No. 12, Summer 2000
Helena Wieler Martens
An unobtrusive grave marker located in the southwest corner of the former cemetery of the Coaldale (Alberta) Mennonite Brethren Church bears the simple inscription:
Helena Martens (1851–1928)
Helena was the seventh of ten children born to Jakob Thielmann and Agatha Letkemann of Neukirch, Molotschna Colony, Ukraine. As a young child she lived in Alexanderkrone, Molotschna. Some five years after her father’s death in 1862 the family moved to the newly-established Friedensfeld settlement, also in Ukraine. Here Helena joined a small Mennonite Brethren congregation in 1868.
In 1872 she married Johann Wieler, a convert to the newly-emerging Mennonite Brethren Church. Prior to his marriage to Helena, Johann had been imprisoned in Odessa for preaching among Ukrainian and Russians of the Orthodox Church. Johann was instrumental in the emergence of the evangelical movement in Ukraine, but it was Helena who bore the brunt of her husband’s commitment. Her autobiography, written in 1922, tempers the rather strident portrait of Johann’s achievement in the early Mennonite Brethren story. His success as a teacher, preacher and evangelist depended on her ability to provide a stable home amid frequent relocations and fiscal hardship.
There were visitors like Kornelius Unruh and Peter M. Friesen, who came in 1873 for weeks and months at a time. It did not seem to matter that the birth of her first child was imminent. All the while Johann sought to secure a livelihood by establishing private schools, first in Friedensfeld (1874), then in Nikopol (1875). The four to six boarding students who lived with them were Helena’s responsibility. Meanwhile, Helena experienced deep personal tragedy. All four children born to her between 1873 and 1877 died. As she expressed it, “they lay buried in a large grave on a little hill in Nikopol.”
By 1879 Helena found herself in Halbstadt, another Mennonite village in Ukraine, where Johann taught pedagogy. She tersely reports: “nineteen students had their meals with us, thirteen of whom roomed with us.” Between 1880 and 1882 frequent visitors and frequent pregnancies continued to add to life’s complexities. One of the three daughters died in 1881. In 1883 Johann decided to become an itinerant minister for the Mennonite Brethren, and the family moved to the nearby village of Tiege. False charges brought by a Russian brother forced Johann to flee to Hamburg, Germany, in 1885. Helena wrote: “I went outside and the world seemed so dark – as though it was enshrouded in fog.” Meanwhile a son, Gerhard, was born in 1885, but he died just after his first birthday. Johann’s attempt to return to Russia failed and again he was forced to flee – this time to Berlin. After burying little Gerhard, Helena left Russia to join him there. She tersely commented, “I cried the whole way to Berlin.” Unable to remain in Germany, the family settled in Tulscha, Romania, where Johann helped plant a new church. During its construction he was injured. Illness set in and Johann died in a Bucharest hospital on 30 July 1889.
Helena returned to Friedensfeld in 1889. Her second marriage (1895) to Franz Martens, a wealthy Rueckenau widower, ended with his death of a heart attack in 1907. She emigrated to Canada during the 1920s, settling first in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, then in Coaldale, Alberta.
What an extraordinary woman! How did she manage to maintain hearth and home amid personal tragedy and her husband’s many absences? And what of the energy required to sustain the physical and emotional needs of the young resident students? How did she sustain personal faith and equilibrium when by 1908 she had buried both her husbands and seven of her ten children? In addition she was left with six foster children whom Franz Martens had accepted into his home. Perhaps two sentences in the last paragraphs of her autobiography hold an answer. “It is February 25th today – a beautifully warm day. We are thinking of planting some vegetables. We place our hope in God that everything will turn out well.”