The “Calvin Seminary Dames” – Part I

The “Calvin Seminary Dames” – Part I

“In the month of October 1927, Mrs. C. Bouma entertained the ladies of the married men of the Calvin Seminary.” So reads the first sentence “in the “Record Book of Calvin Seminary Dames” (aka, the club’s minutes book). “At this gathering they spoke somewhat carelessly of forming a club. But the jesting was soon to culminate into a pleasant reality.” The jesting was real, I think, reflected in the playful, ironic name they gave themselves. But the club’s goals were earnest.

Mrs. C. Bouma (Tessie Luidens) was the spouse of Rev. Dr. Clarence Bouma. She was from Grand Rapids. He had graduated from the seminary in 1917 and gone on to earn graduate degrees at Princeton, Harvard, and the Free University in Amsterdam. He briefly pastored a church in Passaic, New Jersey, before he and Tessie returned Grand Rapids in 1924, where he would teach at the seminary.

In November 1927 the “ladies of the married men of the Calvin Seminary” met again. A baker’s dozen of them. They “entertained” the idea of organizing a club, deciding “to have discussions at our meeting of such topics as might later prove helpful in our station as wives, more especially as wives of ministers.”

“Record Book of Calvin Seminary Dames Club”

The wives of pastors are mostly missing from histories of the Christian Reformed Church. Indeed, their names often are not even mentioned, as Janet Sjaarda Sheeres notes in For Better For Worse: Stories of the Wives of Early Pastors of the Christian Reformed Church. The minutes from the fall of 1927 reflect this. “Mrs. C. Bouma” and the other dozen women did not record their own names. Typically, wives of seminary students and pastors left behind few records, or no one bothered to keep those records.

Nonetheless, by the early twentieth century pastor’s wives often were expected to be active in their churches, some of them serving as “unpaid adjuncts to their husband’s work,” Sheeres notes. Some came from middle class and elite homes and by the 1920s and 1930s a few not only had high school diplomas but college degrees. A few of those college graduates had stood out as excellent students at Calvin College. But unlike their husbands they had few career options, especially because they would be the wives of reverends. Some of these women came from blue collar and rural backgrounds, ill-equipped by social class and limited education to live up to the expectations of being the Dominee’s wife. Local expectations for pastors’ wives presumably varied, shaped among other things by whether the church was rural or working class, urban or prestigious. But there were always expectations.


My mother, Jean Visscher, was one of these women, blue collar and rural and a Calvin Seminary Dame. She was 23 when she arrived in Grand Rapids.

She had been raised on family farms. She immigrated with her family from the Netherlands to Canada in 1949 at the age of eight, quitting school at 14 to work at home on the farm. In September 1963, she moved to Grand Rapids to join her my father, Henry Katerberg. He was a student at Calvin College (and three years later at the Seminary). They married in December 1964. She studied at the Reformed Bible Institute (RBI) for a few years before they had children.

My parents (standing) at a wedding, 1962.

My mother lived with a local family in East Grand Rapids, serving as its cook and maid. She made breakfast and lunch for the family, eating by herself in the kitchen. “So that should give you an idea of what kind of people they are,” she wrote in a letter home a week or so after arriving. She also did the ironing “and some other small things to fill the necessary hours,” which included keeping an eye on the 13-year-old daughter. She had the third floor of the home to herself, with a bedroom, bathroom, and hallway. It was quiet, a bit too quiet sometimes, for an immigrant used to a large noisy family.

She was left with the dog one weekend, when the family went away for the last time that season (to the cottage presumably). In the first letter to her family back home in Canada, she was waiting for the results of tests she had written at RBI to determine which classes she would take. These tests were required of all students, like her, without high school diplomas. She was eager that night to write a second letter, one to her sister Alida. Alida lived in Picton, Ontario with her husband Reverend John Zantingh, at Bethany CRC in nearby Bloomfield, their first pastorate.

My mother’s younger sister, Thereasa, had arrived in Grand Rapids with her, and started at Calvin College that same month. She also boarded and worked for a local family, in the tony Ottawa Hills neighborhood southeast of the Calvin College and Seminary campus on nearby Franklin Street.

Despite English being her second language, and not having been in school for almost a decade, my mother loved it at RBI. “I enjoy every minute of school, classes and other activities,” she wrote to her father and family soon after school started in September. “All except the homework.” Ever the pragmatist, and by upbringing willing to work hard, she went on to say: “But since one doesn’t get anywhere without that, I do it whether I like it or not. This usually keeps me busy all afternoon till it’s time to start supper, and till ten or so at night. So you see I have not time to get into mischief.”

I imagine that the comment about busyness and mischief was meant to reassure their worried father, back in Canada, that his two daughters, away from home and family and living in a large city in a foreign country, were safe and being responsible. My mother’s life would only get busier in the coming years. By the time she was a Calvin Seminary Dame herself, in the late fall of 1966, she would be a mother of the first of her children, twin boys whose mischief would drive her and my father to distraction.

Part II continues the story of the Calvin Seminary Dames club and my mother’s part in that history.


William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University. The letter and photograph are from a larger collection of family history material gathered and digitized by Theresa Visscher De Haan. For more on my family’s story see a previous blogpost, “FAMILY, LAND, AND CHURCH – FOUNDING DRAYTON CRC.”

It was hard to find a photo of Calvin Seminary Dames. The cover image for this blogpost is of the graduating seminary class of 1935, taken at a reunion in 1975, with their spouses. Most of these reunion photos only include the “reverends,” not the “dames.”

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