The Seven Isaacs: Remembering the Days of Old

by Royden Loewen, Steinbach

presented to the Loewen gathering at Loewenhill Farm, Blumenort, June 29, 2014

Every family or clan has its legend, or indeed legends.  They arise from times of storytelling, and they may be hinged to a sacred text, such as Deuteronomy 32:7 which states, “Remember the days of old, consider the generations long past, ask your Father and he will tell you, your elders and they will explain,” and in doing so you will discover that “the Most High gave the nations their inheritance.”   

What the ‘father’, that is our grandfather, Isaac P. Loewen, told us, was the story of ‘Six Isaacs,’ that for six generations the eldest son of each family was an ‘Isaac.’  That is, until his, the sixth generation.  Evidently our Grandmother Maria (nee Plett) did not like the name and thus reserved Isaac for her ‘fourth’ and not ‘first son,’ and evidently for a baby which she knew would not live, for that baby Isaac died just a week after being born.  But who were the six Isaacs?  How did they live their lives of commitment, of discipleship?  What can their lives shed on the “days of old,” on the process which a clan received its faith inheritance?

Of course, one thing any “father” story teller would tell us is that no extended family is created by a patriarchal lineage.  Women in fact do the birthing, they bring the babies into this world, and thus, even though history has often ignored them, they are there – our mothers, grandmothers, etc, passing on the faith and visions of faithfulness to their children.  If we are going to ask ‘who were the fathers of our grandfather,’ can we stop first, and ask, ‘who were the mothers of our grandmother?”  Who was the mother of Maria?  We know about Maria, whose life spanned 1895 to 1973: born on a farm exactly one mile to the northeast of the her and husband Isaac’s farm on the hill south of Blumenort; she gave birth to ten babies; later she was a migrant to Mexico at the behest of her husband Isaac; she came back to the Blumenort area sometime after Isaac’s death in 1963 and died in Canada a few years later.  

Grandmother Maria Plett Loewen visiting with David K. Klassen’s wife. Photo Credit Blumenort, 195. Maria is to the left in the photo. Photo Credit: Royden Loewen, Blumenort, 19.

Grandmother Maria Plett Loewen visiting with David K. Klassen’s wife. Photo Credit Blumenort, 195. Maria is to the left in the photo. Photo Credit: Royden Loewen, Blumenort, 19.

Grandchildren will have their own memories of Maria.  I have mine, one of a blessing she spoke to me on her deathbed, words mumbled that I could not make out, but addressed to me, ‘Reij’ (pronounced the way Texans say ‘Ray’), her name for me, and ones I took at the time as a young man.  Of course, no memory of grandmothers is always positive: I still feel the sting of her put-down when during a moment of bread-baking during the summer of 1963 my older sisters asked if they too could eat a bit of dough, presumably to test the texture or the salt, and she consented.  But when I asked if I too might taste the dough, she snapped, ‘nay, du best en Jung.’  Oh well, setting the boundaries of gender, is surely also the duty of grandmothers.

So, if Grandmother Maria, is known to us, surely with our own stories, some elaborate, others consisting of fleeting images, who was her mother?  Well, introduce Helena, born Koop (1865-1940), a child on a farm just over a mile southwest of Isaac and Maria’s farm.  Helena was the wife of David L. Plett, mother to fifteen children.  I never met her, have no memories, but an existing photograph of her places her on the right hand side of two of her sisters, and if you look closely, you will see Helena’s face sparkle a bit, a hint of a smile, especially apparent if you contrast her face to the rather sober looks of her sisters. 

Three Koop sisters. Helena Koop Plett is the one on the left. She is sitting with her sisters, Gertrude and Katherine. Photo Credit: Royden Loewen, Blumenort, 284.

Three Koop sisters. Helena Koop Plett is the one on the left. She is sitting with her sisters, Gertrude and Katherine. Photo Credit: Royden Loewen, Blumenort, 284.

And who was Helena’s mother?  Well, introduce, Katherina, born Barkman (1832-1923), wife of Johan Koop, born in Russia, a young married woman in 1874 at the time of the migration, mother ultimately to 10 children, a woman who lived to be ninety-one.  The only statement that relates to her is that apparently she would reminisce about the olden days in Russia where she and Johan ran a large and successful farm that employed Ukrainian or Russian workers.  She recalled that although their workers were taken good care of, it was a shame that collectively Mennonites in Russia did not.   A woman with a social conscience that bridged gaps of ethnicity and faith.

And who was Katherina’s mother?  Introduce, Gertrude Klassen, born in 1800, and dead at the relatively young age of forty-seven or so, wife of Jacob J. Barkman, the elderly widower who surely must have been one of the very eldest Mennonite immigrants to Manitoba in the 1870s, one who came to Blumenort and is the only person born in the 1700s buried at the old Blumenort cemetery.  We know virtually nothing about Gertrude, except that she was the mother to five babies, and that according to Kleine Gemeinde ministerial records brought to light by Delbert Plett (see Pioneers and Pilgrims , 280), she was the recipient of a letter in 1845 signed by the entire Kleine Gemeinde ministerial council asking her to do her part in bringing back to the Kleine Gemeinde fold her errant and for-some-time excommunicated husband, Jacob.  What he was disciplined for we do not know, but that in this unusual request, the ministerial would identify her as a person of the moral certitude and personal strength who could affect her husband, on behalf of the church, surely speaks of her reputation in the community.

We have no knowledge to date of who Gertrude Klassen’s mother was, although it is likely that GRANDMA data base might. In any case here is a lineage of grandmothers, like Lois of the New Testament, who passed on their faith to their daughters, until it reached Grandmother Maria, who passed it on to her children.

At Maria’s side of course was Grandfather Isaac P. Loewen, who among other people, received his guidance for life from his father. 

Grandfather Isaac P. Loewen who told the stories of the ‘seven Isaacs’. Photo Credit: Royden Loewen, Blumenort, 371.

Grandfather Isaac P. Loewen who told the stories of the ‘seven Isaacs’. Photo Credit: Royden Loewen, Blumenort, 371.

Grandchildren will have their own memories of him but we know that he was born in 1891, died in August of 1963; that he farmed on his own as a bachelor from the time of his Dad’s death when Isaac P was twenty-four till he married Maria just before he turned twenty-seven; that he farmed in the old village site of Blumenort until in 1937 he built a brand new house and barn on the hill which is now home to the historic farm; that he was a respected community leader, secretary of the local cheese factory as well as the migration committee to Mexico, that he farmed in a small way in Mexico where he also operated an English bookstore.  My own memories are mostly of that summer of 1963 when he and Grandma came up from Mexico, a short sojourn in Manitoba which ended when Isaac died of a stroke in August of that year.  My own father always mused that Grandfather Isaac came back to the beloved Canada to die.  Nevertheless I recall vividly Isaac telling stories that summer; in fact we have a photo of my sisters Beverly and Judy snuggling up to him in our dining room, and I still recall his strong voice as Dad taped an interview with him.  I recall how cool it seemed that a man who needed a white cane to denote his sight impediment would nevertheless ride a bicycle around the tear-dropped driveway at the historic Loewenhill farm.  He spoke many words, but ones that my father told me about were that at the time of Grandparents’ migration to Mexico, Isaac stated that the “true Christian is never at home in this world, and should never become too comfortable in any one country.”   True followers of Christ live simply and peacefully, surely, but they are also pilgrims and strangers, merely passing through this world.

The home of the Isaac J. Loewen in the East Reserve village of Blumenort. It stood on its old site until 1937. Photo Credit: Royden Loewen, Blumenort, 69.

The home of the Isaac J. Loewen in the East Reserve village of Blumenort. It stood on its old site until 1937. Photo Credit: Royden Loewen, Blumenort, 69.

So, who was Isaac P’s father.  Meet Isaac J. Loewen (1857 to 1914), a mere boy at the time of the migration to Manitoba in the 1870s, a boy according to his grandmother who lived in Nebraska had an exceptionally fine hand-writing. He lived with his family in Rosenort until, as a young man seeking work (natural for the eldest son of any family), he came across the river to Blumenort.  For whom he worked I don’t know, but evidently he fell in love with Elisabeth, the eldest of daughter of Abram and Margaretha Penner. 

A story told to me by Aunt Tina Plett of Mexico tells how Isaac and Elisabeth came to be married even though the very idea had been thoroughly dismissed by her father Abram because as the eldest child, and daughter, she was needed at home, to serve her five brothers, and two baby sisters.  The story goes that one day returning from a multi-day trip to Winnipeg along the ridge road that connected Blumenort to Isle de Chênes, the way station to Winnipeg, Abram came upon a smartly dressed young Isaac Loewen heading northwest from Blumenort, reportedly to a Wiebe family living near Hochfeld, two miles distant, and given his Sunday attire on a work-day it was also evident to Abram that young Isaac was going to court one of the Wiebes’ daughters.  Arriving at home he told Elisabeth (and we can imagine that she would have dutifully run out to help her father unhitch his horses from the long trip he just endured) that she could forget about Isaac Loewen as he was on his way to court Wiebes’ daughter at Hochfeld.  Elisabeth, it is said, broke down and sobbed so bitterly that Abram was touched, hurriedly re-hitched the horse to the buggy, and then raced after Isaac.  He found him just at the Wiebe driveway, and pulling up to him said curtly, ‘Caust de Lies ha.’ 

This happy note is unfortunately one of the only of a life that turned out to be bitter agony, for Isaac and Elisabeth would endure the death of seven of their eleven children, three alone from the typhoid epidemic of 1900, but others to other causes, a number in their infancy, denoted by the simple word ‘Kind’ that accompanied the name ‘Isaac J. Loewen’ on the cenotaph at the Blumenort cemetery.  We have no record of how Isaac felt, but shortly after the death of a number of these children he wrote a fatherly epistle addressed to the surviving children – Isaac, Elisabeth, Abram and Peter.  It is a moving admonition to be faithful and live in simplicity, with a special note paraphrased from Romans 12 (it would seem) to “not strive after the mighty things, but holding onto the simple,” to never take advantage of the weak, but to look out for ways to help them.  Other stories could be told of his generosity in the final days before his untimely death from cancer at age forty-eight in 1915.

And who was Isaac J’s father.  Meet Isaac W. Loewen, born in Russia in 1845 and died in 1926.  He seems to have been everything his son Isaac J was not: he lived to the ripe old age of eighty-one, and seems to have been an exceptionally outgoing and even ambitious man.  Several stories told to me by Elisabeth Loewen Plett, the wife of Peter K. Plett of Blumenort, depict Isaac W. as a strong-willed, somewhat flamboyant  village mayor of Rosenort.   One account tells of how Isaac would chair the village council meetings, meetings held in his own rather sizeable house and consisting of all land-owning male householders.  When the farmers would begin quarreling rather than seeking consensus, Isaac would excuse himself, declare that he was going to the kitchen to hang out with his wife and children, and that the farmers could summon him back to the council meeting once they had reached consensus.  Another account depicts a rather impatient, even aggressive Isaac: in it he reputedly readily passed slower buggies or wagons, even on Rosenort’s narrow bridge, and at such a speed that it didn’t matter if the two outside wheels of the buggy hung out over the creek, spinning in mid-air.   We know Isaac to have been an outgoing farmer: in 1904 after his first wife died and he married the widow Margaretha R. Dueck of Steinbach he purchased the Tomenson farm, a quarter section two miles north of Steinbach, where he built a large two and one half story house which stood until the mid-1970s when it was moved to make room for an expanded #12 highway: he would later sell the farm for $100 an acre, that is during the wheat boom that followed World War I.  And he was a public person: read the Steinbach Post from the early 1920s and you will find reference to Isaac W. Loewen dropping by the Post office just to say hello.  Isaac W would outlive his own son Isaac J. by a dozen years.

And who was Isaac W’s father.  Well, meet Isaac W. Loewen the first.  Born in 1815,  this Isaac was one of 12 children raised in Lindenau, Molotschna colony Russia, one part of a Loewen dynasty, but himself with a short life.  According to Delbert Plett’s Leaders of the Mennonite Kleine Gemeinde (514) both Isaac and his wife Anna (Wiebe) died in 1856 at early ages, Isaac at about forty-one, from a typhus epidemic connected to the Crimean War, that is, from the so-called ‘soldier’s disease.’  From some source I recall that he had served as a teamster for the Russian army battling the British not far south of the Mennonite communities, and it may have been from that contact that he contracted the disease.  They were the parents to only four children, Isaac W Jr. and Peter W., the latter a minister in the Kleine Gemeinde who settled in Blumenort (East Reserve) and two sisters who remained in Russia during the 1870s migration to North America.

A photo of what is believed to be the last resting place of Deacon Isaac E. Loewen (1787-1873) in Heuboden, one of the villages of the Borosenko Colony. The cemetery was visited on a 1998 Kleine Gemeinde heritage tour led by Delbert Plett. Photo Credit: Preservings 12(1998): 41.

A photo of what is believed to be the last resting place of Deacon Isaac E. Loewen (1787-1873) in Heuboden, one of the villages of the Borosenko Colony. The cemetery was visited on a 1998 Kleine Gemeinde heritage tour led by Delbert Plett. Photo Credit: Preservings 12(1998): 41.

Much more is known about this Isaac W.’s father, an Isaac E. Loewen, or because he was for a time a deacon in the Kleine Gemeinde, the only person is this lineage of Isaacs to hold a church office, I have come to call him ‘Deacon Isaac.’ This Isaac was remarkable in a number of ways.  Born in 1787 he lived until 1873, just a week shy of turning eighty-six, a very, very old man for the 1800s.  He was also most likely an only child (his only sibling Jacob apparently dying at a young age) allowing him a strong economic base of a full farm at a relatively young age.  Then there is the reference in a German-language newspaper that in 1850 two agronomy students from Germany visited Lindenau, Molotschna to study silk worm farming methods from the ‘master’ of the craft, Isaac Loewen. 

Still, Deacon Isaac’s life was difficult.  First, having been elected a deacon in the 1830s he was stripped of this office a decade later when he was cited for having become complacent spiritually in that he did not divulge to the Kleine Gemeinde ministerial that he knew that his son-in-law, Cornelius S. Plett, the wagon wheel maker from Kleefeld, Molotschna, had beaten the family’s maid, an act strictly prohibited by the Kleine Gemeinde.  Then in 1861, a full dozen years before his own death, he lost his wife Margaretha, a woman he obviously revered, as in a letter after her death Isaac used memory of her to severely chastise his son Heinrich. This son Heinrich proved to be a huge concern to Deacon Isaac, especially in 1863 when he left the Kleine Gemeinde to marry Maria Doerksen of the Grosse Gemeinde, an apparently attractive woman who enjoyed fashionable clothes and was thus less than enamored by the Kleine Gemeinde’s teaching on humility.  This union solicited a strong response from Deacon Isaac; he penned a very lengthy letter, quoting scripture readily from a wide variety of biblical books, as well as the writings of Menno Simons, Pieter Pietersz, Peter Twisk, Heinrich Balzer and Thielman van Braght, suggesting a very well read person.  In his letter, Deacon Isaac is unrelenting: the path chosen by Heinrich and Maria is a worldly, unspiritual, destructive path of pride and ostentation. 

A second letter that very year, this one addressed to Maria, is almost eerie in that it now describes a terrible and ominous tragedy in which Heinrich has been killed by a bolt of lightning sitting between two of his brothers at lunch by an open window, a death that followed Heinrich taking communion in his new church.  In this letter Deacon Isaac is clear that in his understanding the death by lightening came at the hand of God angry at Heinrich’s sinful life.  That Deacon Isaac writes in such a way to Maria, clearly suggesting that her own faith choices had contributed to his death, seems rather insensitive, yet it is clear that Deacon Isaac is himself grieving intensely for his son. 

A third letter, this one from three years later, in 1866, addressed to minister Peter Toews, suggesting that Deacon Isaac was centrally involved in a schism affecting the small Kleine Gemeinde, he offers, by the way, that now that he is a widower he lives successively with his various children, and especially with the young widow, his daughter-in-law, Maria.  Even though he had earlier been rather harsh with her, this letter suggests that he is rather fond of her: he notes that she still dreams of her husband Heinrich and thus is refusing the advances of numerous suitors, a fact itself that suggests an attractive young woman, who despite being mother to a small daughter is attracting the men.  The letter suggests that Isaac is a very devout and conscientious Kleine Gemeinder, but also capable of great affection and a rather forgiving spirit.  A subsequent letter to his granddaughter Maria suggests a kindly and caring grandfather.

Isaac E. Loewen’s father, Isaac, is a very obscure person to us.  We don’t know the name of his mother, and thus we don’t know his middle initial, although we do know his dates, 1759 to 1834.  We know that he was the person who migrated to Russia as one of the founding families of Molotschna, the ‘new colony’ founded in 1804.  Plett’s Leaders (510) reproduces a note from a census of 1808 identifying Isaac as a “Tischler,” that is carpenter, in addition to running a farm, medium in size, judging from his ownership of one wagon, half a plow, five horses and seven cows, as well as an inventory of unthreshed wheat shocks and twenty-three loads of hay.  Plett also cites a writing by Peter P. Toews about Isaac Loewen of Lindenau but I am not aware of it; nevertheless it notes that Carpenter Isaac built a house in the early days in Molotschna that stood for over 100 years.

Given recent genealogical research, the search for more Isaac Loewens has yielded a seventh Isaac, even though according to my uncle Dietrich Loewen, my grandfather never spoke of ‘seven Isaacs’ but of only ‘six Isaacs.’  According to genealogist Henry Schapanksy of British Columbia, Carpenter Isaac’s father was indeed also an Isaac.  He was born in 1715 and lived till 1797, at age 82 this would make him another Isaac with rather remarkable longevity.   We don’t know the name of his wife, but know that he was the father to three children, Carpenter Isaac of course, but also to two daughters, Khristina and Eliesebeth, and that he was resident in Tiegenhoff, West Prussia. 

The story of the ‘Seven Isaacs’ covers a range of human experiences, a variety of emotions, and multiple faith expressions.  Overall it is a story of the passing of faith and faith teachings from one generation to another.  It is a story come alive by asking ‘the father’ to tell of the ‘accounts of times long past’ and in the process learning about a lineage of discipleship, of non-violence, of teachings on humility and simplicity. 

Preservings

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