with pain.”                                                                  J.F. Strausz  Zionsbote, 3 Sep 1902.[1] 

“Cornelius was the first person to be buried at the Brotherfield Church which he had helped to organize.”                                                                                   Willems Gen. I. II. III.
              Cornelius and Elisabeth Willems moved with their family to Saskatchewan in 1900, the same year old Gerhard Willems died.  Cornelius was likely one of the sons who viewed the old man’s body before it was buried.  Two years later, Cornelius, too, would be buried.  He was only 47 years old when he died—of “liver disease and dropsy.”  He had been sick for a long time, and “had a longing to be released and rejoiced to see the Lord.”[2]   

There is no obituary for Cornelius written by the family in the Zionsbote archives.  His children did not forget the sorrow and desperation of that time, though.  When it came time for them to write an obituary for their mother, Elisabeth, they spoke of the pain and desperation she felt when Cornelius, her husband died:

           “In the year 1900 they settled in Saskatchewan, Canada, where they made their home at Brotherfield, in the hope of making their life work on the farm easier.  Man thinks, but God arranges.  God’s ways were appointed differently.  In the year 1902 her husband, our father, became ill and was taken from her side through death on August 8th.  Alone with nine children, of whom 8 children were born in Mountain Lake and one in Canada, she looked into the dark future, and in looking to the Lord, who is the Lord over widows and orphans, she overcame this pain….  Happy was marriage, difficult was the pain of parting.”                                                                             
                                                                                                EBWZ Obituary Zionsbote 5 January 1944[3]

            Elisabeth Boldt Willems was 43 years old when her husband died.  She was a widow with nine children living on a new homestead on the Canadian prairie, a daunting situation.  However, she was not, strictly speaking, alone.   She had two, unmarried, fully grown sons—Cornelius, named for his father who was twenty years old, and my grandfather, Jacob, who turned nineteen the day before his father died.  Those two sons had likely already taken over the work of the homesteading during their father’s illness.  Elisabeth also had teen-aged daughters to help her in the house—Elisabeth, who turned seventeen on September 12, and Anna, who turned fifteen on September 14.  The two middle sons, Gerhard and Heinrich, who were ten and almost twelve, were old enough to help their big brothers.  Even little Maria, who turned eight on October 22, would have had chores.   She could have been a big help looking after the two littlest ones, Margareta, who was two, and Katherina, who was four.

            However, children, even full-grown sons, are not the same as a husband.  They are not life partners, intimate companions.  In that sense, Elisabeth was truly alone.  Children grow up and leave home.  They need to live their own lives, start their own families.  How long would her two oldest sons be willing to stay at home and work her homestead?  How long could she count on their help?  The future must indeed have looked dark, frightening.

[1] Extracted and translated by Peggy Goertzen on behalf of Loretta Willems, December 2008.
[2] Jacob Buhlers, also wrote about Cornelius death in 3 September 1902 edition of Zionsbote.
[3] Translated by Peggy Goertzen on behalf of Loretta Willems, 4 June, 2006.