Alma always liked talking about her history and she asked to me to talk about her life, even on the last day she was conscious and staring intently at the ceiling listening to Tante Gertie and me talking about their life in the old country. That was my last memory of my Mother.
Alma’s life was one of hardship but she also enjoyed many blessings that The Lord had provided for her.
Alma was born on October 20, 1937 in Tcherepaschnik, a German village in the province of Volinia (Volhynia), Poland to her parents Gottlieb and Julianne Penno.
The Forefathers of the Pennos had already lived in Volinia for several generations when Alma was born. Alma’s great-grandparents were originally from Germany and they were promised land in Volinia. Land was hard to come by in Germany, as much of it belonged to the various Barons and was tended by the serfs, therefore owning your own land in Poland was an attractive proposition.
But Volinia did not turn out to be such a land of promise. There was bitter fighting between the Poles and Ukrainians over the Volinia province and then the horrors of WW2 when the Germans and Russians, in turns, brutally overran Poland. But because the Penno family lived in the countryside they were relatively safe, at least until the end of the war, when the Russians were fighting back from the East.
The Penno girl’s Grandfather lived with them on the farm. Their Grandfather was the one who taught the Penno girls all the Bible stories. They had never gone to Sunday School but they knew all the accounts of the Lord’s people who had lived before.
When the war started in 1939, the Penno family had to leave their family farm in Volinia when the Russians temporarily took over that part of Poland and they went to live on another farm near the German border. In 1942 Alma’s Father was drafted into the German army and Julianne was left to look after the farm and her three very young daughters. They attempted to flee Poland in January 1945 after the German army retreated back to Germany. They had been ordered to leave with the other Germany families Westward to Germany proper as the Russian army was advancing rapidly from the East. Some of the Germans made it out, maybe half. Julianne, her three daughters and their 82 year-old Grandfather joined the Westward Track and attempted to flee with the German refugees. However, they were escaping by horse and wagon and two days later the Russian troops caught up with them and they had to stay in Poland. The Poles were not treated very well by the invading Russians as the Russians were exacting revenge upon all who mistreated them. Fortunately, in the Lord’s providence, the Pennos were sent back to their farm and left relatively alone. Sadly, their little sister Antonia now got very ill and died.
At the end of the war in 1945, the family had a another chance to leave Poland. Some of the Germans were being expelled again. In December they left Poland with some of the fortunate few and were allowed to go to East Germany. They were placed in a refugee camp in Brandenburg Germany. A couple of months later they were settled in a village in upper Saxony in the mission zone.
The refugee camp where Julianne, her two remaining daughters, and their Grandfather lived was an old German factory. Typhoid fever was rampant in the camp. Both daughters and their Grandfather all contracted the disease. But as the Lord would have it, Julianne was immune to Typhoid because she had contracted and survived it as a child. Julianne knew that the disease was transmitted by the contaminated water. She took the barley coffee that was supplied to the camp and gave it to the family because she knew it had been boiled. Even though Alma and Tante Gertie got very ill, they survived due to Julianne’s efforts. Unfortunately, the disease took their Grandfather. More than half of the thousand people in the camp died from the disease.
In 1947, the family eventually ended up in a refugee camp in Upper Bavaria. They now began searching for Gottlieb. They had not heard from him for many years and were not sure if he had survived the war or if he was a P.O.W. Gottlieb had been stationed on the Western Front and was captured and released by the Americans near Munich. There he found a job working for BMW Motorworks and began saving money to support his family, if he could find them.
Julianne had convinced a lady who could write Polish, to write a letter on her behalf. She sent it back to the people who took the farm over in Poland to see if they had heard from Gottlieb. It turned out that Gottlieb had done the same. The family, in turn, was benevolent enough to send the Penno family Gottlieb’s address. Someone took them over the border to West Germany. They located Gottlieb in Munich in an old army barrack. But because their Dad lived with twenty other men in a small room in the barracks the family could not stay with him.
After another month of homelessness they were settled with a farm family in upper Bavaria. As they were now only about 20k from from Gottlieb he would come and visit them about twice a month.
Alma was able to start school again. She attended a Catholic School as all the schools in Upper Bavaria were Catholic. Alma would joke that she almost became a Catholic. She was taught how to pray and all the symbolism. There were no churches. They never went to Sunday School until they came to Canada. The Baptist Church was in Munich, so Opa could go to church there. A Deaconess from the Lutheran Church would visit the school once a week for an hour. She would gather all the Protestant kids, which was just a few refugee children. They learned the “Kleinen Katechismus”–”The Little Catechism.” Alma often fondly remembered that these are the things that come back to you, the things that you learned at that young age. When Mom spoke of this period of her life to me it seemed to be mostly happy memories.
Things suddenly looked even brighter. Reverend Stuhrhan, who represented an immigration society formed by the North American Baptists, made his rounds and visited the church in Munich in 1951. He asked Gottlieb if he wanted to emigrate to Canada. The commission was looking for German families and families that were not from Germany proper and who had lost their homes. He thought the Pennos were just about the right age and made arrangements for them to go to Canada on the Beaverbrae cargo ship.
God had preserved their family, protecting them through war, persecution, and disease. And now they were now off to Canada. Like the other German immigrants from the war, the Pennos were happy to leave the hardship of life in Poland and grateful when Canada opened its doors. To them Canada was a good country and they continued to appreciate how fortunate they were for the rest of their lives.
Originally, they were destined for Alberta to work in the sugarbeet fields but it was too late in the season. So Reverend Sturhan redirected them to Minitonas, Manitoba in time for the harvest there. It was 1951 and Alma was 14. Alma went to school that Fall for one semester. At an Evangelistic meeting in Minitonas, Alma accepted Christ as her Saviour and later she would be baptized when the family moved to Winnipeg and joined Mission Church.
After spending half a year in Minitonas they moved to the capital city. Life was getting better but it was far from easy. The Pennos lived within walking distance of church, as did most of their Mission Church brothers and sisters. Like most of the German immigrants, they acclimatized to their new country quickly, working hard and diversifying, but still maintaining their identity. In Winnipeg, life for the Pennos tended to focus around work, as they had to pay back the immigration society and save money to buy a home.
But the centre of their faith, culture, and social life was at Mission Church, or the Deutsche Baptisten Missions Gemeinde, as it was known then. At the original little Mission church on Banning Street in August 1952 Alma was baptized by Reverend Zinser. In November of the same year the congregation moved to their new location, the corner of Sargent and Home Street. Alma found her place to serve in Sunday School, the Guitar Choir, Youth Group and so on.
When Alma was 15 she started her first job in the kitchen of the old Victoria Hospital on River Avenue. As Tante Gertie pointed out, “Everyone had to start looking after themselves early. There was no government handouts at that time.” While living in two crowded rooming houses, the parents and the two sisters saved and pooled their money. In 1954, three years after they moved to Canada, they put a down payment on a three story house on Langside. This was much better as they had more room. It was their own and they could rent out some of the other rooms. God had blessed their hard work and faithfulness.
The family continued to be involved at Mission Church. As Tante Gertie said they already knew so many people from back home in Poland, “At Mission Church they found their friends again.”
The Youth Group at Mission was the centre of the Alma’s social life. It was a large group and met frequently. But what stood out in her mind is the trips to Grand Beach in the summer. In those days you still went by train to the beach. These were usually all day excursions as the train would leave early the morning and bring them back at 9:00 pm. Grand Beach became one of our favourite family destinations, along with Falcon Lake, and, of course, the church camp at Nutimik Lake.
The Ristau family, Dad’s father, his Stepmother, and the three Ristau children attended some Evangelistic services at Mission Church in 1955. When they came to Canada they originally attended a Lutheran Church and then searched through a number of churches in Winnipeg and made Mission Church their home also.
Alma and Klaus knew each other from Youth Group at Mission Church but were never really close. But I do remember Dad telling me that his father had advised him that either of the Penno girls would be a good wife. As history, or providence would have it, Klaus almost bumped into Alma with his car one day. Alma was on her daily long hike home from her job at Paulins cookie factory, and Dad was driving from Hulls Christian bookstore. As he popped out of a back lane, she unexpectedly walked in front of him and he had to slam on the brakes. He recognized her and offered her a ride home! He remembers she was wearing a blue coat that matched his blue Chrysler. Dad said, “She got in the car and he never looked back.” On October 20th, 1961 they were engaged and on June 9, 1962 they were married at Mission Church by Reverend W. Laser.
For their honeymoon, Alma and Klaus took a long road trip in the States with Alma and Bruno Mueller who got married the week before my parents. The road trip was a precursor to many family vacations to come and the route they took, through Yosemite, Yellowstone, and down to Los Angeles, was essentially the same one we took on many of our family vacations. Dad said it was a great, fun trip.
While living in a house on Jarvis my parents had purchased a large piece of land on Sterling Avenue at, what was then, the edge of St. Vital. My Dad had worked in construction when he was a young lad and used his talents to construct a nice house on the property. They moved there in 1965. In 1970 he finished building a second larger house next door for the growing family. They then sold off much of the remaining land. It was great for us kids growing up as it was like living in the country with the city right at hand. There was trails to explore, horses and a horse track nearby and no fences dividing up any of the properties. Mom also enjoyed it, often taking walks with Helga in the fields and trees.
When my parents moved from the Jarvis home they brought me along and a little baby girl, Helga. On Moving Day Tante Gertie had to watch over two toddlers, her Gerald and me, as well as two newborns, her baby Manfred and baby Helga while Alma was helping Dad with the move. She said it was quite a handful watching over two babies with two toddlers running about, one of whom was quite upset because he missed his mother.
When my parents moved to St. Vital, Alma was still employed at the Paulins cookie factory and still worked there for the Christmas Rush. She was employed there for several years, working with my Tante Renate and a few of the other ladies from church. One of the stories she told me about her time at Paulins was that some of the other ladies used to get their fingers burnt while making some of the treats. Alma said that it was because they did not work fast enough and held the cookies for too long.
Soon after the move to St. Vital Alma and Klaus decided that it was better that Alma no longer work and should stay home with the growing family. Of course my Dad now had to work long hours to support us. In turn, Alma did as much as she could to help. As Helga describes, Mom seemed to her to have boundless energy. She was always cooking, baking, sewing, and cleaning. I remember that we had a massive vegetable garden in the back yard and Mom would tend that with a little help from Helga and me. Helga remembers that Mom was always awake long before anyone else in the house and was still up when we were sleeping in bed. And as busy as she was, she always made time for us, whenever we needed her. She prayed with us and for us daily. She taught us from a young age about Jesus, always reading to us from the Bible, helping us to memorize Scripture. She not only talked about her faith but lived it.
Alma served in her church faithfully for many years. She was active in the Ladies Group, volunteered in Pioneer girls and children's activities when we were young, cooked out at camp, and was a faithful volunteer at Meadowood Manor, serving there for almost thirty years. She would also knit the most most beautiful sweaters and baby things for the craft sale–and also for us!
Alma loved to travel. In addition to frequent trips to the beach, my parents also found time and finances to take us on a vacation every year. We would pack up the station wagon, hitch up the trailer and visit the National Parks in Canada and the States and often go to Disneyland or Disneyworld. And later my parents got a plot at the church camp at Nutimik Lake, which they renovated, and parked their trailer there. They spent many weeks there in the summers.
In the second house on Sterling Alma developed a great passion for growing flowers. Last summer she had fantastic flower gardens in the front and back of the house. The folks that had come in for my wedding were quite impressed with Mom’s green thumb. Many of her family and friends also remember what a great cook she was and still have some of her recipes.
Winnipeg, August, 2013
As I recall, Mom would cry easily–a consequence of her compassionate heart. But on her deathbed she was a brave soldier of Christ. She never cried about dying or complained about the significant pain she was in. Like her beloved Father, Gottlieb, she wanted to die without being a hardship to anyone. She lived her life like Jesus, who came to serve and not be served.
Alma looked forward to people reading Scripture to her and praying with her. Her Dad’s favourite Bible verse was 2 Timothy 4:7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.” This verse was also near and dear to Mom’s heart as her Father was so was near and dear to her. Even though she knew her salvation was secure, Mom fought to the end. She did not want to leave her beloved Klaus alone after 51 years of marriage and struggled as long as she could to fight her cancer. When she was on her deathbed she waited for all her family and friends to see her and for Johnny and Paulette to come from around the world. Then she hung on several more days for Zak and John to come home Thursday evening. And after seeing her beloved Katie once more Thursday night, two hours later, with her devoted daughter Helga beside her, The Lord took her home shortly after midnight, January 17.
Alma had won the good fight of faith, holding fast to the grace that had been given to her through the blood of her Jesus, who died for her. She went home to receive her crown of righteousness. She is now free from sin, free from pain, her soul has found peace, life’s restless wandering is over, and she is with her wonderful Saviour, filled with joy.