Home Town or Home Community:
SURVIVOR: Maria Pauls Driedger Buhler
Maria Pauls was born on September 20, 1907 in the village of Grigorjewka, Ukraine to Heinrich and Helena (Unger) Pauls.1 Maria was the second of seven children, four of which survived to become adults. She died October 2, 2002 at the age of 95. She lived a long and full life. She was a strong woman – a survivor.
Grigorjewka: A Sacred Canopy
The Mennonite village of Grigorjewka was a daughter colony located northeast of the original major Mennonite colonies of Chorititza and Molotschna, which began in southern Ukraine in 1788 and 1804. The village was almost a mile long, with a major main street, going east to west, with rows of farmyards located on each side. It also had a second street added later. The German school was located in the middle, and a mill located on the west end. A house-barn was located on each yard, with access to the main street. Fruit trees were grown in the front yard, and vegetables such as potatoes, corn, carrots, cabbage, sunflowers were grown in the back. The school built in 1890, also served as their church on Sundays. Located in the heartland of the agricultural belt, the soil was very productive for raising grains, vegetables and fruit. Spring wheat was the major crop. The multiple story mill ground the wheat for floor. The village was a sacred canopy, where all were Mennonite, and practically all worked in agriculture. They went to school and worshipped in the same building in the centre of the village, and their standard of living was higher than most Ukrainians who surrounded them.
Much of the school curriculum was Bible study which Maria liked best. There was also arithmetic, geography, history, reading, German and Russian. She remembers some Russian songs and some selected words. Maria went to school six years, the norm (all went to school). More of the school was Russian than German as she recalls.
They went to church in their schoolhouse (it was a newer colony). Inside it was arranged in the Old Mennonite fashion, where the ministers sat in front on one side and the song leaders (Vorsaenger) on the other side facing the congregation. Males and females sat separately on each side of the church. There were youth and adult choirs, and most youth sang in the youth choir of about 25 members. Maria liked going to church as well as to choir practice and youth gatherings. Most of the villagers went to church, although some did not (her Grandfather Pauls didn’t). She remembers that Peter Unger (her other grandfather) typically sat on the front bench of the church. Maria’s parents attended regularly, and her mother (Unger) was very devout. Children usually didn’t go to church.
Youth would gather evenings, especially Sunday evenings, on the main street of the village. Usually the young women and the young men would gather in clusters first, and then later intermingled. There was choir practice once a week, which provided more opportunities for meeting.
A couple would visit relatives before they were married, so the relatives would recognize the more formal union which was about to take place. There was a “Pulta” evening where both men and women gathered to give gifts (like a shower) of household things before the wedding. Weddings usually took place in summer, so they could eat supper in the granary to which all were invited. Numerous villagers helped prepare for this large gathering. Supper usually consisted of borscht, mouss, ham, tweiback, coffee and sweets. After supper there was an after-wedding for the youth, and adults often watched. There was dancing and circle games, some were very much in the midst of things and others more on the periphery. The wedding couple was placed on two chairs and hoisted aloft by strong males who would rock them in the air and not let them down until they embraced and kissed for all to see. The bride’s bouquet was tossed into the crowd and the woman who caught it, was believed to be the next to marry. After the wedding the couples would stay in the village for the night. There was no going away for a honeymoon or trip.
Church services were held on both the first and second days of Easter in school in the mornings. The two holidays were spent one at each of the two families in large gatherings. They did not have Sunday School. When Maria’s uncle Peter Unger returned from a trip to America, he taught Sunday School on Sunday afternoons. There was much visiting and children were there in droves. The young men would build a huge swing every Easter in spring with a big board across, where two to four people could swing at once. It stayed light long in summer, so young people would spend evenings in the yards of people where there was always much singing.
There were long practices for weeks in school for the Christmas program held each year. There was always a big tree with bought decorations and real candles which were lit and monitored by several male watchers to make sure the tree did not catch fire. The teachers were much involved in the program preparations. One year Maria was an angel in one of the programs. At home all members of the family would set up bowls or plates on Christmas Eve. These bowls were filled by the parents late at night with walnuts and candies (there were no peanuts and oranges). They did not have Christmas trees in their homes. They got up early Christmas morning to see what they received in their bowls. On Christmas Day when all gathered at the grandparents, the grandchildren would say their “Christmas wishes” and poems which was part of the family tradition. Grandparents would usually have small gifts for all grandchildren.
Funerals were also held in school, and the community again became involved. A coffin maker in the village made the coffin, and women of the village (specialists) washed and prepared the corpse. Some funerals were sadder than others (Maria’s parents’ funerals were especially sad). Very small baked buns, sugar cubes and coffee were served after the funeral service. Maria experienced the deaths of her mother, father, eldest sister and grandfather Pauls all in the space of about a year (1918-19), which affected her greatly at her young age of 11 and 12. Maria’s mother had tuberculosis and her father influenza. Maria recalls that when her mother died, she called out, “Angel oeffnet die Tore weit, Den ich bin fertig zu gehen.” Her last words were “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Her father who had not been very devout cried to God in prayer so he could be with his wife, only ten days later. Maria saw both parents die, and when her father was gone, she said, “Now that father is dead, what shall we children do?”
The crops they grew were winter wheat, rye, other wheat, barley and oats. Flour was milled at the mill. Mennonites in Russia also grew a lot of fruit. Maria remembers grapes, pears, apples, cherries, plums, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries. They dried fruit a lot. They preserved fruit as well, but in crocks, not sealers which they did not have. She remembers jam was also made in stone crocks.
Farm animals included sheep (important for their wool), cattle, goats, horses, chickens, ducks and geese. Hogs were very important for their supply of meat including sausages, ribs (repshpaa), liver sausages and “Zilfleish”. They ate their big meal at noon, and “Faspa” which they ate around 3 or 4 o’clock was comprised of coffee, buns, bread, butter and preserves. Soups (borschts of all kinds) and beans were common fare, at noon called “meddoch.”
Maria and her family lived with Grandpa and Grandma Pauls for the first 13 years of their marriage. Her father, Heinrich Pauls, rented and farmed his parents’ farm and they lived in the same house in two small rooms (Kleene Schtove and Aeck Schtove). All five of their children were born here (Helen, Maria, Henry, Margaret, Jacob) (see photo 1). Things did not always go well with two families living in one house so close together for so long. She recalls that grandpa often complained about things, but her father did not say much.
The family of seven slept in one room, and the other room was used as kitchen, dining and sitting room. In winter they cooked on the large brick stove in the middle of the house to which their kleene schtove had access. Maria recalls how sometimes borscht or soups would heat and cook in the embers of the big brick oven all day, and be ready for supper in the evening. In summer they cooked and ate in the separately built summer kitchen. She recalls how her mother sometimes crawled through the window to go out, so she did not always have to go through the room of her in-laws.
Helena Pauls had a very hard life living in only two rooms at her Pauls in-laws for 13 years with five small children. In addition, she had trachoma, a disease of the eyes which was infectious. Maria recalls how she kept two sets of towels, her set hung high, so that the small children would not get the same infection. Maria recalls how her mother had an operation where the doctor “scraped the eyeballs” trying to improve things, but nothing seemed to help. While she could see for everyday work, she could not do fine needlework and the like. Maria recalls that her Aunt Nettie (Harms), her mother’s sister, often did sewing and needlework for their family, to help her mother. Other members of the family also helped with similar work which required better eyesight.
Helena was a very devoutly religious person, which Maria mentioned often. Maria saw her pray a lot, and her diligence in teaching the children the Christian way was evident continually. The fact that her husband was lukewarm to religious things made it even more difficult. The friendship of equally devout older sister Maria and frequent visits was a great support. The two sisters Unger and husbands Pauls who were brothers shared much, especially at Pauls and Unger extended family gatherings.
In 1917 Maria’s parents bought their own place in the village. She recalls how her mother Helena had to ask her Pauls grandparents whether they would loan them money to buy the farm (her father would not ask). The Pauls grandparents did loan them the money. This place, as Maria recalls, was about ten places from the end of the village. They lived on this new place for only a little more than a year (1917-18) because both parents died within ten days of each other in 1918. The new farm then had to be sold, and the five orphaned children were divided up amongst the relatives.
Jacob J. Pauls, when everything was up for auction, did not want to let any of the orphaned children keep some keepsakes. They were quite upset about this, so some of the others overruled Jacob J. and let the five children each choose something to keep. Maria chose four “toussen” (cups and saucers). Maria remembers that when the farm was sold (buildings and land), that it brought 10,000 rubles, which was a large sum in those days. She thinks 10,000 rubles were deposited in the “Weisenamt,” a Mennonite agency designed to hold and invest monies like a credit union or coop. The five orphans never benefitted from these monies, because this was in1918, a year after the revolution in Russia, the end of the First World War, after which Russia went badly into inflation, depression and chaos, when money became worthless and all was lost.
When the German army occupied the Ukraine including Grigorjewka during World War I, the villagers had to keep some of the German soldiers. Maria recalls that their parents were assigned one soldier who stayed with them, whom they housed and fed. However, since her parents became sick, the one soldier left and went elsewhere. She remembers that her Unger grandparents kept more, and that the Buhler family who had a farm and blacksmith shop kept four soldiers. Bernhard Buhler, Maria’s husband later, used to tell how he carried tea for these soldiers, and how he sometimes drank out of the kettle spout on his way sampling it. He also remembered that his oldest brother, Isaak, had to haul some of these soldiers in wagons from one place to another. He also told stories of how the German soldiers drilled in the fields, and had short skirmishes with Russians. Maria seemed to be quite oblivious to World War I, and seldom talked about it. She did recall that when bandits came after the soldiers left, that they demanded money, but Liese took up her guitar and started playing. Soon the bandits left them undisturbed.
Maria’s mother’s parents (Peter and Helen Unger) were better off economically, and Maria also lived with them later. When Maria’s parents both died in 1918, the five children were taken by various relatives in the village. Maria went to the Klassen relatives where she stayed for about a year (1918-19). She was unhappy there. The Klassens were very poor (Anwohner).
When Maria’s oldest sister Helen died in 1919, a year after her parents both died, Maria moved to the Unger grandparents a bit later to take her sister Helen’s place. Maria’s youngest brother, Jacob, also stayed at the Unger grandparents, so Maria was reunited in the same place with her youngest brother. Maria felt at home at her grandparent Unger’s place, because they had five daughters. Liese, the youngest, was almost her own age. Grandma Unger treated Maria and her little brother Jacob like her own children, which was especially difficult because little Jacob had eczema.
Jacob Pauls, the paternal grandfather of Maria, also died in 1919, one year after the end of the First World War, as well as a year after both of Maria’s parents died. The strongest recollection Maria had of her Grandpa Pauls when he died (she was only 12 then), was how much he had screamed because of the bladder infection he had. She said this screaming was etched in her memory to this day, and from time to time the terror of these screams returned to her memory.
Maria slept in the same bed and room with Liese Unger, the youngest Unger child (Maria’s aunt only a few years older). Grandma Unger was quite strict as Maria recalls, and kept a close check on her young daughter Liese, who was supposed to be home early. Maria recalls that her Grandma Unger was very hardworking, and she seemed to be spinning wool all the time. There was always lots of work with wool, cleaning, washing, carding and spinning, which involved all of the female members in the household including Maria. Maria and others never had to work as hired hands for anyone else. They had enough work to do at home. Grandma Unger also was very frugal. Maria recalls how Grandma Unger would always turn down the evening lamp to save fuel, while her Grandpa Unger would always turn it up, saying, “Why is it so dark in the house?”
Maria felt loved by her Grandpa Unger (a pious man) and spoke of him very fondly. Grandpa Unger would get a lump of sugar for breakfast, and grandpa would share a bit of this with his very young orphan grandson Jacob, Maria’s brother. Grandpa Unger liked to visit and villagers liked him. Children loved him. Maria recalls how children would flock to him and want the leaf he usually had in his hand, which he twirled and manipulated to make it most inviting indeed.
Maria remembers that she and Liese had to get up very early in the morning to milk the cows. The herdsman picked up the cows early in the morning by beginning at the end of the village, and took the cows out to pasture for the day, and returned them in the evening. The Unger grandparents took Maria and her brother Jacob with them when they emigrated to Canada in 1925, paying their voyage and expenses.
Osler: Their New Home
Maria rarely left her village Grigorjewka. However, Maria was only 18 years old when she left Russia with her Unger grandparents, her brother Jacob (10 years old), and her Uncle Peter and Aunt Tina Unger (and their three children Otto, Virginia, Lena). Peter Unger and Tina Unger had been to Canada earlier, and Peter knew English which helped greatly. When the train arrived in Krakaw, Maria went to mail some letters, and because she did not have her ticket with her, found it hard to get back to her travelling group in the station (a traumatic experience she remembered).
The extended travelling families arrived in Southhampton and had to go through the British immigration procedures. Maria remembers that everyone had to strip naked and take showers in large groups, which her Grandmother Unger found embarrassing, doing so with the other young women. They took health tests of various kinds and they found that Maria’s brother Jacob had “red eyes”. So Maria and Jacob had to stay behind in London for five weeks waiting for a second round of tests while the rest of their party left for Canada. Before the others left them in London, Peter Unger who knew English had spoken to the officials that they were leaving this eighteen-year-old and her brother of ten behind, and to keep an eye on them. When Jacob took his second test five weeks later, the officials remembered them and let them go.
Grandpa Unger gave Maria fifty dollars to help with their stay in London and their trip to Canada. Maria was always impressed at how much money this was. They were quite inexperienced sheltered youth who had not been around much. She told many times, how once in London while she was going back to where she stayed, that an exhibitionist harassed her on the way. He talked to her (which she could not understand), and exposed his genitals, which frightened her very much. Fortunately, she escaped.
Maria and her brother Jacob travelled by themselves on the ship Melita on their way to Canada. There was sufficient food to eat on the ship, but both Maria and Jacob were sick much of the time. When they arrived in Quebec City in 1925, they took a train west to Saskatchewan. On the train they had to find their own food so they ate mostly onions and bread. Maria was also concerned that they not use up all of the money, so they ate frugally. Maria chuckled wondering what they must have smelled like eating all those onions for days.
Maria and her ten year old brother arrived in Osler, Saskatchewan on the Canadian National Railway train (roughly an hour north of Saskatoon). Cornelius Driedger, a bachelor of 32, met them at the train station with his car. Driedger then took them to the Old Colony Mennonite village of Reinland, three miles north of Osler, where Maria’s grandparents Unger lived in one small room with the bachelor Jacob Martens. Grandmother Unger cooked for Martens and the household while they stayed there for about one year.
Maria was assigned to work for Katharina Driedger and Cornelius who had got them from the train. Cornelius Driedger and his recently widowed mother Katharina Driedger lived on the Driedger family farm half a mile south of the little hamlet of Osler. They hired her as a maid, which Maria had never been before (Ukrainians had always been maids and farm workers on their farms). Jacob, her brother, stayed with her at the Driedgers.
Fortunately, the Driedger farm was only three miles away from the Mennonite village of Reinland, where her Unger grandparents stayed. Maria recalls how she on Sunday afternoons walked the three miles along the train tracks to visit her grandparents, but had to be back again for milking in the evening.
Maria found it hard to work as a maid, cooking, cleaning and milking cows, and was concerned that she do her job well. She had seen how their Ukrainian servants worked, and she chaffed at her loss of status. Fortunately, she got along with Katharina (Martens) Driedger quite well, who was a fairly phlegmatic, patient person with a Martens temperament. Maria put much added pressure on herself by feeling she needed to work faster and harder, and that anything she did was not good enough. Katharina Driedger, Cornelius Driedger’s mother, died a year later in 1926, after which Maria married Cornelius and became the female head of the same household where she had been an immigrant maid.
While Maria had many adjustments in a new country, learning English and strange customs, living on a lonely farm in the open country, and adjusting to her role as maid, the social context was supportive. This was not a tightly structured village sacred canopy, but a more loosely bound rural Mennonite community. They lived on the edge of a major Mennonite Old Colony reserve with its many villages. Most of the people in the hamlet of Osler (half a mile away), were Mennonite and spoke Low German and German, and it was an agricultural community which she was used to. However, this was not a closed Mennonite community, and English, not Russian, was the national language to which she was now exposed. Fortunately, Katharina and her son Cornelius Driedger always spoke Low German, so she had no difficulty understanding what was expected of her. While there was not yet a Mennonite church in the hamlet of Osler (one was built there two years later in 1928), General Conference Mennonites were meeting for worship in the school, of which Cornelius Driedger was secretary. Shortly after this mother Katharina Driedger died, Maria and Cornelius were married by David Toews.
When Maria arrived in Osler she was 18 years old. She married Cornelius Driedger two years later in 1927, when she was almost 20 (Cornelius was 34 then) (see photo 2). Maria’s Unger grandparents only stayed in Reinland for about a year and moved to Haskett, Manitoba to live with Isaak and Liese Buhler, so Maria lost two more loved ones. Maria’s youngest brother Jacob was ten when they arrived in 1925, and 12 when Maria was married, so Jacob stayed with Maria and Cornelius and later established himself in the Osler area where he still lives with his family. Keeping a teenager at her young age was not easy, and Cornelius took on a teenager at age 34 as well, which required adjustments. Jacob later became the minister of the Osler Mennonite church, so they all dealt with problems well.
Maria was baptized in Canada by David Toews at the age of 19 in the Osler schoolhouse in 1926. She had a devoutly religious mother of great faith, which profoundly influenced her in her childhood. She loved her pious Grandfather Unger, who usually sat in the front of the church in Russia, and influenced her greatly. The sacred factor was a strong influence.
Maria’s husband Cornelius Driedger came from Old Colony Mennonite background, whose father Johann had a stormy relationship with the elders of the Old Colony Church because he wanted more new life, less restricted by tradition, so he was excommunicated. Maria’s husband Cornelius had not joined the Old Colony Mennonite Church for reasons related to his father’s troubles, but joined the less conservative Sommerfelder Church. However, by the time Maria arrived in Osler in 1925, Cornelius and other Mennonites met for worship in the Osler school with occasional less traditional General Conference Mennonite visits from David Toews and others from Rosthern. Cornelius was secretary of this new group which built a new building in 1928, where Abram, Cornelius’s brother, was on the building committee. Later Maria’s brother Jacob was ordained to the ministry in this Osler church, and served that church for many years.
Maria and Cornelius had three sons: Leo (1928), Otto (1932), Irvin (1935). Cornelius died in 1939. Their farm near Osler, had become a new, more open sacred Mennonite canopy.
Life in Saskatchewan
For nearly three years Maria was a widow. In the summer of 1941, she received a letter from an old friend, Bernhard Buhler, who was now 34, and someone she had known in her youth in Ukraine. This German letter, was a proposal to marry him; “my dear mariechen…, I come to you with a fervant prayerful plea. Could you find it in your heart to love me as the one who could be your loved one in the future…?” They were married in Winkler, Manitoba on November 26 of the same year and moved to Osler in the spring of 1942.
Maria’s second husband, Bernhard Buhler, was born on August 4, 1907 in Grigorjewka, South Russia. He was the third youngest of 8 children. His father, Wilhelm, was the village blacksmith. He and his wife Maria (nee Redekop), were also farmers. Bernhard learned blacksmithing, a skill that he carried to Canada. Bernhard loved singing and sang in the village church choir. Following his father’s death caused by cancer, Bernhard and his mother and family came to Canada in 1928 in a grueling 7 month journey that took them through Germany, Holland, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA, before they reached Manitoba. Bernhard settled on a small 40 acre farm near Winkler with his mother, Maria, where they farmed until 1941. The 1930s were tough years with low commodity prices and a depressed economy. Bernhard was active in the Mennonite Church in Winkler. He sang in the choir. He was close to his three brothers and two sisters, who had all settled nearby.
In the summer of 1941, after hearing that his childhood friend, Maria, had been widowed for several years, he proposed marriage. They were married that fall in Winkler and moved to Osler in the spring of 1942 where he farmed with his new wife Maria for the next 30 years. In 1944, Bernhard became the Osler Mennonite Church’s first deacon, a position he held until his death. Additionally, he served for some years as the church’s treasurer and Sunday School’s Superintendent. At his funeral on January 2, 1978, a dozen ministers and deacons from various churches sat on the stage behind the pulpit to respect a man who had served the community faithfully. Four children were born to Maria and Bernhard: Jake (1942), Ruth (1944), Wilfred (1946) and Ben (1951).
For Bernhard this was a gutsy move, having farmed on forty acres in Winkler, living quietly with his mother, surrounded by his kin, and nieces and nephews who adored their popular bachelor uncle. He was located on a Mennonite Manitoba reserve, where almost everyone was Mennonite, and moved to another province 500 miles away, to live in a strange community, in a new household of three adopted boys aged 14, 10 and 7, ready to explore their teen years. There was a 1000 acre farm waiting, with a dozen or more (many registered) holstein cows, where shipping milk daily, had been the pattern. The shift from farming 40 acres to 1000, required new much larger machinery, in another province where soil conditions were different. He also had to make new friends in church and the community, so it was a risky move.
Maria had wanted a large family (more than three boys), so they proceeded to have four children after both of them were in the mid thirties. Interestingly, of their seven children, Leo and Otto their eldest, left the community, married spouses from Oklahoma and Manitoba, to study and pursue teaching and social work professions (see photo 4). The youngest five however, found Mennonite spouses in the Osler community, which had become their new sacred canopy, and stayed to work in the local area. Irvin, Wilf and Ben continued to farm, and Ruth and Jake became teachers, and all five of their spouses became teachers and educators, around the Osler area. The Osler schools, church and community became their somewhat less boundaried sacred canopy. Basically, Maria remained surrounded by five (plus spouses) of her seven children. She had created her own extended family, including her brother Jacob, who also raised a large family, most of whom stayed in the community.
In addition to grain and dairy farming, Maria hosted dozens of itinerant pastors and evangelists in their home. She was an active member of the Ladies Aid Society. She and Bernhard moved off the farm to the small hamlet of Osler in 1972, where they kept a large garden. In 1975 they travelled to Russia to meet Maria’s sister Greta who had been separated from them for 50 years. It was an unforgettable reunion that also involved Maria’s brother Jacob (Mary) and Heinrich (Katie). Bernhard died on December 29, 1977 of leukemia following a short illness.
Maria continued to live in Osler as a widow, where she was actively involved in a small town sacred canopy. Her green Chevrolet could be seen everywhere usually filled with other women on the way to visit more women. She practiced her Mennonite faith practically. Once when a group of boys were having a loud all night party at a neighbour’s house, she baked a batch of buns and cooked chicken noodle soup which she brought to the boys in the morning. The food worked better than a scolding.
Maria moved to Bethany Manor in Saskatoon a fourth sacred canopy in the city in 1987, where she continued to live until 2002. Bethany was a Mennonite institutional home for the elderly. She kept a fine display of flowers on her balcony. Her gregarious behaviour ensured many social activities with friends. She joined First Mennonite Church in Saskatoon. Many of her children and grandchildren lived nearby so they visited frequently and helped her. Her health began to fail in 2000 but it did not dampen her spirit. In May, 2002, following a slight stroke she moved to Central Haven Nursing Home. It was an unhappy time for her but she carried on bravely until her death on October 2, 2002. A large family celebrated her life of 95 years. A long time friend, Esther Paetkau, spoke at the two funerals held at Osler and at Bethany Manor.
The seven children of Maria, Cornelius and Bernhard all married seen in photo 4. Leo, Otto, and Irvin Driedger on the right, were born to Maria and Cornelius. Jake, Ruth, Wilfred and Ben on the left, were born to Maria and Bernhard. All seven spouses stand in the back. Half (seven) of the fourteen were teachers and three were farmers. All had at least two children, for a total of 15 grandchildren. In 2002 Maria had nine great grandchildren.
While Maria’s husbands served visibly in the church, her eldest son Leo was elected ministerial assistant by the congregation. Irvin was a long time choir director, Ben was a deacon, and Wilf for many years had been congregational Chair. Son Jake Buhler and his wife Louise, served overseas in Thailand and Vietnam most of their lives, and social workers Otto and Florence travel annually for years, to Ukraine to help support relatives who had stayed behind (Aunt Greta and her offspring). Ruth, the only daughter, and her husband Jake taught school all their lives. Maria herself stayed more on the leadership periphery. But kin around her were very much involved in church leadership, so that all her life she was used to having members of her family deeply involved. All of her seven children and their families made major commitments to serve the church, and all have been very active to this day. Maria, the strong matriarch, sits in the middle, surrounded by her faithful children.
Maria’s Legacy 2
When Maria died at age 95 October 2, 2002, 47 of her 51 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were at her funeral (shown in photo 5) in the Osler Mennonite church. She was also buried in the church’s cemetery, and her two husbands are buried in the same cemetery. None of her children died before she did. The symbol of the cross, grounded in the world in the background, is very apt, because most of the 51 are committed to the same Mennonite church she served, and most of them are active leaders, serving the church and society. Maria was a survivor! She will be remembered.
Jake Buhler, Maria’s fourth son, has collected Some Stories: Maria Buhler, for his children based on interviews of Maria. He also shared some of these at the funeral:
“I was born in the village of Grigorjewka, near Kharkov, in Russia on September 20, 1907, during the corn harvest. Groszpa Unger was in the field about one wirscht from the village weaving willow reeds into baskets. Other family members were schucking the corn and putting it into Groszpa’s baskets. Taunte Nietta, my mother’s younger sister… came rushing to the field in a horse-drawn wagon shouting the news, “Helena has just given birth to Maria.” My older sister was already named Helena after Groszma Unger, so it was already known that if I were a girl, I would be called Maria after my Groszma Pauls. I was born at home in the Pauls’ house with assistance of a trained midwife”…
In the last 6 days of her life…three people visited Maria and recorded her last words. To her oldest grandchildren, Joan, who was hugging her she said “don’t let me go”. To Esther Patkau, her friend and minister, she said, “let’s sing “Gott is die Liebe”. She asked Jake to water the horses…to find homes for 5 orphans from Johann Thiessen family. …and that she missed her husband Bient.
Mother’s last words, were about love, about God, about farming, about caring for other people and family. What a way to exit from the world!!!
She was a matriarch. She leaves behind a small clan of over fifty people. She loved family gatherings and prepared the most scrumptious chicken dinners.
She was someone who lived intensely. It was easy to know her mood either through her uproarious laughter or her emotional outbursts of tears and sometimes anger.
She was a founding member of this church in 1928, 74 years ago. She was the church chairman’s wife for Cornelius Driedger and the deacon’s wife for Bernhard Buhler. She hosted hundreds of clergy. She made soap for MCC. She made no speeches, but her Christian life was an exemplary one. She taught us to pray. Once when I was a child I had horrible nightmares. Mother prayed that they would stop. The result was no more nightmares.
Mother was a farmer and a gardener. She could milk cows, water horses and canned dozens of jars of fruit and other garden produce. Her brown bread is still being talked about.
She always had a strong handshake and a warm hug and a wonderful smile….confirmed by her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her door was always open.
Finally, Mother was shaped by her earlier hardships. She was an orphan and an immigrant and life was not easy. She took it out on others occasionally. But no one will argue with me when I say she loved us all enormously. And where she is now, I believe she is continuing to love us – every one of us.”
Otto, her second son, summarized well Maria’s basic gifts to all, in one of his eulogies at her funeral September 7, 2002:
“Mom provided nurturing and love in an open and giving way. She had the uncanny ability to balance expectations for us and freedom to develop our potential. This was done in the context of her strong faith in Jesus Christ and her great concern that we would develop a strong Christian commitment.
Mom put her faith into action. I remember as a small boy in the late 1930’s, living close to the railroad tracks that many of the people riding the rails would come to our farm for a meal. Mom says that Leo insisted he wanted to eat with these men when they came to the house. On occasion a person would look menacing, but she would invite them in for a meal in spite of being in fear on occasion. She was willing to risk. This same openness was demonstrated with our friends. We lived close to Osler, and many of our town friends loved coming to the farm. They would always be invited to stay for a meal. Visiting pastors and missionaries to Osler Mennonite Church would generally stay at our home (David Toews, J.J. Nickel).
Both Mom and Dad Buhler were able to blend the Driedger and Buhler children into a whole family. When Jake was small and visited Dad Driedger’s grave with Mom, he said it was not fair that Leo, Otto and Irvin, had two Dads and he had only one, so from then on he called Dad Driedger “yan Dad” just as we had been referring to him.
Mom was a strong personality. When she married, she wanted to learn to drive the car immediately so she could get around on her own. In the early 1950s when Osler Church extended the vote to women, Dad Buhler said that was fine, but not really necessary because women always voted like their husbands anyway. Mom reminded Dad: “do you remember the time I was going to vote for a different party in the provincial election than you and you would not take me along to vote? I went to the polling booth myself!” “Oh yes,” Dad Buhler replied, and that clarified the issue.”
At the funeral of Maria four of her grandchildren remembered:
“Grandma had a great laugh
It was as deep as her faith,
as confident as her spirit,
and as encompassing and infectious as her love.
Her sense of humour was hard to describe. It would sneak up on you.
One time, her son, Leo, who just told Grandma he had published his 10th book. Received the reply…. “Leo, you write all these books, but who will read them?”
Grandma always wanted us to find partners and get married. When we would say “you were only 19 when you got married right Grandma?” She would reply 19 and A HALF. Anytime she was queried about this, the answer was always the same.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Jake and Wilf were in Grandma’s room and Grandma was in bed barely responding. Jake leaned over to Wilf and said I’m going to see if she is listening. “So Mom got married when she was 19?” A weak and feeble “and a half” came from the bed. Her humour was there till the end.
Going to Grandma’s place meant hugs and kisses, lots of good food, like; fresh buns and bread, paska, grieven, borscht, Chicken noodle soup, bubbat, and during Christmas peanuts, chocolate, oranges and huge candy bags.
Games like tile rummy, mensch-oja-dee-nich, chinese checkers, finding pennies in the button drawer and folding paper trees, hats and boats.
Grandma’s house meant lots of love, laughter and fun.”
“You never had to wonder what Grandma thought. You always knew where you stood with her. She’d say:
Terry, but why so many earrings?
Chris, you don’t look Christian, you should cut your hair.
Sarah, short hair’s not nice for a woman.
These comments were followed by, “But you know I love you anyway.” And we could always honestly say “yes Grandma, we know.”
She made a huge effort to know us on our terms. Even though English was her fourth language, she never felt that she had command of that language, she would always speak to us in English. Heather remembers that grandma tried pizza for the first time at age 80 and loved it and often wanted us to bring pizza when we came to visit her. She worked hard to bridge the generation gap. Sean has a picture of her playing mini golf wearing a baseball hat with a pom pom on it. Scott remembers her coming to one of his hockey games at Sask Place. She supported us, whether she understood it or not.
We all saw her as a strong and independent woman. She had broad shoulders and an iron grip from years of milking. She loved farming and gardening. She taught us to shell peas, dig potatoes and that you don’t water the trees through the leaves. Underneath her physical strength was a confident and steadfast spirit.
We remembered the picture of her, driving other women around town in her big olive green car. And one time, when questioned about her drive home from church – on the wrong side of the road – she said, “but everyone knows where I am going. They know I am going to turn left right away.” There was a political side to her independence. In the late 1970’s when the Osler and Warman community galvanized around the issue of a proposed nuclear refinery, grandma gave this testimony before the Environmental Assessment Committee:
“I am thankful for our government, that usually looks after the good of its people. I came to Canada from Russia in 1925 when I was eighteen years old when there was war and revolution and no freedom. I pray to God that He might protect us from the nuclear refinery that is to be built at Warman and may spoil or poison this area.”
She would tell us stories about living through hard times in Russia, and coming to Canada as a teenager. With these stories, she showed us her strength, courage, confidence and independence which we admire and try to emulate in our own lives.”
“But that’s not the only thing she taught us.
We have memories of strong hands clasping ours in prayer.
Uns zur Kraft
Und dir zum Preise.
And Prayers for strength and guidance.
Her faith was lived in every moment of her life, and shown through her words and actions. When she was living in Osler alone, the neighbour boys had a wild party one weekend when their parents were away. Grandma couldn’t sleep because of the ruckus outside and was nervous about it. As she used to say nothing good happens after midnight. Because she couldn’t sleep, she spent the night making buns and chicken-noodle soup. The next morning, she decided to take this meal to the boys next door. She gave it to them saying that she knew that they had lots of guests and that she knew their parents were away. The boys accepted the food and apologized for the noise. Church and bible study were an integral part of her life. Chris remembers her taking him to Sunday school. Terry remembers the exact pew where Grandma and Grandpa sat every Sunday morning. Diane and I got a dollar each to learn the books of the Bible. Her love and acceptance of each of us mirrored the love and acceptance she got from her faith.”
Maria was the grandmother of 15 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren, with good prospects for more soon. They all loved her, and she loved them. She was not afraid to show her love with kisses, hugs, and embraces. She was open and giving, well illustrated by a poem Diane Driedger wrote for her funeral.
You were a flower
A red geranium
The sun shone brightly on you
You told me you had a good life
Yes you were a gardener
On your patch of Saskatchewan prairie
You were a whirlwind of greetings
Oh yo! Hel-lo-o-o Di – a – a-a ne!
Kisses dropped from the heavens
Smudged my glasses every time
But I was happy to see Grandma!
You only had grade six
But I learned about love
At your knee
While eating your homebaked buns
While picking raspberries in the garden
While seeing your wide-mouthed laugh
Your hand not doing a good job
Of covering it
A bubbling brook
That won’t be silenced
by Diane Driedger
- The first author interviewed Maria March 28, 29, 1992, May 2, 3, 8, 1993, and earlier on June 30,1980, May 25, 1981, December 17, 1981 and June 26, 1994. The second author also interviewed Maria in 1987 and 1989.
- Many of these sayings and stories appeared in a collection of photos, thoughts, edited by Donna Driedger, MARIA BUHLER: COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS, 2003, after the funeral of Maria.This includes sayings by sons Jake Buhler, Otto Driedger, and Grandchildren Sean Buhler, Rachel Buhler, Joan Driedger, and Diane Driedger.
Buhler. Jake. MARIA BUHLER STORIES. Unpublished manuscript, 1997.
Driedger, Donna, MARIA BUHLER: COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS, Osler, Sk: Unpublished Collection of Photos, Thoughts, Sayings, 2003.
Friesen, Ted and Elizabeth Peters (eds.). MEMORIES OF GRIGORIEWKA. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1998.
Guenter, Doreen Hague (ed.) HAGUE-OSLER MENNONITE RESERVE, 1895-1995. Saskatoon: Houghton Boston Printers-Lithographers, 1995.
Guenter, J.G. (ed.). Osler…THE EARLY YEARS AND THE ONE ROOM SCHOOL #1238. (1905-1947) Osler: Osler Historical Museum, 1999.
Loewen, George F., ERINNERUNGEN AUS DEM DORF GRIGORJEWKA. 1889-1926. Self published, 1975.
By Leo Driedger and Jake Buhler