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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Monday, May 13, 2013

Canada: The Zimmermanns

“In the year 1903[Heinrich H. Zimmermann] emigrated to America with his family where they settled near Winkler in Manitoba.  Since his dear wife was already sick with tuberculosis in Russia, this climate seemed even less bearable for her and in April, 1905, she died.”
                                                                                                                   HHZ Obituary, Zionsbote 12 Sep 1934

            Family records state that the port where the Zimmermanns arrived in North America was Halifax, which is in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.  Nova Scotia is at the eastern edge of the country, a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic from the province of New Brunswick.  Nova Scotia is barely attached to New Brunswick, and on many maps looks like an island separated from the mainland by the Bay of Fundy.  The town of Halifax is on the Atlantic side of Nova Scotia, the main port of entry for immigrants arriving in Canada from Europe when the Zimmermanns arrived in the late summer of 1903. 

From Halifax the Zimmernamms would have traveled west by train through New Brunswick headed for Quebec and the St. Lawrence River corridor to Montreal and Ottawa before heading inland over the sparsely populated boreal forest of the Canadian Shield north of the Great Lakes, “the bush,” as Canadians refer to it, skirting Lake Superior above Thunder Bay, Ontario, before heading west and a bit north through the wilderness to Winnipeg, Manitoba, a journey of about 1,600 miles.  Gerald Friesen in his book, The Canadian Prairie: A History, describes that long rail trek:[i]

“The colonist cars became little communities in themselves.  The wooden seats could be made up into berths … At the end of [the] car was a tiny kitchen for the preparation of simple meals.  Armed with ‘yard of tickets’ and a few supplies, the immigrants embarked upon the rough and, even for romantics, seemingly endless train journey through the trees and lakes of the Shield.  The ride was interrupted by quick sorties to railside stores in the northern Ontario bush and by long waits on sidings for priority trains to roar through.  Inevitably, talk turned to the future and to inquiries about ‘what it was like ’” (254).

Arriving in Winnipeg, the Zimmermanns were almost at their destination.  The town of Winkler was just 60 miles south on a rail spur that connected the town to the Canadian Pacific Railway.  In Winkler they were again in Mennonite land, among people who still spoke Plautdietsch even though they had been in Canada almost 30 years.  The West Reserve, as it was called, was a block settlement of Russian Mennonites who arrived in Canada in 1874-875, many of whom were from the Fuerstenland Colony, the colony where Sergeyevka, the Zimmerman’s old home, was located.  In 1903, the Mennonite community around Winkler was well established, but it was still a recognizably Low German Mennonite world.  The Zimmermanns would have seen Mennonites in the streets and in the stores.  They would have had no trouble talking to most of the people around them.  There was also a Mennonite Brethren Church.  It was the MB congregation that was the likely magnet that guided their journey from Russia, gave them a concrete destination as they made their travel arrangements and bought their tickets.  Here were people who would welcome them, help them find a place to live, introduce them to Canada, their new home.

The first place they stayed when they arrived in Winkler was with a family named Hiebert, whose daughter would one day live next door to my Aunt Rosie when she and Russ lived on Maple Street in Selma, California.  I have no idea how long Grandma and her family stayed with the Hieberts, nor where they went to from there.  However, the letter Heinrich Zimmermann wrote to the Zionsbote, definitely gives the impression that they were living in their own place in the months leading up to his wife Maria’s death.  But whether they lived in town or on a farm, the letter gives no hint.  Nor does it give any indication of how the family lived, their means of financial support.  Did HHZ get carpentry work of some kind, perhaps?  He had worked in a factory in Russia.  He was not a farmer.  Did the church help them financially, I wonder?  One thing though is very clear—Maria’s tuberculosis got worse in Canada, and her illness and eventual death dominated the house in which the family lived. 

Zionsbote 17 May 1905, “Experiences”

“The Will of God”

“In the last years we started thinking about going to America, but there were many hindrances, so that it didn’t seem at all possible.  [We] asked the Lord and made plans, that if God wanted to make it so, we would understand that it was his will, and He brought everything to pass that it came about and he led us here and through all of the difficulties.  So we cannot understand it except as the will of God.  But yet I now ask God, why so?  --For when we arrived here, my dear wife soon became ill. 

It was like a fever, and it did not leave her.  When we saw that the illness became more severe, we sought the help of a doctor, but it seemed as if none of that would help.  In the previous year, she thought she would leave us here and go home, [but] that didn’t work out.  She often said [she would go] if we all could go at the same time.  So she lay around the entire time that we were here but could take care of everything with the help of the dear children until the end of September 1904, then she couldn’t get up any more, but she lay down thinking that she would soon be able to go home.  God made her willing to let us go and then she wanted to go home, but the dear Lord thought differently. 

At that time there was a Conference here and several of the guests visited us; may God reward them for it.  Then my dear wife kept looking to the future, how much longer she would have to stay here [in this world]; until Christmas that was too long, by then she would be over there.  She often said: I have been sick for so long, surely the dear Lord will not leave me here long. 

But Christmas came and went and her longing was not fulfilled.  When Elder Brother David Dyck had been here once, when I wasn’t at home, he said that that could last until spring.  Then she was completely discouraged, but the Lord helped us, he knows how to deal with his children.  So she lay there until the beginning of February, until then she was still able to get up to go to the bathroom, if I helped her, but then that no longer worked, she was suddenly too weak, she couldn’t move her legs any more; then I carried her as well as I could.  That probably wasn’t always very nice for her, but she was very content, she was so happy that the dear brothers and sisters had taken such good care of us, that she always consoled me that they would take good care of me, too, when she was gone and it is so, may God reward each one, for it is written: “All that you have done for the least of these, that you have done for me. 

Two weeks before her end, it seemed as if things might get better; she could sit in a rocking chair, we could even rock her, and when we sat there in the evenings and talked about how the Lord had led and guided us and that we would perhaps still be able to stay together and settle somewhere, then she became cheerful, that she also wanted to stay here, but it wasn’t long until the illness increased, her breath became shorter and shorter, her pains ever greater and her desire ever stronger to go home, so that she preferred us to talk about heavenly things or to sing beautiful songs to her.  In particular she liked the song 690 in the Glaubensstimme and Brother Warkentin often had to sing it to her. 

She had an especially hard time of it the last night.  Brother Dyck was here when the illness was so bad that she sweated profusely and her breathing so difficult that she asked us again and again to sing and to pray.  Once she asked Brother Dyck to pray over her, for so it was written, and the dear brother did it, we prayed together.  At 4 o’clock Brother Dyck went home and I sat with her, but the trouble did not leave her.  At 6 o’clock I woke the children and we tended to her, but I kept wiping the sweat from her.  When I was tending her, she asked me to wash her and to make up the bed.  When I had washed her, I lay her on a bench in order to make the bed and when I had laid her down she said: “So, now give me some water.”  I did it.  When she had drunk, she made a bit of a face and died.  She stayed lying there as she was, she didn’t even straighten out her legs.  It was Thursday, the 6th of April.

“We held her funeral on Sunday in the meeting house, so that everyone  could attend.  And many guests had come.  Yes, dear brothers and sisters, only one who has experienced the same thing can truly sympathize, people said that to me when my wife was still alive and I have to agree.  It goes very deep, when the Lord reaches so deep, but those are thoughts of love, that’s what we read in his word, and yet it hurts so much.  My wish is that the Lord may take care of me and console me.  May all be heartily greeted by me with Psalm 116.  Please, pray for us.  My wife asked that greetings be sent to all the brothers and sisters in Serjegevka, and also those who have moved away from there, with the song from Zionslieder Number 45: ‘On the Beautiful Golden Beach’.  I ask Uncle Kornelius Fehr to give these lines to my sister to read and to send me news.

            H. H. Zimmermann
My address is: Winkler, Manitoba, Canada


            The death of Maria Dyck Zimmermann left five children without a mother, five young children.  Grandma, the oldest, was only twelve years old; her sister Anna just eleven; Henry, the oldest boy, was nine; Marie, the youngest sister, would not turn six until the following June; Jacob, the baby, was only three years old, would turn four on May 21.  Grandma’s childhood pretty much ended with her mother’s illness and death.  All the children would have done what they could to help, but as the oldest girl she was the one who had the primary responsibility for the work her mother could do. 

In the care of the church

“She was so happy that the dear brothers and sisters had taken such good care of us, that she always consoled me that they would take good care of me, too, when she was gone and it is so.”

            Heinrich Zimmermann was 39 years old when his wife died.  He was still a newcomer in a strange new land.  His children were young; they needed a mother.  He needed a wife, a “help meet.”  But his need was not just his concern.  The church felt it as well, felt their responsibility to help this family find a wife/mother, and it was known that among the Mennonite Brethren in Saskatchewan, in the Brotherfield Church, there was a widow with nine children in need of a husband.  A marriage was arranged.  Heinrich and his children left Winkler to take up a new life in the parkland between the North and South forks of the Saskatchewan River.

[i] Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, University of Toronto Press, 1984.