My Mother’s Churches

Published in Christian Courier, No. 2739 (April 26,2004)

After years of wishful thinking and dreaming, I finally had the opportunity to do it.  On June 29, 2001, I boarded a Martinair jet.  I was on my way to explore my familial roots in The Netherlands – accompanied by a fully qualified expert, my mom.  Our destination was Groningen, the province my parents left behind when they emigrated to Canada in 1954.  High on my list of “to do’s” was to see as many churches as possible.  I had always been intrigued by the photographs of stately churches in my parents’ Dutch books.  I wanted to experience the immensity of those buildings, to drink in the centuries of devotion they represented.  I wanted to stand where massive towers and enduring brick walls still assert boldly that God is holy and mighty, and that he is from everlasting to everlasting.

      My relatives were gracious with their time and transportation, and I was able to visit many historic churches.  Especially impressive was St. James Church in Zeerijp, circa 1300, called a John-the-Baptist church because the bell tower (head) is detached from the main building (trunk).  Colorful Moresque decorations adorn two of the entrances, an exotic reminder of Spanish influence on this Benedictine structure. The majestic organ and elaborately carved pulpit, both installed in the 1600’s, preside with regal solemnity over the sanctuary.  Rectangular patches of darker gray on the stone floor mark the imbedded tombstones of the aristocracy.  Centuries later the faded inscriptions naming the loss of a beloved daughter or an honored mother remain poignant.

    In the capital city, also named Groningen, I was awed by the vastness of the Martinikerk (St. Martin’s Church), whose foundations date back to 1000.  My visit was unexpectedly enriched by someone practising Bach on the splendid baroque organ for a concert to be held later that evening.  The Aa-Kerk is another stunning medieval edifice in Groningen, dating from the 1200’s.  Lofty vaulted ceilings, painted midnight blue and dotted with yellow stars, held me spellbound, craning my neck till it hurt.  In the nave I was touched to find a simply framed poem commemorating the Canadian soldiers who had liberated Groningen.

     Tucked away behind walls and doors in the center of the city, is St. Geertruid’s, a private church for an exclusive community called Pepergasthuis.  Originally built as lodgings for pilgrims, Pepergasthuis was eventually converted into supported living accommodations for seniors.  It was here, with the permission of our elderly host, who volunteered his services as a guide, that I worked up the nerve to climb the high and imposing pulpit, the “preekstoul”.  

     The august presence of St. Joseph’s, a 19th century neo-gothic Roman Catholic cathedral, is heralded by a slender tower, 76 meters high, topped with a delicate iron spire, considered an audacious innovation at the time.  Monumental stone pillars and beams dominate the interior, carved with the words of the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes in Latin and in Dutch.  I gaped like a child at the soaring stained glass windows spilling rainbow light with luxurious beneficence. 

     Here’s the funny thing, though.  When I returned to Canada, it was my mother’s churches that lingered in my thoughts.  We visited the church in Ten Post where my mom was baptized, an 1870 Gereformeerde Kerk with a bald-faced exterior.  A plain church for a plain people.  Both of my mother’s grandmothers, Jaike and Tryntje, lived across the street from this church, a fitting physical manifestation of  the stronger spiritual umbilical cord.  Mom recalled with a smile Grootmoe Jaike’s habitual pose in church, her head nodding rhythmically in agreement with the Dominee.  In addition to King peppermints, Grootmoe Jaike had her snuff box to re-energize her concentration throughout the sermon.  It was Grootmoe Jaike’s job to prepare the “stoofs” for winter services.  These wooden boxes, brass handles polished on Fridays, contained a still-smoldering lump of coal in a dish.  Heat would emanate through holes punched in the lid.  Families of the congregation would stop by on Sunday and pick up their “stoof” to help keep their feet warm in church.  

     These greatgrandmothers of mine gaze sternly from yellowed photographs.  Grootmoe Jaike once severely reprimanded my mother for being too cheerful: “Girls who whistle flirt with the devil!”  GrootmoeTryntje, with a wild crop of coarse white hair, was even crankier.  A widow with two children, she possessed a flinty faith forged by a hard life.  In Grootmoe Tryntje’s kitchen, if you were too generous with the butter and cheese on your bun, she would grimly remind you of that old proverb: “Zuivel op zuivel haalt je de duivel”, which, roughly translated, means, “Doubling up on the good stuff calls the devil to lunch.”  Spiritually, she was always battle-ready, equipped with a superior knowledge of the enemy, and armed with a rhyming caveat for any situation.  You must marry within your own denomination, she warned her children, because “Twee geloven op een  kussen – daar slaapt de duivel tussen”, or, “Two different kinds of believers sharing one pillow invite the devil to sleep between them”.

     Grootmoe Tryntje’s part-time income as the “koster”, or church custodian, was crucial for her survival.  When the consistory politely informed her, as she was serving them tea, that they were going to replace her with a man who would be able to work full-time, she hurled a teacup against the wall.  My Uncle Albert still has that broken teacup displayed in his china cabinet.  We joked that, perhaps, like Luther and his inkwell, Grootmoe Tryntje sensed the presence of the devil in that room!  She never mellowed.  In her final year, ill and confined to an upstairs bedroom in her son’s home, her bellicose cane would pound unremittingly on the floor when she thought it was time for company to leave, or for the grandchildren below to quiet down.

     1944 was the year of the Vrijmaking, an event that robbed Ten Post of its cozy intimacy.  Not one villager would remain unaffected by this church schism.  After more than half a century, I could still detect the hurt in my mother’s voice as she pointed out the farm of a wealthy man who would no longer employ her Gereformeerde father after the split.  For a brief period, Mom’s family, and others who would not assimilate with the Vrijgemaakt majority of their divided fellowship, trekked to a nearby barn for worship.  She pointed out the exact spot where the barn, now demolished, used to stand, just a short walk from her home.  When her father’s name was announced from the pulpit as a nominee for the office of elder, my teenage mom had erupted with a derisive snort.  How could her father be an elder?  He wasn’t an affluent and established farmer, just an ordinary carpenter.  But, wrenched from the old, this was the raw, convulsive birth of something new. 

     My mother’s next house of worship was a long, low building, erected near the end of the war, constructed from precious scavenged planks.  She made profession of faith in that ugly structure, little more than a shed, and later, she and my father were married there.  Today that church has also disappeared, its lumber carted off for some other utilitarian purpose.  Thrifty people, my ancestors.

    Eventually the Gereformeerde congregation in Ten Post prospered enough to acquire a tidy red brick church.  Although I couldn’t understand the sermon on the Sunday I attended, the cadences of the Lord’s Prayer and the Law were familiar, even in Dutch.  I was curious about the use of Dutch, though.  I could understand my parents’ dialect, Grunnings, fairly well, and had assumed that it would be used in the service.  My aunt and my mother chuckled at my naivete and explained that, traditionally, their dialect had never been used for prayer, for church, or for school.  Such a thing bordered on blasphemy!  It was disrespectful to address a pastor or a teacher, or even their wives for that matter, in Grunnings!  By providential coincidence, as we were having this discussion, my aunt glanced in a newspaper and noticed that a special worship service, to be conducted in Grunnings, was scheduled that very evening in nearby Westeremden.  So off we went to our second service  –  this time held in a white canvas tent, complete with brass band, a prayer by renowned Dutch painter Henk Helmantel, and a sermon about the Good Samaritan I could comprehend.  My mom’s eyes brimmed with tears as she sang hymns in her own language for the first time in 68 years, and I recalled the striking truth of a quote I once jotted down by the poet Czeslaw Milosz: “Language is the only homeland.” 

     Too soon, our trip was over.  We came home just in time for the golden anniversary of our own local Christian Reformed Church in Wyoming, Ontario.  With a hoarse voice and frequent pauses, a senior member led us in a prayer of thanksgiving for fifty years of congregational life.  I found myself sharing his emotion.  Fifty years ago it had taken courage and trust, and a dash of youthful recklessness, to scrape a new living out of Canadian soil and transplant a Dutch red-brick faith into a white clapboard church with a black shingled roof. 

     A stone’s throw from Ten Post is a place called Wittewierum, or White Knoll.  More of a crossroads, really.  If you blink, you miss it.  Mom and I had spent an afternoon there, gingerly picking our way through a weedy graveyard, peering through the broken panes of a dilapidated brick church, originally Roman Catholic, later Reformed.  The oldest grave was dated 1669; the most recent, 1919.  A prominent sign indicated that this had been the site of a monastery in the 1200’s, quite possibly the very first Christian institution to be established in the area.  White-robed novitiates had given the place its name as they served the Lord and their neighbors.  It dawned on me that this monastery, set on a small rise of land, was one of Mom’s churches, too, even though she had been unaware of its existence as a child.  What hopes had impelled these young monks to settle in the poor and backward northern reaches of Holland?  Had they gladly accepted the call, or had they been enrolled by parents who could no longer afford to keep them?  Had these teenagers, garbed in white, ever stopped to assess what their impact would be on this tiny corner of the world?  I wanted to travel back in time.  I wanted to speak a word of cheer to that weary novice, who rose at early damp for morning prayers and carted home a bundle of sticks for the fire at dusk, and trace for him, and maybe for myself, too, the filaments of faith which, woven in an exquisite web, linked his abandoned, mosquito-infested missionary outpost to my home church in Wyoming, Canada.  

     Yes, I was humbled by the enormity of the cathedrals I saw, each one an astounding architectural act of praise.  But I was humbled, too, by my mother’s churches.  The God who is mighty and holy, who is Alpha and Omega, can be found in barns, in sheds, and in tents, bending down tenderly, as Hosea says, to feed his people.  His lullabies can be heard in Latin, in Dutch, in Grunnings, and in English.  He sits at the bedside of  wounded souls in fractured families and in splintered communities.  When I ponder the intricate pattern of people and churches knit together by God, stitch by stitch, year after year, century after century, to generate just one individual’s faith, my own, and, if I multiply that by Christians in all times and in all places, I get a joyfully dizzying sense of the infinitude of his grace and the patience of his salvation plan.  I want to shout with Isaiah, “For Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.”  With the prophet’s eyes, I begin to recognize each of my mother’s churches as “a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of God.”  I’ll cherish the memories of those churches in my past, and share them, like sacramental bread, with my children.              

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