Glenn Allen, President of The Friends of the Rockingham Church, welcomed more than one hundred people to the Annual Celebration of the Restoration of the Church on August 11. He thanked past and present members of the Friends Committee and the many volunteers who have worked for more than nineteen years to ensure the little church on the hill remains open to the public. David Trafford, organist, accompanied the congregation singing The Church in the Wildwood and gave a blessing. Pierre DesMarais, accompanying himself on guitar, sang acoustic numbers, some from his CD Find Me Singing. He spoke about his passion to use music for praise and to establish connections with dementia patients in long term care facilities.
Pierre DesMarais with his guitar; David Trafford plays the organ
Allen introduced Mark Woermke who spoke on the history of Renfrew County Germans. Woermke said for a variety of reasons most Renfrew County Germans have lost most, if not all, of their language and culture, and the group has not received the historical attention that its size and influence warrants. Without any visual aids and speaking in the dimly lit church, Woermke presented their story. He deftly wove in details about travel, working and family life, politics, religion and the complexities of seeking a better future away from the shifting political boundaries in nineteenth century eastern Europe.
According to the 2016 Census, 22 percent of Renfrew County residents reported German ancestry but in the municipalities nearer Rockingham the percentage is higher. Most Renfrew County Germans are descended from emigrants from four provinces of the Kingdom of Prussia who came here in the thousands between 1858 and 1900. Woermke included Wendish families in his use of the term “Renfrew County Germans” saying the Wends mixed easily with Germans in Canada just as they had done in Prussia.
In 2018, Woermke started compiling a place of origin database for German immigrants to Renfrew County prior to 1900. It is based on immigration agent William Sinn’s list of Prussian settlers from 1860, the “saddlebag” register of births, marriages and deaths compiled by Lutheran missionary Rev. Ludwig Gerndt, and provincial marriage and death registrations. He painstakingly cross-referenced this information against emigration records, ships’ passenger lists, county directories and gazetteers. A comparison with modern maps provided contemporary names for the places of origin. The admittedly incomplete database currently contains about one thousand names.
Mark Woermke, local historian and genealogist
Of the 31 Rockingham German heads of household identified in that period, Woermke focused on the families of just six: blacksmith Carl Pötter, tanner Friedrich Krüger, Ferdinand Holtermann – a Hamburg merchant, Joseph Ohlman, Ernest Pomerenning, and August Gehrke – father of two unidentified infants buried in the Rockingham churchyard. Woermke researched more details of these households from church records for births, marriages and deaths, as well as newspaper reports.
Woermke shared remarkably detailed stories about these six families, their origins, the way of life in Europe and in Canada, and how the families were interconnected. He evoked emotion in the audience as he related joys, tragedies, hardships and even an unexpected reunion decades after one family member was lost following a plane crash. Woermke also added personal connections from his own family tree to some Rockingham Germans. He said, “I hope that the stories of the Rockingham Germans that I shared today might help to generate a greater awareness of the courage, hard work and dedication to family and community that are the real legacy of Renfrew County Germans.”
At the social gathering afterwards, several audience members approached him to share family stories linked to those he had talked about. As Allan said in his thanks to Woermke, “We are the richer for Mark (and others) who spend endless hours combing through dusty old documents.”
Congregation singing The Church in the Wildwood