Jim Gerwing

Sep 2016

James Bay Gems

By Liz Carroll

Carver, cartoonist, writer, blogger, Beacon favourite, Jim Gerwing has crammed a lot of living into his 84 years. A product of sand-blown, crop-killing, dirty thirties Saskatchewan he says: "We had nothing. And we had everything."

“Everything” was fun-loving father Peter, nurturing mother Rose (each a child of homesteaders who knew a thing or three about hardship); six siblings; countless cousins; so many relatives – the town of Lake Lenore was jokingly deemed Gerwingsville. "I liked my life, my parents, my siblings, myself."

It was a busy life: farm chores, sports, singing, carving. He smilingly recalls "warm bread fresh from the oven with butter, or jam, never both".

He began carving as soon as he could ply a jackknife. "We made our own toys from wood scraps." An older, blind neighbour showed him the artistic value of using all his senses when carving. "Every piece of wood has a distinctive scent, feel, sound. If you sandpaper against the grain it squeals ‘no, no, no’." He learned to value silence, too, a requisite for creating his lifelike or abstract works.

With big brother Danny he sang cowboy songs at school concerts. (Years later they would be chanters together.)

He was eleven when his affable, wise father suffered a fatal heart attack. The boy was left with an ache that has never healed. His mother was left to raise seven children on a meagre income. She did it well. "To this day each of us is convinced that we were her favourite," laughs Jim who even came to appreciate her mandatory knitting, sewing and darning lessons.

He became an altar boy. Father Francis taught him the rituals and arranged a five year scholarship to prestigious St Peter's College, the route to becoming a Benedictine monk.

Jim was fourteen when the life he loved, the contented sense of belonging, ceased. He became a boarding student at St Peter's in Muenster. "I never again spent more than a few weeks at a time at home with my family."

Danny had enrolled a year earlier. That was a plus. So was encountering "running water and flush toilets for the first time!"

Constant activity did not diminish his strong doubts about his 'calling'. During his first year as a novice he wanted to leave. The Abbott vehemently discouraged that "selfish" idea. Jim gave in (a decision he would regret).

He was sent down to St John's in Collegeville, Minnesota, a big monastery with first-class professors, where he earned a degree in philosophy, studied theology, Latin, Greek and was part of one of the best Gregorian Chant choirs in America. The monks encouraged him to share his artistic gifts; writing, drawing, carving. After six years it was back to St Peter's. The abbott ordered him to cease such prideful, frivolous pursuits, to be more humble and obedient. Blind obedience did not come easy. Discontent festered. He persevered.

In 1958, 26 year old Jim Gerwing was ordained to the priesthood at Muenster Cathedral. His brother Danny, already a priest, assisted at his first celebration of Mass.

As Father Anselm he was Chief Disciplinarian of 100 boarding students when he was asked to coach basketball. "I'd never played the game so I read up on it. In my three years as coach our Golden Knights picked up two provincial championships."

In 1960 he was offered a position teaching history. That meant two years at University of Saskatchewan and Marquette University in Milwaukee for a Masters degree. He played hockey for the St Thomas More intramural team.

Back at St Peter's, teaching history, his inner turmoil was at its peak. He struggled with the decision to leave the priesthood. Anxious to improve the school, he suggested adding an artistic component. He was sent to the Banff School of Fine Arts to investigate.

Life, fate, karma, God, whatever, intervened when Ruth Whitney, an intelligent, thoughtful artist, the divorced mother of pre-teen Theresa, came into his life. After twenty-two years attached to St Peter's, Father Anselm would become Jim Gerwing family man. He was 36.

There was a year of introspection, discussion. Ruth had misgivings. She did not want to be the 'other woman' competing with the Church. Reassured, she married Jim in Seattle in July, 1968. Their new life began in Alberta. Ruth gained artistic recognition. Jim taught and worked on community projects. Daughter Jennifer was born. They were involved in intercultural affairs. Jim's extensive contribution was rewarded with a rarely bestowed Eagle Coup Feather, still one of his most prized possessions.

His work brought them to Victoria in 1981. He became principal at St. Andrew's Regional High School. They moved on to Bellingham and his "happiest, most rewarding experience as a teacher at Sacred Heart Parish”. Both daughters had married. Theresa is a chiropractor in California, Jennifer a researcher in Victoria.

In 1997 life began a downward spiral. Vascular dementia eroded Ruth's fine mind. Jim's ability to work full time was seriously curtailed. In 2000 Jennifer and her husband brought her parents to James Bay. Ruth died in October 2001 but the beloved artist had left long before her merciful release.

He became a volunteer, a prolific carver and added soapstone to his repertoire. Beacon readers know his cartoons, poetry and articles.

A mutual friend introduced Jim to Sharon Max. Shared lunches lead to a shared life, now in its fourteenth year.

A recent health glitch has slowed him down. But he’s turning wooden balls into exquisite ornaments and creating cartoons, prose and poetry on his blog Modus Videndi.

Jim Gerwing laughs. “I still like myself," says this real James Bay Gem.