Stephen Herrman lived his entire life in Kansas, within a few miles of a small collection of limestone, wood, and sod houses called Liebenthal. The German name means “lovely valley,” though there was none in sight on those flat Kansas plains. It was named after a village, founded by German immigrants on the steppes of southern Russia, along the Volga River. Stephen’s ancestors had settled there in 1765 at the invitation of the German Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. No valley there, either. You’d have to go back to yet another village, near Regensberg, in southern Germany, for that.
Two centuries is a long time to be searching for the right “Beloved Valley,” the one where crops grow well and children flourish, but that was the dream of my great, great Grandfather Jacob Herrman, who had been one of the first Volga Germans to make the trek from Russia to Kansas, this time to claim land offered by the Atchison-Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.
Before he died, Stephen Herrman, Jacob’s grandson and my grandfather, summoned my aunt Francis, the only one of his twelve children who could type, and dictated what he called a “small book to serve the memory of my children.” It records the men who went first to scout available farm land in Kansas, the laying out of the town, and of course the erection of a parish church, St. Joseph.
There’s an addendum to the tiny work, entitled “Our Exodus from Germany to Russia” Here’s half of that narrative.
When the Germans emigrated from Germany to Russia in 1765, they left Germany in great treks with their wagons. They had come from various provinces of the mother country. Nicholas Herrman, our ancestor was from Regensburg, (Ratisbon), Bavaria. His brother Bartholomew accompanied him. Nicholas was married; his wife was from Saxony. Bartholomew was single. He was lost during the journey. They had taken a day to rest. When they were ready to go on, Bartholomew was missing. They hunted for him and waited some time for him, in vain. So Nicholas went on. He often inquired about him later. But nobody knew anything about him, whether he had turned back or had perished or what had happened to him.
Hard not to think of love and families, of weddings and children, when we hear, in the second creation account, of Eve, who for Adam “ is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2: 23). And Jesus teaches in the gospel, “‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mk 10: 7). As someone who used to sing for Wedding Masses — and I think for anyone who attended a Christian wedding in the 1970s — the words of Jesus meld with those of Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul, and Mary. He wrote The Wedding Song (There is Love) for the 1969 marriage of trio member Peter Yarrow to Mary Beth McCarthy, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Willmar, Minnesota.
Even now, hearing the song, it’s hard not to feel that the world is suffused with grace, that the love of one’s life is just around the corner, the gift of all good, all loving God. Listening, it’s easy to believe that everyone falls in love and lives happily ever after. But not Bartholomew.
In an election year, when marriage itself has become a political issue, at a time when some now argue that marriage is a right that has been denied to many, it’s difficult not to make a more sobering assessment of marriage and to remember those who never found a mate, or who found one of the wrong sex, or who painfully did have to set aside “what God has joined together.” And what of those, in times past, for whom marriage was a death-in-life sentence?
As we rightly recognize human love — and marriage — as gifts of God, we also need to remember people like Bartholomew Herrman, who “was single” but who set off with wagon loads of families, looking for the new Liebenthal, the right beloved valley where love could flourish. He never made it. No one knows why. Was he taken by outsiders or did he simply know that he could never be an insider? How did we lose Bartholomew? How have we lost so many like him?
Will marriage change? Given the fact that it’s never stopped evolving, that’s more than likely. Will marriage become the perfect home, the beloved valley where love and families always prosper? That’s not likely. Love is something fragile and fleeting for those still on the trek. The beloved valley lies beyond us, but I take some solace that, almost two hundred and fifty years after he disappeared, Bartholomew’s family hasn’t forgotten what was lost.
Genesis 2: 18-24 Hebrews 2: 9-11 Mark 10: 2-16
(Rev.) Terrance W. Klein