Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Mother of J. George Weller

This is the first group of excerpts from the Clara Alvina Koenig's manuscript Afterglow of Yesterday, which is partly about the family of J. George Weller, the first president of the school that has become Concordia University. The manuscript is described in this earlier blog post.

This first excerpt tells about the life of a woman who was born with the name Katerina Regina Meyer and who became the mother of J. George Weller. The excerpt begins in the year 1838, as 19-year-old Katerina is traveling by ship to the United States in order to escape a marriage that her father had arranged for her. The excerpt begins with a conversation between Katerina and her family's former maid Marie, with whom Katerina is traveling on the ship.

“Oh, Marie, I cannot bear to think how my poor mother would grieve if our ship should sink into this vast ocean -- or if we should die of the terrible fever that is claiming so many of the others. My father would never forgive himself for having been so anxious to unite me in marriage with that young Suedhof.

“My dear Fraulein Meyer, your father meant well -- but he did not realize how you felt about the matter.”

“Mother understood that I did not love the young man and she did not want me to marry him solely for his riches. Even if he is the sole heir to that vast estate, I still prefer the hardships of this voyage to being Suedhof’s bride.”

“How surprised your father must have been, when he returned home that evening, to learn that you suddenly decided to accompany me to America!”

“That’s the worst part of it. I did not even wait to bid Father farewell. I feared he would not let me go -- now, I may never see him again. Oh, it makes my heart ache to think of it.”

Marie, who had been the faithful maid of the Meyer household for many years, put an arm around her young mistress.

“Fraulein Katerina, you must not worry so much -- the Lord will not forsake us -- even now, He is sending the wind to fill the sails and blow us forward. Take a little of this wine that your dear mother gave us.”

The young woman sipped a little of the port wine. Just then, Herr and Frau Schultz discovered their two friends sitting in a far corner of the ship.

“Marie seems to take good care of you, Katerina; still you do not look like the happy maiden we knew in the Fatherland. A young woman of nineteen should not be burdened with the cares of old folks.”

“Ja, ja Mama, you forget that the hopes of youth run higher than ours, and that young people are apt to be impatient. Even I am weary of this long journey.”

Katerina’s voice sounded sad and weary. “My friends, if it were not for you and Marie, I should have died of despair and homesickness. Ever since our ship was blown off its course and separated from the other two ships, I fear we may never see land again.”

During the long days and desolate nights that followed, Katerina Meyer shared her wine with Marie and the Schultzes. After the drinking water became stagnant, they added a little of the port wine to it, thus the water did not make them sick. When the supply of water was exhausted, the passengers and crew were obliged to drink ocean brine. Eighteen young people died as a result. Wrapped in sheets and weighted, the bodies were lowered into their water grave.

The food supply dwindled from day to day as the ship was carried southward by strong ocean currents. The blazing sun added to the discomfort of those on board the ship.

On a beautiful summer morning in 1838, after being on the briny deep more than two months, the captain sighted land along the distant horizon. Words cannot describe the joy that filled the hearts of those tired and homesick people. With tears of joy flowing from their parched cheeks, the passengers knelt to thank God for having answered their prayers by bringing them to the new country.

Although the ship had set sail for New York, it was carried so far off its course that it landed at New Orleans. This proved rather bewildering to the German immigrants. The new country was much larger than what they had imagined and the language was strange and confusing.

Marie and Katerina found a negro “mammy” selling gingerbread near the wharf. They pointed to the bread and offered German coins for it. The old negress understood. Katerina and Marie went their way, nibbling the spicy gingerbread. Suddenly they were forced to stop: a large dray, piled high with cotton and drawn by a span of mules, passed directly in front of them. The driver glanced at the two women, then halted his team and gazed at them. Greatly surprised, the young man exclaimed (in German):

“Katerina Meyer! Is it you, or do my eyes deceive me?”

Katerina made no reply. Her heart beat audibly as she remembered her mother’s admonition not to speak to “strange men in America” because they might lead her astray; but this man knew her name and spoke her native tongue!

The driver of the cotton dray sprang from his seat, removed his large, wide-brimmed hat and stepped before the terror-stricken girl:

“Katerina, don’t you know your former school-mate any-more?”

“Why -- it’s Willie Fruehe! I’m so glad to see you! No doubt, you remember Marie. She worked for us many a year; and over there are Herr and Frau Schultz. Come, let us join them.”

Joyfully, Katerina led Willie to their mutual friends. Everyone seemed to talk at once -- there was so much to tell; conditions in the homeland, the long voyage, the separation of the ships, and the change in their own landing place; then the future was considered. Marie decided to go to St. Louis with the Schultzes while Katerina accepted Willie Fruehe's invitation to accompany him to the plantation, about three miles from New Orleans. Mrs. Fruehe welcomed Fraulein Meyer and assured her that she might stay indefinitely.

It was at the plantation that Katerina made the acquaintance of various people, among them Frank Lehnberg, a horsecar conductor and a close friend of the Fruehe’s.

Katerina again found employment; this time, on a large cotton plantation. The master of the house was a tall Spaniard who was feared by all the slaves because of his cruelty. The mistress was a small German woman, much to the delight of the maid who was nicknamed “Katy” by her new employer.

One of the slaves on this plantation, a mulatto girl, was given special duties about the house and enjoyed certain privileges. She and “Katy” became friends. Both soon proved to be favorites of the household.

The Spaniard had chosen a mulatto boy, who was also one of the slaves at this plantation, and had arranged for his marriage to the mulatto girl. The cruel slave-driver planned to use the couple for breeding purposes. Several years had passed and still the couple was childless. This fact enraged their master.

One morning, while the mulatto girl was cleaning the master bedroom, Katerina was helping the lady of the house. Sounds of a struggle floated down the broad stairs, and the mistress asked “Katy” to investigate the cause of such commotion. Taken by surprise, the Spaniard pushed the mulatto girl from him and sprang to his feet. Angrily shaking his clenched fist, he ordered the two girls to be about their work and fled from the room. The mulatto girl burst into tears. “Katy” laid a comforting hand on the girl’s shoulder, but asked no questions.

Just before the next slave auction, the mulatto girl tearfully confessed to “Katy” that she would rather die than to comply with her passionate master’s wishes. The master, therefore, was going to sell her to the highest bidder --- preferably a very cruel man. Sad was the parting when the slave girl took leave of her young husband, of the kind lady of the house, and of “Katy”.

The mistress of the house persuaded her hard-hearted husband to tolerate occasional visitors’ days for her personal maid’s friends. The Fruehes were welcomed no less by the mistress than by Katerina.

Frank Lehnberg also, was a frequent visitor. Occasionally on Katerina’s free days, she and Frank drove to Jackson Square Park, where soft sunlight filtered through the scarves of Spanish moss and the sweet, cool breath of magnolias was on the air. There were flowers of all kinds: azaleas, roses, camellias, wisteria, and flowering quince. Peacocks strutted under the stately old oak trees, while mocking birds poured out their song from the tree tops. Katerina looked lovely in her best dress of white silk-and-linen with a small pink flower-design scattered over it. The skirt was hooped and the neckline was low. A black net shawl, finished with yards and yards of black velvet ribbon and edged with heavy silk lace, was draped about her shoulders and fastened at the front with a pink rose. A white leghorn hat, trimmed with a large pink rose, black mesh finger mitts, and a black mesh bag completed the ensemble.

Once, when the Spaniard and his wife left for the big slave-market, “Katy” was put in complete charge of the household and for six weeks the young woman supervised the plantation. The slaves loved her and gladly obeyed her. “Katy” had often seen very meager portions distributed to the hard-working Negroes; now she paid for butter and rice with her own earnings and gave the slaves rice with their gumbo and butter on their coarse cornbread. The slaves did not forget this kindness; when “Katy” left the plantation to be married, more than forty of them kissed her hand and some murmured, “De Lord bless you, Mis’ Katy.”

Katerina Meyer and Frank Lehnberg were married in 1841. They spent nearly ten years together, during which time Frank changed his occupation from conductor on a horsecar to proprietor of a brick yard. He bought a large brick house, in which he and Katerina lived, and later added a smaller frame house to his possessions.

Katerina’s brother from Saint Louis visited the Lehnbergs. Meyer contracted yellow fever, or malaria, and died in New Oreans. Their sister, who spent a very short time in the Southern metropolis, died of the same fever.

Although the Lehnbergs at first belonged to the “Lutheran Church on Custom House Street,” they later transferred their membership to Zion Congregation because it was much closer to their new home.

In 1851, Frank Lehnberg died of the dreaded cholera. His widow spent much of her time at the Fruehes. At other times, some member of the Fruehe family stayed with Katerina in her large and lonely house.

For many years a small group of Lutherans had met for services on the Custom House of New Orleans; one of the men read a sermon out of a well-worn book which had been brought from the old country and the whole group joined in singing hymns -- there was no musical accompaniment. About the year 1852 this group was organized into a congregation and adopted the name “The Lutheran Congregation on Custom House Street”. This congregation soon owned a small church building, and called a pastor during 1853. The rather long name of the congregation was changed to St. John’s.

Mr. and Mrs. Fruehe and their children belonged to St. John’s Congregation and, since “Katy” spent much of her time with the Fruehes, the young widow usually attended services in that church. After some time the pastor noticed that Katerina was blessed with a good voice so he asked her to help lead the singing.

Katerina’s sweet voice trembled a little and she found it hard to keep her eyes on the words before her. Mrs. Fruehe noticed it, but thought nothing of it.

As the carriage rolled toward the plantation after the services, Katerina asked: “Doesn’t that Herr Weller have a lovely voice?”

With a twinkle in his eye, Wilhelm Fruehe replied: "Yes, he has been a Vorsaenger in our church for a number of years. I know him well -- maybe I can introduce him to you”.

“The pastor thought of that before you did.”

A faint blush spread over “Katy” Lehnberg’s face but “Willie” Fruehe pretended not to notice it. In a matter-of-fact way he remarked: “Weller is a mighty fine fellow. You ought to be glad that the Catholics didn’t keep him, or the two of you might never have met.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“Well, I’ll tell you: That man had a hard time getting started, but he’s doing well now. He told me that his money was stolen on the voyage from Germany -- the strange part of it was that the thief left the prayer book which had been tucked into the same pocket with the money. That was in the fall of 1848 -- about five-and-a-half years ago.”

“What did the poor man do then?”

“Oh, that was only part of his trouble; besides that, he contracted typhoid fever on the way. When the emigrants landed they took him to a Catholic hospital. Weller stayed there about six weeks, during which the priest and the nuns tried to convert their Lutheran patient. When the Catholics saw that they couldn’t convert him to their beliefs and that he was penniless, too, they asked him to leave the hospital.”

“Oh, how terrible!”

“Johann Georg was hardly able to stand on his feet, but he prepared to leave. He thanked the doctors and nurses for their care and staggered down the corridor. At the door he met a nun who had a sympathetic face. That nun wished him God’s blessing and handed him a bottle of wine and a loaf of rye bread, which she had carefully hidden under her cape for that very purpose. By the time Weller ate the last of that supply, he was much stronger and soon found odd jobs. Later, he got work as a dock hand. He gradually advanced from driver of a large cotton dray to owner of a dray. Right now, he is about ready to buy another one.”

The following Sunday, Katerina Lehnberg, Mrs. Fruehe, and the children waited in the carriage. Finally, Wilhelm Fruehe appeared, followed by a tall dark-complexioned man. “Katy’s” heart beat faster.

“I’ve invited another friend of mine to dinner,” announced “Willie”. His wife spoke to the guest,

“You are most welcome. There is always room for an extra passenger and Dina will be glad to set another place at the table.”

The young man bowed and a slow smile spread over his handsome face as he greeted the women and children in the carriage. Katerina admired these expressive brown eyes, that row of shining teeth and the manly stature, that were complemented by “a lovely voice”.

“If only he were not so bashful,” thought Katerina as they rode along, “he would be the ideal man.”

After the couple became better acquainted, Johann Georg Weller sometimes visited Katerina Lehnberg in her own home in town. Words failed the shy suitor on several occasions. Finally, one evening, the lady remarked, “No doubt you are aware of the fact that I am a young widow and that we are unchaperoned -- people are apt to think it a bit unusual. I see no reason why we should not consider matrimony: we seem well suited to each other.”

The young man needed no more urging but poured out his heart, and was accepted.

On the eighth of January, 1855 , wedding bells rang for Katerina and Johann Georg.

The couple lived in Katerina’s brick house as long as they were in New Orleans. Johann Georg joined Zion Congregation. The Wellers were close friends of Pastor and Mrs. Fick, and Katerina was chosen as one of the sponsors for Dorothy Fick. Mrs. Metz, the pastor’s wife at St. John’s, was a sister to pastor Fick of Zion.

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