DIABETES TOLL ON THE SMOUTER FAMILY

During my research of my family’s heritage, I came across an alarming connection of diabetes within my family that can be traced back at least 4 generations on my Smouter family tree branch. As I was only 6 years old when my grandmother, Jennie Marie Smouter Reyst, passed away, I never knew that she was diabetic until I started delving into the history of my family tree members.  In fact, Jennie’s diabetes was a major contributing factor in her death.  So once again, another one of those pertinent family history questions always asked on medical information forms that I had always answered “no”.

As I accumulated records to verify birth and death information, I discovered diabetes was also listed as a primary or contributing cause of death of all my grandmother’s siblings who lived beyond infancy, with the exception of one, her sister, Neeltje (Nellie) Smouter Panke. Her mother, Adrianntje (Adrianna) Andeweg Smouter, and also her aunt, Fijgje (Fay) Andeweg Elzerman, both suffered from diabetes, which is listed as the primary cause of both of their deaths. According to the research I found online, Type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes mellitus is not common among generations of family members.  In other words, there is no proven documentation that there is a genetic connection for Type 1 diabetes. So I am assuming that my great-grandmother, great-great aunt, grandmother, great uncle and 2 great aunts must have all suffered from NIDDM (Type 2 Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus). One might assume that the diet of all 6 of these families members was the primary factor which contributed to this ailment, as the first and second generation Dutch immigrants tended to eat a diet that was high in fat.  Favorite foods included pork, cold cuts and sweets, especially pastries.  But recently I learned that 2 fourth generation cousins also were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.  This raises the suspicion that there may be some genetic predisposition for NIDDM that compounded with environmental factors – such as a diet high in fat and cholesterol – puts family members, both within and among generations, at a higher risk for becoming diabetic.  There is some research that seems to be supporting this theory.  This same research also indicates that genetic predisposition alone does not tend to result in the occurence of diabetes among family members, both within and among generations. 

I have taken this recent enlightened medical discovery within my family history to heart and have embarked on my own recent endeavor to eat healthier and exercise more frequently. To learn more about the risk factors, treatment and prevention of Type 2 diabetes mellitus, I recommend that you check out the American Diabetes Association, as we celebrate Diabetes Awareness Month during November.

BREAST CANCER AWARENESS

For years I thought that breast cancer had spared our family. When asked if anyone in my family had been affected by the disease I replied, “No, thank goodness”.  But I have learned through my heritage quest that like so many families across the United States and the world, my branch of the Reyst family has its own history of breast cancer.

Just recently I learned that 2 first cousins are breast cancer survivors (one would later die from another form of cancer).  However, these 2 brave women are not the only victims of this disease in our family lineage.  I discovered that our great-aunt, Ella Reyst, was also a victim of breast cancer, and died of it at the age of 61 in 1953.  Ella married when she was about 40 years old, and shortly after moved away from her family in Detroit, Michigan to California with her new husband.  For Ella this most have been a very lonely and scary time, as she struggled with ill-health from this deadly disease without the close support of her family. According to her death certificate, the cancer metastasized, eventually causing her death. Back in 1953, there were not many options for Ella to beat this disease, and most of them would have been economically unfeasible. 

Over the years we have come a long way in treating breast cancer and making strives toward a cure some day.  These strives have a least helped my one cousin to survive, albeit not without her own struggles.  So as the month of October nears it end, and so does the national breast cancer awareness campaign for this year, remember to help in some way, even how small.

ANOTHER REYST GONE TOO SOON

It is with a heavy heart that I return to this blog after a very busy spring and summer mourning the sudden loss of the number one supporter of my heritage quest, my sister, Kathleen Mae Reyst, last month.  Her feedback was invaluable and I will miss it greatly. My research, for our family tree on Ancestry.com and for this blog, gave Kathleen insight of our father’s family that neither of us got a chance to learn about first-hand from our father, Arie Reyst, and also triggered some memories about our family that I had never known.

As I researched my family, I became interested in their medical history.  To verify dates and places of death and internment, I started ordering certified death records.  I began to notice a pattern on causes of death on both our father’s paternal (Reyst ancestral line) and maternal (Smouter ancestral line) sides that I shared with my sister, Kathy.  Eventually, I hoped to include that information here in my blog postings so that the next time one of us went to the doctor and was given that medical information form to complete that asks: “Did anyone in your family suffer from …?”, we would have more precise information to provide our health professionals that hopefully would have a positive impact on our own health.  But even armed with this new information, we would all miss those minute signs of a dangerous ghost of our genetic past that dwelled within Kathy.  The pain of losing a loved one, now one in each of the past 3 generations, so suddenly and at such an early age from cardiac arrest is so overwhelming and at times numbing. 

But I will continue to move forward and share some of my discoveries over the past spring and summer once again in this blog as life returns to some sense of normal, if that is even possible.  I am thankful that at least during our frequent phone conversations over the past months that I shared with Kathy some of my research discoveries that I hoped to include in future posts.  I still believe there is so much more to learn and share about our Dutch heritage and the impact those ancestors had on each of us and the communities they settled here in Michigan.  So I will return to writing here again soon.

BELLE ISLE – DETROIT’S HISTORIC GEM

This weekend the streets of Belle Isle will reverberate with the roar of Formula One race cars as Detroit hosts the 2012 Grand Prix.  In preparation of the event, Belle Isle has been getting a much-needed makeover.  Located in the middle of the Detroit River on Detroit’s near east side, approximately 2 miles upstream from Downtown, Belle Isle has served Detroiters as an urban recreational oasis for over 125 years.  The island is approximately 2 and 1/2 miles in length, 1/2 mile in width and about 1000 acres in size. 

Over the years Belle Isle has been the center of various outdoor events, drawing huge crowds particularly for the 2007 Grand Prix and the annual thunderboat races.  But the primary purpose of the island was to provide a natural escape for relaxation and recreation for the city dwellers of this major industrial metropolis. It was with that purpose in mind that the city purchased Belle Isle in 1879 for $200,000, and commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, a prominent landscape architect, to oversee its design and development.

The island was not known by its current name until the mid-1800s.  The first non-native settlers to the area, the French, called the island “Isle aux Cochons”, which meant “Hog Island”.  It is that name that appears on the deed, dated May 15, 1769, that transferred the ownership of the island from the Ottawa and Chippewa Native American tribes to the British commander, Lieutenant George McDougall. Over the next 100 years the deed would pass through several private hands, the last being Barnabas Campau (whose second wife, Archange, was the granddaughter of George McDougall).  The oldest building on the island is The Whitehouse, which Archange had built in 1863 after remarry following Campau’s death.  Today the house, which was renovated in 1984 by the Friends of Belle Isle, houses the official offices of the park.

When the park was opened to the public in 1882, the only access to the island was via a ferry boat.  Large ferry boats left the docks at the foot of Woodward Avenue in Downtown Detroit, while smaller ferry boats crossed from docks located at the foot of Joseph Campau Street (near present day Chene Park) on Detroit’s near east side.  In 1889, the city built a narrow steel swing bridge at the waterfront near E. Grand Boulevard to accommodate horse and buggy, phaetons (a horse-drawn carriage bus), and later cars and buses.  By 1906, an amusement park, Electric Park (also sometimes referred to as Riverside Park), would occupy the land on both sides of the bridge between Jefferson Avenue and the waterfront.  But on April 27, 1915, the swing bridge, which had wooden planks for its road surface, caught on fire and was destroyed beyond repair.  To accommodate traffic, a temporary bridge was quickly erected, which required the demolition of part of Electric Park.  The new Belle Isle Bridge, which still exists today, was opened to traffic on November 1, 1923.  First named for George Washington, it would later be renamed for General Douglas MacArthur.

Even when the park was finally opened to the public in 1882, it was far from complete. Only the area near the western tip where the ferries docked was available for public use.  It would take almost 15 years to complete all the infrastructure of the island, including filling marshy areas, constructing canals and lakes, building roads and bridges over the internal waterways, and erecting buildings necessary to the recreational needs of the public.

Reyst and Smouter Family on Belle Isle circa 1930

Adrianna Smouter, Mamie Smouter, Helena Reyst, Jennie Reyst, Nellie Panke, Harry Smouter Panke (small boy) and Gerry Reyst (small girl) on Belle Isle, circa 1930

Although the driving purpose of developing Belle Isle was for the recreational needs of Detroiters, in the early years it was really an escape from the city by the affluent of the community.  Photographs of those early years from 1882 to 1910 taken on the island and at the ferry docks overwhelmingly show men, women and children dressed in higher society fashions. The lower working class families did not have the means to pay the cost of transportation to get to the island, so I doubt that my great-grandparents and their families had an opportunity to utilize the park until the early 1900s. However, shortly after the opening of the new bridge, Belle Isle would finally be the park for all Detroiters, regardless of social-economic class, as can be seen by this family photo of the Reyst and Smouter members enjoying a sunny summer day at a picnic area on Belle Isle around 1930.  My mother recalls my grandparents, Cornelius and Jennie Smouter, often taking my older sister as a toddler in the early 1940s to Belle Isle on Sunday afternoons after church just to drive and walk around the island.

The island was accessible all year round and offered diverse activities such as swimming, boating, canoeing, rowing, fishing, nature trail hiking, horseback riding, baseball, softball, tennis, even concerts.  But summer was not the only time to visit the island.  Ice skating on Lake Takoma was very popular.  As a child, my father and uncle would take my cousins and I to ice skate there.  I was never very good at it (guess I never was blessed with that important Dutch gene), but the best part was the hot chocolate afterwards at the Flynn Skating Pavilion.

English: The James Scott Memorial Foundain and...

English: The James Scott Memorial Foundain and Belle Isle Casino in Belle Isle Park, Detroit, Michigan, United States. Photo taken from The Strand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Use of the island by Detroiters hit its heyday in the mid-1900s, peaking around the 1930s.  Today one can still see remnants of those glory days – the Detroit Yacht Club, the Detroit Boat Club (where Johnny Weismuller, better known for his portrayal of Tarzan, would qualify in the club’s Olympic-sized pool for the 1928 Olympics in which he won a gold medal), the Children’s Zoo (now closed due to the city’s budget issues – home to the Detroit Zoo before its move to Royal Oak), the Aquarium (also now closed due to budget constraints), the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (which has one of the largest collection of orchids), the Casino (designed by Albert Kahn which housed a ballroom and restaurants), the James Scott Memorial Fountain (made with more than 10 tons of marble and includes Pewabic Pottery – there is also quite a story about how it came to be on the island), and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum (where you can see the Gold Cup winning “Miss Pepsi” powerboat).

Throughout its 130-year history, Belle Isle has always been free to all who wish to visit.  But sadly that era may be coming to a close with the city’s dire financial woes.  Recently, there has been much discussion about the State of Michigan Parks Department taking over administration and maintenance of the park – within the next 5 years if that occurs a new structure will appear at the entrance of Belle Isle, an admission gate.

Source: Images of America: Detroit’s Belle Isle, Island Park Gem

DETROIT HISTORY LESSON 101

Augustus Woodward's plan following the 1805 fi...

Every year since 1954, the State of Michigan celebrates Michigan week in mid-May.  It was started to promote the state’s many resources and accomplishments, hoping to instill pride in its citizens.  I remember in elementary school learning about the official state tree, bird, flower, etc, and doing special projects centered on Michigan’s history that were amply displayed around our school building.  But the lessons fell short of making me and my classmates aware of the rich history that lay in our own backyard, that of the city of Detroit.  Yes, we were taught about Fort Ponchartrain and Cadillac, and a few other notable events, most in the 1700s when Michigan was mostly unclaimed wilderness, the impact of the automobile industry somewhat, and our city’s loyalties to professional sports (baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey to be exact).  But some of the most significant changes in our city occurred between 1860 and 1920, years rarely discussed at any grade level in Detroit’s public school curriculum during the years I attended in the 1960s and 1970s.

I remember learning about the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, but I never remember anyone referring to the fire of 1805 that literally destroyed almost the entire city of Detroit. Following the fire, Judge Augusta B. Woodward designed a rebuilding plan for Detroit in 1807 based on the spoke model, similar to Washington D.C. That would explain many of the street names found in the original plan: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Monroe Avenues.  All of these streets still exist in downtown Detroit, however, Washington Street is now Washington Boulevard.  Although Woodward’s plan was not totally implemented as it appears in the original drawing, it is apparent that what is now the downtown core of Detroit was developed to a large extent along his specifications.  Despite the years of changing development in downtown Detroit, the basic spoke still exists today as it did in 1890 when my great-grandparents arrived in Detroit.  In 1890 Woodward Avenue was the center of the city, and was the heart of the shopping district, lined with a variety of business serving the city’s growing population.  The street extended from the docks on the Detroit River north past Grand Circus Park, and eventually would radiate out all the way to the city limit of 8 Mile Road (also known as Base Line Road) and beyond to the city of Pontiac.  Eventually Detroiters would differentiate themselves as “Eastsiders” or “Westsiders” based on where they lived in relationship to Woodward Avenue. The city was already growing along the transversing line of Michigan Avenue, in addition to 3 more transversing roads added to the plan – Grand River Avenue (to the northwest), Gratiot Avenue (to the northeast), and Fort Street (to the southwest).

In 2004, the City of Detroit designed a new park in the heart of downtown and named it Campus Martius Park at the intersection of Woodward and Michigan Avenues, formerly known as Kennedy Square during my childhood.  I wondered where the city came up with such an unusual name; little did I know that “Campus Martius” has a long history with Detroit. The name Campus Martius means “Field of Mars” in Latin in reference to where Roman heroes walked.  In the 1780s, Campus Martius in Detroit was a drill ground for militia training.  Judge Woodward not only included this area in his plan for Detroit, he used this area as the “point of origin” for the city’s coordinate system.  Today you will find a medallion in the new park embedded in the stone walkway marking this point located in the western point of the diamond surrounding the Woodward Fountain, just in front of the park’s concession building.  Standing on this marker, you are exactly eight miles south of Eight Mile Road. Today’s Campus Martius Park is much smaller than the park that existed in 1890, but today as in my great-grandparents day, it is a place where Metro-Detroiters of all economic backgrounds can gather and enjoy the outdoors.

CampusMartiusDetroit

CampusMartiusDetroit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most significant tribute of the State of Michigan to the Civil War is still located at Campus Martius Park, the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, as it was when my great-grandparents arrived. The monument was designed by Randolph Rogers, cost $75,000 to build, and was unveiled on April 9, 1872 (although it was incomplete – missing the statutes on the second-tier, which were added later in the 1880s).  Inside this monument is a time capsule with a list containing all Michiganders who died in war from the Civil War to April 2005 in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bagley Memorial Fountain in Detroit MI

Bagley Memorial Fountain in Detroit MI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Located just east of Campus Martius Park is Cadillac Square Park.  When I was growing up in Detroit this area was a large bus transfer station.  But in 2007, the city developed this park on the site of the old Detroit’s Farmer’s Market – a site my great-grandfather, Arie Smouter may have known quite well.  Like many of the Dutch immigrants in Detroit, Arie and his brother-in-law, Peter Streefkerk, were fruit peddlers at the turn of the century, and they likely sold their produce there. Today the park is also home to another Detroit landmark, the Bagley Memorial Fountain.  Originally located at Woodward Avenue and Fort Street, the fountain was moved to Campus Martius Park where it remained until 2000, when it was briefly placed in storage.  The fountain was commissioned after the death of John J. Bagley, the 16th governor of Michigan (1873 – 1877), Detroit alderman (1860 – 1861) and Detroit Police Commissioner (1865 -1872) in accordance with his will.  It was originally designed so that the people of Detroit could enjoy cold water distributed via the four lion heads in the center of the fountain.  The lion fountainhead you see today is actually a replica, as the original one was stolen.

 A recent visit by a fourth cousin disclosed another landmark from the 1800s.  Armed with photographs of her relatives from the early 1900s that were taken in Detroit that she hoped to deduce exactly where they were taken, I was puzzled by one.  For some unknown reason I was knew that the picture of a female relative standing near a monument looked oddly familiar.  The top of the monument was not in the picture, but there were two distinctive cannons on the base of the monument.  Quite by accident, while doing research at the Burton Collection in the Detroit Main Public Library looking for an article on microfilm, another article caught my attention.  Written about 1919 in the Detroit Free Press was an article on some of Detroit’s historic monuments, and one of the photos caught my eye – there were those 2 cannons.  Turns out it is the Macomb Statute, erected in 1908 to honor Major General Alexander Macomb, who was born in Detroit on April 3, 1872.  The monument is located across from the Book Cadillac Hotel at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Washington Boulevard.  I used to pass it when I drove home to Dearborn from my job in the Renaissance Center without every knowing its significance.

Before I was married, I briefly lived in St. Clair Shores.  My public accounting job found me briefly downtown and to avoid the traffic jam on the freeways going to and from work, I would take Jefferson Avenue (I lived a block from it) all the way to downtown.  Along Jefferson Avenue, I would pass a huge stone monument on the waterfront just before the bridge to Belle Isle.  Recently I recognized the monument from a photo in a history book on Detroit.  It is the Hurlbut Memorial Gate.  Built in 1894, at a cost of $30,000, it was once the entrance to Waterworks Park; by the end of the 1800s Waterworks Park had become the second most utilized park in Detroit.  The park was first and foremost the site of the pumping station for the city’s water system in the 1870s, having replaced the original waterworks at the foot of Orleans Street.  But the acquisition of the land and planning of the park presided over by Chauncey Hurlbut, then president of the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners, also included plans to use the 110-acre site as a public park. Following Hurlbut’s death in 1885, his will provided for approximately $250,000 to beautify Waterworks Park.  The gate was substantially restored in 2007 thanks to a community fund-raising drive initiated by Tom Schoenith, owner of the Roostertail.  However, the ornamental iron gate for vehicle entry and the statute of Chauncey Hurlbut are gone.  Today the closest you will get to the gate is a view through a cyclone fence marked “Do not trespass”.

If you have ever had a chance to visit Greenfield Village, an outdoor history museum in Dearborn, Michigan created by Henry Ford, then you have had a chance to view one other piece of architecture from Waterworks Park – the floral clock, now located just inside the entrance to the village.  I think we even have some family pictures taken in front of the 8-foot-high clock during one of the many trips to the village when my daughters, Erin and Kristine, were young.  The clock was invented by Elbridge Scribner, the first superintendent of grounds at Waterworks Park, and it was just one of his many floral designs that graced the grounds of the park. 

I wonder if my great-grandfather, Arie Smouter, ever took his family to Waterworks, as it was less than 2 miles from their house on Elmwood Street near Jefferson.  The park was also less than 1/2 mile from the first house my grandparents, Cornelius Reyst and Jennie Smouter Reyst, rented on Hibbard Avenue around 1914.  Located very close to the affluent subdivision, Indian Village, it appears the park attracted the well-to-do by the attire that the men and women were wearing in several old photos I found during my research.

So next time you visit Detroit, try to look beyond the blight of boarded up homes and over-grown vacant neighborhood lots and ghostly shells of relics, like the Michigan Central Railway Station and the Packard Plant, and you may see hints of Detroit’s historic past before they disappear.

Source: Wikipedia, The Detroit News (June 14, 2000), Images of America: Detroit 1860 – 1899

EASTER AND PEA SOUP

The first holiday that my great-grandparents and their families would celebrate in their new homes was Easter as it fell on April 6th in 1890, just 3 weeks after they arrived in the United States from the Netherlands.  Easter celebration at the turn of the nineteenth century was primarily religious in nature here in the United States as well as in the Netherlands.  For the Dutch immigrants, the focus would have been on church and family, and encompassed more than just Easter Sunday. 

Easter week, sometimes referred to as Holy Week, would begin with morning church service on Palm Sunday and may have included a tradition from their homeland – the making of Easter palms, known as palmpaasje. These Easter palms, which were carried by the children, were sticks formed into the shape of a cross, that were decorated with ribbons, strings of dried fruit (usually oranges, currants or raisins, and figs) and baked dough figures in the shape of swans or cockerels (called palmpasenbrood). On the Thursday evening preceding Easter Sunday, known as Maundy Thursday here in the United States, the family would attend church service together and partake in holy communion in remembrance of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. Most Protestant Reformed denominations held services on Thursday evening, in contrast to the Catholic churches which normally held special services on Good Friday afternoon. Since most businesses usually closed briefly on Good Friday, typically between 1PM and 3PM, so Christians could have time for reflection, my great-grandparents likely spent this time with family. Saturday would have been a busy day for my great-grandmothers preparing for Easter Sunday.  There was food shopping to be done, clothes to prepare for Sunday, eggs to decorate, and the baking of special Easter bread, Paasstol (a stollen bread stuffed with almond paste).

The climax of the week would be Easter Sunday (referred to as pasen – which is derived from the word pesach, the Hebrew name for Passover).  My grand uncles and aunts, then children, would have been delighted with the Easter morning treat of chocolate eggs and chocolate shaped bunnies, a rare treat.  The entire day for the families would have been dedicated to church and family.  In fact, Easter Sunday in the Dutch Reformed Church I grew up in was like a huge family reunion.  Even though on most Sunday mornings one would find nearly every row of pews at least partially occupied, on Easter Sunday the sanctuary would be literally filled to overflowing.  Every pew would be packed, and extra chairs were need in the overflow rooms next to the sanctuary to accommodate all who would attend that morning. Going to church on Easter morning was special compared to other Sunday mornings.  It was like a new beginning, and we all came dressed to prove it, despite our modest economic status, in our new spring Sunday best attire. 

After church, families would all gather at one relative’s home to enjoy dinner together and socialize for the remainder of the day.  For Easter dinner that first year in the United States, my great-grandmothers would probably have followed their Dutch tradition of serving lamb, which was considered symbolic of the death and resurrection of Jesus, instead of ham. But as years past the lamb would be replaced by ham, which was more readily available in the United States.  At the turn of the century, the United States was still primarily a farming nation, so pigs were usually slaughtered in the fall, cured over the winter months, and then ready for consumption in the spring, thus making ham the meat of choice for Easter Sunday dinner.

Although Easter falls in the early months of spring, the weather here in Michigan can be very unpredictable and it seems that Easter Sunday is often more cold and winter like than spring. The nights still remain quite cold even on those days when the sun shines and temperatures rise enough to discard our heavier winter coats.  So we still gravitate to our comfort foods for warmth to fend off the damp chill of Michigan’s spring.  One such food that my Dutch great-grandmothers would prepare that was a staple in their homeland was pea soup. If there was one thing that most Dutch immigrant women would salvage from their home in the Netherlands and bring to the United States if they could, it was a stock pot for making soups. I am not sure whether it was the Dutch or the German immigrants in Michigan that introduced this soup, but even today you will find it on many restaurant menus throughout the state during the winter months.

So once that Easter ham was stripped of most meat, the bone would be used by my great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mother to make one final pot of pea soup until winter returned later in the year.  As a child, I liked most vegetables, but never peas.  I detested the taste and texture of peas, especially canned peas which is all you could get in the winter months.  But a bowl of homemade pea soup…I could hardly wait for dinner.  This “stick to your ribs” kind of soup was considered a meal in itself in the Dutch household.  It was usually served with just cold cuts, cheeses, bread and crackers.

Since spring this year in Metro Detroit has seen mostly lower than average temperatures after having one early week of mid-summer like weather, I decided to take out that ham bone I threw in the freezer and indulge in one last pot of simmering pea soup on a cold and wet day in April in Michigan.  But unlike my grandfather, who wouldn’t eat his pea soup unless he actually saw the peas (my grandmother use to fool him and throw a handful of peas into the soup just before serving), I will make sure my pea soup is smooth and thick and doesn’t show a trace of those dreaded peas.

CONFIRMATION IN THE RCA

As my niece made her confirmation in her local Catholic parish this past weekend, it evoked memories of growing up as a teenager in Detroit at a time when we were all being asked to make a formal commitment to our local churches.  For most of my friends and classmates, eighth grade was a pivotal year, as the majority of them were practicing Catholics.  My very best friend since kindergarten was Lillian, an only child of second generation Italian-American parents.  So her confirmation was a very important event in her close-knit Italian family. I still remember the event to this day as I was the one and only non-Catholic, and probably non-Italian, guest at this climatic event.  It was also the first time I had ever attended a Catholic mass.

But even before that eventful day, there were special catechism classes that required her attendance every Sunday morning for approximately 2 months, since she attended public not Catholic parochial school.  On one of those Sundays I accompanied her to class at St. Raymond Catholic Church as her non-Catholic guest.  I remember the topic of the day: the seven sacraments, one of them being Confirmation, of the Catholic Church.  This was all very new to me as the Dutch in their Calvinistic churches only recognized 2 sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist (which we commonly just referred to as the celebration of the Last Supper of Christ). 

However, that does not imply that the Dutch Reformed Church did not recognize confirmation.  But hardly with such pomp and circumstance as I witnessed that spring day.  No special dress, although a newer Sunday best outfit was definitely appropriate for the occasion. No special official of the church, like the Bishop that attended Lillian’s confirmation ceremony.  And definitely no big family celebration that followed.  Remember I said Lillian was an only child in an Italian family (quite rare by Catholic standards in the 1960s).  I had never attended a celebration of such magnitude, with plenty of food, liquor, dancing and gift money flowing to honor this momentous occasion. The few family wedding receptions that I had attended were no match for this party.

Just like Lillian and my other Catholic classmates, I would be required to attend special classes before officially joining the church.  We also called these classes Catechism, and they were held on Sunday morning in place of the usual Sunday School lessons, which were centered around the teachings of the bible.  The Catechism classes would teach those prospective new church members the ins and outs of our Calvinistic faith – how the Reformed Church in America was structured, what our particular faith was based upon, (such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Apostles Creed,) how our church services were organized (the 3-part flow of approach, word and response), and the purpose of communion.  These particular classes were taught by our minister and church elders (in contrast to Sunday School classes which were taught by lay members of the church).  We were at times asked to explore the depth of our faith, but I quickly learned not to cross the line of inquiry too far.  Normally quite quiet and shy, I was beginning to emerge from that shell by 8th grade.  I believe I shocked a church elder during one class when I challenged whether his position on attending both the morning and evening services (for years the RCA conducted 2 services every Sunday, and before WWII there was even an afternoon service too) would make me a better Christian.  One thing you rarely did in the conservative Dutch church was rock the boat, and I sure did that on that particular Sunday morning. 

By replacing our normal routine of Sunday School for those eight weeks in late winter in junior high (I think it was when we were in the 9th grade and approximately 14 years old), the Reformed Church of America was taking the objective role of preparing its baptized  adolescent members for full participation as members of the church.  But unlike my Catholic friends, the actual act of public confession to such commitment was purely subjective, leaving my church classmates to decide when they wished to make that final step.  Upon completion of those special classes we could individually decide to move on to the next step, Confirmation (as we unofficially referred to it back in the 1960s).

At that time Confirmation in the RCA (the correct term was “The Profession of Faith”) was a 2-step process.  First you were required to privately confess your profession of faith to the church before a committee of church elders.  The elders would ask several questions of the candidate to determine if he/she was truly ready to make that lasting commitment to the church.  Once it was confirmed by the elders, then you would do so before the entire congregation at a specified Sunday morning service, seated in the front pew of your peers.  The day I made that formal commitment only 3 of us stood before the congregation from that catechism class of approximately 12 youths.  Eventually most of us would make that commitment before graduation from high school.  Confirmation was our ticket to finally partake in the Eucharist.

What those catechism classes failed to mention was what had recently transposed in the General Synod of the RCA on the process of accepting members to partake in the Eucharist.  When my father, his siblings, my grandparents, and grand aunts and uncles grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church there was no such ceremony, although the stage had been set for the idea of confirmation with the passage of the 1906 Liturgy “The Office for the Reception into Full Communion of Those Who Have Been Baptized in Infancy” by the General Synod.  This position by the RCA did not change until just before I undertook those catechism classes with the passage of the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order (The Order for Admission to the Lord’s Table) which laid the foundation for the process I went through in adolescence.  In 1990 this process came under scrutiny by the General Synod as it contradicted the very foundation of our faith the Belgic Confession, the official doctrine of the RCA,  and teachings of the Reformist, Calvin.  Confirmation was never intended to be a liturgy of the Dutch Reformed Church.  Remember I mentioned that the RCA only recognizes 2 sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist.  No historical records indicated any interim ceremony required to pass from infancy baptism to partaking in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  As one church scholar put it in a paper addressing this profound contradiction,  “confirmation is a ceremony looking for a theology.”  At about this same time in the church’s history, the right to partake in communion by children was being challenged by parents in the church. 

Today, confirmation remains a liturgy in many RCA congregations, but the process and significance has changed to bring the concept of profession of faith by those baptized at infancy into the church in line with the doctrines of the church, and is no longer a precursor to the one’s participation in communion.  So as times change so has the RCA.