Written and presented by Margaret Willms to the MHSA-sponsored “Celebration of the 80th Anniversary of Russian Mennonites coming to Coaldale, Alberta (1926-2006)”
Helen Willms, my sister, was born on May 25, 1925 in Ukraine. During that same year my parents emigrated to Canada with their 4 children, arriving in Winkler, Manitoba shortly before Christmas.
My father looked for work unsuccessfully. He heard about free land available to farmers in northern Saskatchewan, so he took a train to Saskatchewan and found land near Glenbush. A few months later he asked mother to join him with the children. They could take a train to North Battleford, where he would meet them.
In his journal my father writes about how he was on his way with horse and wagon. He could hardly wait to see his family again. As he approached North Battleford, he heard the train whistle in the distance. Now he would soon see them. At the station, no one was waiting for him. He asked the station master in his broken English, but no one had stepped off the train. A place for the night was next on his agenda. He found the livery stable for his horses and decided he could sleep on the wagon to save money. Sleep did not come easily. Where was his family? He heard someone talking about a woman and children. Upon inquiring he was told that a woman with little children had arrived a few days earlier. He was able to get a young boy to show him the way to the house. The house was dark. Everyone must be asleep, but he had to know if they were there. Someone did answer the door. An older German couple lived there, and a woman and the children were asleep in the attic. It was an emotional reunion. Next morning they were on their way.
After three years of crop failures, my father’s older brother invited them to work on a ranch near Cowley, Alberta, where they spent 3 years. After that the Depression was in full swing and every spring my parents were on the lookout for farm work. Finally in the Coaldale area they settled on a farm where they had started out as beet workers. In the intervening 7 years more children had joined the family. Helen had now completed the 9th grade and could quit school. It was very tempting, because having to catch up on school work every fall and spring after the children had to stay home to help with the farm work, was difficult. So she stayed home and worked hard. Meanwhile she took 3 years of Bible School during the winter. After 8 years of being out of school, she decided to go back. She took grade 10 in Coaldale, while a younger sister was taking grade 11. The following summer, Helen traveled to the British Columbia coast to pick berries. She was invited to finish her schooling at the Mennonite Educational Institute near Abbotsford, while she lived with her cousin and family. She enjoyed that year, even though she took grades 11, 12, and 13 all in one year. The teachers were very encouraging and helpful.
In the fall she entered the Galt School of Nursing in Lethbridge. Three years later she graduated, winning the general proficiency award.
Helen took a course in public health nursing at the University of Manitoba before starting her assignment as a public health nurse on Matheson Island under the auspices of the Mennonite Pioneer Mission in Manitoba. One of the things that Helen missed there was being the only nurse in the area, and not being able to consult with another nurse or doctor regarding decision making. For years she had dreamed of being a nurse in China. China was closed to missions at that time, but there were some Chinese people living in Taiwan, and certainly a lot of Asians, so she applied to the General Conference Mission Board. Their response was that God could use her in Canada where she was working, as well as in a foreign country. Later on, however, they did invite her to go to Taiwan in April of 1957, first to help start the nursing school and then to help get the public health work in the area started. Wherever Helen worked, she was attracted to little children. At the hospital Helen would often be seen working at a desk with a little child on her lap. I don’t know if Helen was ever called “mother,” but she had a lot of grandchildren. The children of her former student nurses called her “grandmother.” I believe that all of the missionary children called her Aunt Helen. Later when Helen was a patient in the Calgary Foothills Hospital, some of these children came to see her on a regular basis.
Helen spent over 30 years in Taiwan. During this time she was given highly recognized awards. At least one of them was given by the Taiwanese government.
Coming back to Canada was big adjustment for Helen. On July 23, 1994, Helen married Peter Bergen, a widower from Coaldale. This seemed to fill a void in each of their lives. Together they traveled to Taiwan, to the Paraguayan Chaco to visit Peter’s sister and family, and to Ukraine where they attended a worship service in the church where our parents were married.
Helen was diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly after Peter died. Having surgery at that time seemed too much for Helen, and she just didn’t have the will to recover until 2 of her former student nurses came to visit her all the way from Taiwan. It was good to see her enthusiasm, when she was again able to express herself in Mandarin. The nurses had been instructed by their friends in Hualien to bring Helen back to Taiwan to be cared for there, but when they saw the care that Helen received here, the subject wasn’t even discussed. Shortly after the nurses left, Helen showed a marked improvement and an enthusiasm to become more mobile. She had a good 2 months including a happy Christmas for all of us. After Christmas her condition began to deteriorate, and less than a month later she entered her eternal reward on January 21, 2003. In Hualien a new hospital had been built, and a pond in front of it was named the Helen Willms Bergen Memorial Pond.
© 2007 Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta
Last Updated 19 May 2007
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