A Pastor’s Wife: Her Son’s Tribute

by David C. Bjorkquist

My mother was born on July 10, 1905 in the log house on the farm homesteaded by her father, Gust Augustson. She was named Anna Marie after her mother Sophie’s sister. Her father had come to Minnesota a few years earlier from a rented farm near Edinburg, North Dakota to establish a claim to farmland south of Warroad, which is located on Lake of the Woods bordering Canada. Both her mother’s and father’s families emigrated from Sweden to the Red River Valley in eastern North Dakota and had lived and married there. Her three brothers, Gottfrid, Reuel, and Ansgar, and sister Ellen were born in North Dakota before moving to the new farm.

People standing in front of a wood house

From left to right: Ellen, Ansgar, Reuel, Gottfrid, Sophie, Anna, and Gust. Auguston family photo.

Homesteading a wooded quarter section of land in Minnesota fulfilled much of her father’s dream of independence and land ownership. The early years on the homestead were filled with the arduous work of cutting trees and pulling stumps. My uncles, who lived out their lives on the farm, expected that the supply of firewood would never be exhausted.

Mother remembered that her own mother was not well much of the time and she died when Mother was eight. This happened just before Christmas and Aunt Anna Marie came from her North Dakota farm home to be with the family. Train travel required that she go to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and then to Warroad. She was a strong woman who was determined to help the family of her only sister.

Though Mother was not yet a teenager, she was expected to step in and help with many of the household chores. Her sister, Ellen, who eventually was placed in a Minnesota state insane asylum because she had epilepsy, was sickly and not able to assume many of the duties in the kitchen and elsewhere in the house. It seems that Mother took on household responsibilities willingly. She wrote in her diary about the excitement of having the thrashing crew come to the farm. That meant providing meals for several hungry farmers who were there to help with the harvest. It also meant that other women would come to help.

More of her preparation for adult life was evident in stories she told about events on the farm. Once a wolf pack came into the farmyard and lured away the dog, never to be seen again. One spring when the water was high, a neighbor brought their cows over on a raft to the higher ground of the Augustson farmyard to get them out of the water and mud. The peat soil of the farm could burn. Because there were many trees to be cleared to create fields for cultivation, a lot of brush was burned and sometimes the soil was ignited. Some fires smoldered and renewed with the wind. The flare-up of a fire could come quickly and was enough to get the men of the family out to move hay stacks. Fires that burned their way underground in the fall could leave springtime cavities into which a horse could stumble.

There was also the beauty of walking across the pasture in the spring and seeing the cowslips with their bright yellow blossoms. Magpies, goldfinches, swallows, and robins nested in the barn and nearby trees. She especially enjoyed what nature had to offer, did not flinch from hardship, and was rarely intimidated.

During her senior year at Warroad High School, Mother enrolled in a teacher preparation course. This was followed by a year on the campus at the Normal School in Bemidji, now Bemidji State University. Her oldest brother Gottfrid signed her normal school application because her father had recently died. Her written promise to teach for at least two years in exchange for the tuition-free education she had received was on her transcript of completion. She returned home and taught in the Bloom country school where she herself had been a student.

My dad, Herbert Bjorkquist, came to Zion Lutheran Church in Warroad from Augustana Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois in 1924. Mother was a member of Zion congregation and she and Dad probably were attracted to each other soon after his arrival. The parsonage where Dad lived was in Warroad. In addition to Zion he also served smaller congregations and some families on farms and the lake to the east of Warroad for about 40 miles along Minnesota Highway 11.

My parents were married in 1926 soon after Mother had reached the age of 21 and had completed her two-year teaching obligation. At that same time Dad accepted a call to Grace Lutheran Church in Mora, Minnesota with a second congregation in Henriette. They now moved away from my mother’s home, family, and familiar surroundings. But, she was dedicated to my dad and willing to accept the responsibilities that went with her new role as pastor’s wife. She now had to be more than just a member of the Ladies’ Aid and Women’s Missionary Society in Mora. Her ability to make friends quickly was an advantage.

Portrait of Anna and Herbert Bjorkquist.

Anna and Herbert Bjorkquist

The Great Depression became an economic and social crisis during the Mora years. My grandfather, Carl Bjorkquist, who had been a successful building contractor in Moorhead and surrounding area and had constructed several churches as well as other buildings, lost his business, house, and most of his possessions. He still had a harness racing horse and tried to support himself by racing at county fairs. Dad found him at a fairground where he had bedded down in the stable with his horse, Topsy. Arrangements were made for the care of the horse, and Grandpa came to live with us in Mora. It did seem that Grandpa filled a gap left for Mother by the death of her own father. Grandpa Bjorkquist was a kind and gentle person who was an avid flower gardener, especially of gladiolas. He also served as church custodian. I was born while he lived with us in Mora. He read to me in English and Swedish and we were walking partners when I became able. To be like Grandpa I too had a cane.

In 1935 the Grace congregation was forced to cut Dad’s salary in half. Even with a parsonage to live in $50 per month was not enough to pay the bills. As a result, we moved to Munising, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The call was to serve Eden Lutheran Church in Munising and Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Newberry. These two congregations were similar in size but located in towns 60 miles apart. This required that Dad spend a portion of each week in Newberry while we lived in Munising. This left Mother to head the household with Grandpa, baby sister Joanne, and me at home while Father was away. Again, she accepted her expanded role during difficult times.

The impact of the depression gradually faded but was replaced by the trauma of World War II. Blue-star flags hung in the windows of many congregation homes where family members were serving in military service. Anxiety levels were high as sons, husbands, and fathers left home. Messages from those serving, especially in war zones, were slow to reach loved ones and often were censored. Some weddings were held in the parsonage living room for soldiers on leave and their fiancées. Mother and Mrs. Parker from next door were witnesses to several of these marriages.

It was expected that guests of the Eden congregation would stay in the parsonage. When a foreign missionary was in the United States during a furlough and visiting supporting congregations, that person would stay with us. One of the bedrooms had to become the guest room and meals were prepared and served. Often the missionary would be known to Dad. This made it easier for Mother, but she still felt that she had to be the gracious hostess. Fortunately, she was an exceptional cook and could make a banquet out of even simple food. It was exciting for me as a child to have a missionary in the house and to hear about experiences in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.

Mother was the Eden Lutheran choir director. She had received some music education at Bemidji and was a singer but largely self-taught. She subscribed to Étude magazine and practiced piano playing to improve her abilities. She often sang as she played and the feeling she had for the music would make me cry as I listened. She sang throughout her life and lamented much later that she was asked to sing only at funerals and in Swedish.

Shortly after the end of WWII in 1945 we moved to a two-congregation country parish in Pocahontas County, Iowa. The parsonage was at Elfsborg Lutheran Church and the second church, Trinity Lutheran, was only six miles away. Again, Mother became the choir director at Elfsborg where she had an accomplished organist and the best voices she had ever directed. The choir at Trinity, which she did not direct, was smaller and equally talented. Concerts by the joint choirs, which she directed, were musical highlights.

The rural parish in Pocahontas County allowed Mother to return to some of her country roots. She could easily relate to the parishioners there. Their farms had more fertile soil and longer growing seasons than the farm she knew best, but she enjoyed seeing the productivity of surrounding farms. There often were gifts of beef and pork brought to the parsonage at butchering time. She was my support when I decided I wanted to have a flock of chickens. If a stray cat showed up, she would put out a bowl of milk. Within a week or two there would be a new litter of kittens in the barn.

The last call of my father’s career was to Nyman Lutheran Church, another rural congregation south of Red Oak, Iowa. Mother now was a grandmother. My sister, her husband Norman, and three sons, lived in Red Oak. My wife Eleanor and I and our three daughters and two sons always lived farther away. Grandma doted over all these grandchildren as she was moving into a different role with Dad.

Dad retired at age 70 and my parents bought a house in Red Oak just a few blocks from my sister. At last Mother was able to have a house of her own rather than a parsonage. She had the kitchen remodeled and made modifications in the house so there would be places for all of us when we came to visit.

After retirement and in the last twenty years of Dad’s life it was noticeable that his memory was not as clear as it had been. When he told his stories to the kids they often had to finish them for him. Mother was coaching him in things that she saw as important, like the names of our children he did not see very often. After Mother died, a few months before him, we saw how he was living in a world that existed largely in his mind. His mother and his wife often were one person. He talked about his experiences in Sweden, where he had never been. He did not comprehend that Mother was gone. When we visited him in a nursing home he would tell us that Anna would be fixing coffee.

Shortly before she died, Mother had made a quick walking trip downtown for some essentials. She told Dad to lay on the couch until she returned. In her rush to get back home she tripped on a broken sidewalk, fell, and broke an elbow and knee. She was taken to a hospital in Omaha and then to a nursing home. She was never able to return home. When he learned of the accident my brother-in-law went to the house where Dad was still waiting on the couch. Mother was left with limited mobility and spent much of her remaining time in bed. One afternoon as she was to be taken from her bed to the dining room for supper she just faded away.

After the accident she knew that she was unable to care for Dad. Though this bothered her, she had learned long ago to accept life as it was experienced. This was true in her early life, through the several congregations where she served, and it was the way her life ended. She had accepted the call to be a pastor’s wife as a young woman and had fulfilled it joyfully.