Book cover

December 29, 2014
LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Connie Gerwing stood at the front during her book launch Dec. 12 at the Dickensfield Long Term Care Centre.

Holding her just-published book about her cousin Al, a long-time advocate for street children in Brazil, she said, "Alphonse wrote almost all of this. I just filled in the spaces."

By filling in the spaces, she meant talking to friends and family, sifting through Al Gerwing's letters, newspaper columns, family history and weaving the information around Al's memories.

The book, No Ordinary Man: The Memoirs of Alphonse Gerwing (McNally-Robinson Books), is an unexpected work.

Indeed it does tell of Alphonse's farm life in Lake Lenore, Sask., and Baker, Neb. But it is also enriched by this man's observation of his total surroundings – the farmland, the flowers springing up from the roadside, the lives of the farm folk around him, life in the depression and the slums of Brazil.

Tinges of a struggle going on within him are woven into the book. "My years of adolescence were mostly one long torment. I seemed to fit nowhere and I was clumsy with machinery."

High school was just a repeat of that not-fitting-in feeling. But it was after his move to Normal School in Moose Jaw when Al came into his own. Life in a boarding house provided many eye-opening experiences for the farm boy.

The memoirs of Al Gerwing (1923-2007) are rich with humour and wit as well as full of astute observations of the evolving society around him.

Borrowing money from his father, Al enrolled in St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, earning his arts and education degrees. Teaching followed.

He taught in one-room schools in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The vignettes from that period are both hilarious and heartbreaking. But Al struggled through, enriching his life with piano lessons. And he sang.

Connie comments, "Wherever Al went he made life-long friends."

Another step in his life: In 1962, Al was invested as a novice of St. Benedict at St. Peter's Abbey in Muenster. Even though he remained there 20 years, he never took final vows.

Pope John XXIII affected Al's life when he asked parishes to send some of their clergy and religious as missionaries to Latin America.

Connie Gerwin, reads from her book No Ordinary Man at the Dec. 12 Edmonton book launch.

WCR PHOTO | LASHA MORNINGSTAR

Connie Gerwin, reads from her book No Ordinary Man at the Dec. 12 Edmonton book launch.

Al offered to teach for free room and board, thereby freeing up a priest to go to Latin America. He took the name of the saint he admired the most St. Thomas More – and was nicknamed Bro T by his students.

"Al's evolution from traditional Catholicism to liberation theology began at St. Peter's," wrote Connie.

STUNNED BY THE SLUMS

When he and his Grade 7 class made a topographical map of Brazil, he fell in love with the country. He visited there in 1979 and was stunned by the slums. He stayed, becoming involved in the resistance of the poor to landowners' abuse. He even wrote a song about the landless – the Lament of the Displaced Peasants.

By now it's 1989 and Al found himself struggling with the plight of the impoverished street kids.

Fundanor, a home for abandoned children, became a focus for Al and he sent begging letters back home. Included were stories told in first person by the throwaway children. Their horrific reality is assuaged by the impact Fundanor had on their lives.

One is not surprised to know that Al gave most of his money to his projects. He even wore second-hand underpants. By now, aware of the criminals, Al was cagey enough to sew any donations he got to the side of his underwear. He believed that if he were robbed, "They would have the decency to leave me my shorts."

His letters to his relatives prompted CBC to do a story in its Rough Cuts series called Letters from Brazil. Word of his humanitarian work spread and in 1989 Al was awarded the Order of Canada.

Finally in 1995, Al retired to his ancestral home. He now had time to visit Germany and was never shy about asking for donations for his beloved projects in Brazil.

LIVING WITH ERITREANS

Another major change came when Al sponsored an Eritrean family. They stayed a year, a year that allowed them to learn English, get established in school and become accustomed to the Canadian way of life. Al's recounting of that time is both hilarious and thoughtful.

Seven of the 214 pages in the book are devoted to The Last Days.

In August 2007, wracked with digestive pain, Al went into the University Hospital at Saskatoon. He had cancer spots on his liver.

True to his nature, he spent his remaining time writing letters to his friends scattered all over the globe.

On the last day of his life, Nov. 9, 2007, relatives gathered around his bed and sang the German songs familiar to him in his youth.

"He left this world a man much loved, a life well lived," wrote Connie.

The family and friends honoured this beloved man by carrying on his work. They created the Alphonse Gerwing Foundation that funds projects that continue Al's work with the poor, children and education.

Connie, in fact, is giving any profits from the book to the foundation.

TWO BUMPS IN LIFE

In a quick chat after her reading, Connie said there had really been only two bumps in the family over Al's life.

One was that some relatives thought he should return his Order of Canada when Dr. Henry Morgentaler also received one. (He didn't.)

The others were shocked when the priest officiating at Al's funeral kept a promise he had made to Al. He told the assembled mourners that Al was homosexual and had known that that was his sexual orientation since his teens.

Connie is hesitant as she tells the reporter this. "I don't know if that should have been said then, but that was what he wanted."