As I was gazing upon some old, framed photos of ancestors on one of my bookshelves and quizzing myself on their names, whether they were the English or Norwegian branch, I noticed some volumes of autobiography near the photo of my great grandmother, Martha Christine (Gullicksen) Nelson. They were slim volumes, about 4” X 6”, hardbound dark blue, and titled Little Masterpieces of Autobiography. The first of four volumes was subtitled Greatest Americans and included Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Lincoln. The volume was edited by George Iles and first published in 1885, but this edition was dated 1925, published by Doubleday, Page and Company in New York. They were part of a collection given to me by my grandmother Helen Christine (Nelson) Martin (1896-1994).
The books renewed an interest to learn more about these Norwegians who came to Chicago from Telemark, Norway in 1871.
I have been thinking of including an American history theme in my next novel, and I realized I could use this slim volume of Great Americans as research as I explored my own immigrant roots in Chicago.
I had heard via family lore that one of these ancestors founded a furniture company in Chicago. I opened an old file where I had placed bits and pieces given to me over the years, notes and jottings penned by my grandmother Helen Christine and my great grandmother, Martha Christine. From these bits I learned that Martha Christine’s brother, Ole Gullicksen (1867-1948), founded the Churchill Cabinet Company in Chicago in 1904.
A quick online search revealed the company was still in business, refashioned to construct pinball cabinets when forced to compete with lower priced mass-produced furniture. The business, named after the original location (Churchill Street), had moved a few blocks southwest.
I can see why folks love to research genealogy. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and each piece added is a great discovery.
I soon learned that Ole became a successful entrepreneur, helping to fund the Norwegian American Hospital near Humboldt Park. I also learned sadly that the hospital is in the process of changing the name to Humboldt Park Health to better reflect the community – a sign of the times, the rebranding, the renaming, the cancelling and erasing.
There are those today who wish to erase our history, topple our great Americans, as if to reinvent our country and reform our union. But it is history, true history, that defines us as individuals and as nations.
Looking at these Norwegians that came before me enriches my life today. I know there are many other strands from other countries that wove together to make me me, and I marvel at God’s intricate and beautiful (if also mysterious) ways. These threads of life continue into the future, and I smiled when I saw that my grandson is attending a college not far from Churchill Street: Wheaton. When I saw Naperville nearby, I recognized it was the location of one of our APCK (Anglican Province of Christ the King) parishes, All Saints.
The glories of the past – and the inglorious – all affect the present and the future.
And so as we celebrated this morning the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the lessons reverberated with these themes of identity, who we are as Christians in this long journey through time. We travel the path of faith, reliving the journey God lived among us, beginning with Abraham and fulfilled in Christ. We travel with and within the Church through these celebrations each year. We live out the past in the present so that we can live in the future. We teach our children how to do this. We teach them to never forget who they were, are, and will be.
In this way my immigrant ancestors added to the stream of Christian witness. They taught us how to become Americans – through a common language, through hard work, through a strong family life, and through a devout faith.
I wish I had known them. With research, I will know a little more. But I will know them one day more than a little, one day in the Heavenly Jerusalem.