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Photo: Polet family
Tom Polet
Photo by Polet family

One day in autumn 1954, Tom Polet received a phone call from a farmer in Manitoba. Polet was an employee with the Christian Reformed Church in North America who was tasked with helping new immigrants settle in Canada. The farmer had a complaint about a young immigrant couple from the Netherlands that Polet had connected him with a few months earlier.

On the phone, the farmer explained that he was concerned about the behavior of the young wife. As part of the arrangement to sponsor this immigrant family, the farmer had been promised that the young woman would assist his wife, who suffered from severe arthritis. She wasn’t living up to this deal.

When Polet arrived, the farmer explained, “You know my wife’s condition, and she needs help desperately, but this way she is also burdened with worries about Tine (not her real name). We suggested that she see a doctor, but she refuses. Will you . . . see what you can do?”

In the process of digging into this situation, the fieldman came across something truly unexpected.

“Several times I had to deal with issues of employer/employee relationships, which often [involved] a misunderstanding because of language difficulties. However, this one, I found, was a new experience for me.”

Sharing the Memories

This story is contained in Polet’s personal papers, which his son, Mark, compiled after his father died last October at age 89. As a way to honor the memory of his father, Mark Polet shared some of the material so that CRC News could offer a glimpse of his father, who may have been one of the last surviving “fieldmen” of the Christian Reformed Church.

Active from 1946 until the mid 1950s, fieldmen such as Polet played an important part in welcoming new immigrants to Canada. Many of these immigrants arrived from the Netherlands, and the 30 or so fieldmen supported them in their transition and connected them to various churches — especially Christian Reformed Church congregations. In fact, as a result of immigration, the CRC boomed in Canada from about 15 congregations before World War II to nearly 200 by 1961.

“While my family did not require the services of a fieldman (my dad was a pastor duly called by an existing congregation), it is clear how incredibly important those folks were for the Dutch immigrants of Reformed background,” said Robert De Moor, former editor of The Banner, who is now serving as an interim pastor in Agassiz, B.C.

“Folks like Herman Wieringa in Alberta, Tom Polet, and others worked long, hard, and sacrificially, meeting penniless immigrants at train stations and getting them set up in their new surroundings,” said De Moor.

“They worked tirelessly and patiently, helping the new arrivals with the challenges of a new language, culture, and ways of doing life.”

Facing Challenges

One of the difficulties for Tom Polet was getting to the bottom of why Tine was unable to live up to her part of the bargain to care for the Manitoba farmer’s wife.

When he stepped into Tine’s house, the fieldman saw her stretched on the couch, unwashed dishes piled in the sink, and a stack of dirty clothes in the hallway.

“Everything looked uncared for. It hit me like [this was] a place where misery was soaked into the walls,” recalled Polet, whose territory as a fieldman covered Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and northwest Ontario.

Polet was born in 1928 in Stiens, the Netherlands. His father, Meindert Polet, was a business owner and active in the Dutch resistance against Germany during World War II. Tom was an avid student and musician from an early age, and he never lost his love of music. He was fluent in three languages. Entries in his diary and in other documents reflect a lively intelligence and an ability to use his mind to accomplish things.

But that day in the house in Manitoba, Tom Polet was baffled by Tine’s behavior. She and her husband had been welcomed to a new home, a new life with many opportunities in front of them.

Over coffee, Tine told Polet in Dutch, the only language she knew, that she had no idea what was bothering her. Maybe, said the 18-year-old, she was homesick, and she started crying.

Polet couldn’t accept that being homesick caused all of her problems. Then, as he looked into her eyes, something dawned on him, and he asked if she was expecting a baby. She blushed and said she wasn’t.

Thinking she was maybe too young and inexperienced to realize the truth, Polet quickly made arrangements and took her, under protest, to the local doctor. It didn’t take long for the physician to confirm that Tine was pregnant.

On the way back to the farm, Tine was still morose and saying she couldn’t be pregnant. But it was a different story with Henk, her 21-year-old husband.

When Polet told him the news, Henk wasn’t sure what to think at first. But then it all seemed to make sense to him, and Henk suddenly lifted her off the ground, kissed her, and then “steered her . . . to the woodpile, where he put the axe in her hand and told her to start splitting.”

Polet was worried that splitting wood might be too much. But when he returned a month later, “she was radiant as the rising sun, and her homesickness had disappeared,” he recorded in his notes.

Reaching Out to New Arrivals

The position of “fieldman” was created intentionally by the denomination as a Reformed response to immigration. In 1946 the synod of the Christian Reformed Church appointed an Immigration Committee for Canada to provide information, guidance, and spiritual support to Dutch immigrants considering moving to Canada through a program sponsored by both the Canadian and Dutch governments. Christian Reformed Home Missions was closely involved in this program that included pastor and lay leaders such as Polet.

In this venture, the CRC was particularly interested in assisting immigrants coming from the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN), a sister denomination of the CRC.

Of the nearly 150,000 immigrants to Canada after World War II, about 13 percent were members of the GKN.

As for Polet, he immigrated to Canada in 1949 with his family. Starting off as a worker in sugar beet fields, he soon moved along to Winnipeg, Man., where he eventually became an immigration fieldman -- a job for which he felt unqualified, he writes, and which kept him up at night, but was nonetheless a job to which he believed God had called him.

In his diary Polet also writes of encouraging an immigrant to learn how to read. The man, who had found work in a lumberyard, took English classes but couldn’t catch on. Polet told him to read the local newspaper every day, to mark words he didn’t understand, and to look them up in the dictionary.

“Within a year, he was speaking English, and I got him a job in the horticulture department at the University of Manitoba. A few years later he was a lecturer in the department.”

Addressing the Problems

Polet also recalls in his diary the long drives he made through bitter Manitoba winters to get to small towns where he would sit in the local bowling alley and talk with people until a group gathered and he could try to enlist a few to sponsor new arrivals from the Netherlands.

On other trips he witnessed some of the struggles that immigrants faced.  One time, for example, he stopped to visit at a farm and saw that the immigrants he had helped settle there earlier were living “in bunkhouses with leaky roofs and no insulation. The [bunkhouses] were nailed together right next to the wealthy farmer’s [home].”

At other times, Polet came across other places where immigrants “were living in old army barracks with earthen floors, sagging windows, separated boards of siding, and asphalt-papered roofs.”

He soon became involved with Canadian government immigration officials and other church representatives to help create more oversight of and better regulations for immigrant housing.

Returning Home

In 1956, the board of the Immigration Society in Winnipeg, in cooperation with the immigration associations in Brandon and Transcona, decided to publish a booklet in Dutch that would give prospective immigrants a view of where they could be going and what awaited them in the province of Manitoba.

They asked Polet to write it. Among his observations in the booklet, he wrote, “No one will deny that information about immigration is not only important and necessary, but also extremely difficult.

“And this certainly applies to Canada, a country so vast and with such a wide variety of aspects. I experience this time and time again in my work as a fieldman.”

Polet took the booklet with him when he traveled in the fall of 1956 to the Netherlands. Accompanied by his wife, Joyce, and son, Mark, he crisscrossed the country, giving presentations and interviewing people who might be interested in moving to Canada.

Over a five-month period, he wrote, “I spoke at 82 public gatherings and interviewed over 3,000 people. The booklet helped me very much in promoting Manitoba.”

When he was in the Netherlands, Polet was interviewed on the radio. He was featured in newspapers, met politicians and dignitaries, and had many other experiences.

In his diary, he relates how in one Netherlands town he met a wealthy man who invited him to his home after Polet spoke at a gathering. The man’s home “was dripping with wealth.”

At one point in the conversation, it became evident to Polet that he knew the man’s sister, who had run away many years before with a farmhand and had settled in Canada.

The man made it clear that he was still hurt that his sister, who came from upper-crust society, left the way she did -- with a common laborer.

As he listened, Polet grew angry and finally, unable to keep quiet, defended the sister, saying that “she was a wonderful woman of outstanding character, a loving mother who, even in the 1930s when they were dirt poor, would feed the hungry.”

When he finished, Polet felt bad for his outburst and immediately apologized. But the man grabbed his hand and said, “No apology needed. I deserved that.”

Changing Careers

Polet continued to work as a fieldman for a time after he returned from the Netherlands. When it became clear that the tide of immigrants was starting to slow, he decided to look for other work, allowing him to stay home with his family.

At first he thought of studying law, but ultimately he decided to join an insurance agency in Calgary, Alta., where his involvement with the CRC continued, serving on boards and becoming deeply involved with Christian education.

Polet also stayed connected to Calgary’s Immigrant Aid Society, a service that had begun in the late 1960s and offered a range of services to help settle immigrants, many of whom were increasingly arriving from Southeast Asia or South America. Another cause dear to his heart was the Shalem Society for Seniors, a complex of self-contained apartments.

Summing up the work of a fieldman in a speech he gave when he was in the Netherlands, Polet said there is a strength that served as a foundation for people leaving one country for another.

“When we, Christians, immigrate, we do not do that in our own strength. We are praying for this great and weighty step, which is simply immigration. And the very first questions will therefore be: ‘How does the church work?’ ‘Can we also serve God in the new and unknown land, just as we are used to here in the Netherlands?’”

To be sure, Polet served God and his country, said Rev. Don Draayer, pastor of Covenant CRC in Winnipeg, where Polet moved later in life with his wife. His first wife, Joyce, had died, and Sarah, his new spouse, had lost her husband.

“Tom was a person whose love for life, his wife, his family, his church, and his God never needed to be doubted,” said Draayer.

Polet and Sarah were able to blend their two families in a way in which all of the children were loved and cherished, said the pastor.

“Tom had the unique ability to listen well and then to hold others’ attention as he retold stories of significance in his life. He spoke carefully, not wanting to waste words.”

He had learned to play the organ as a young man and continued to lead congregations in song for many years. A men's breakfast group that he was a part of in his last years often sang together, and Tom played the piano for them.

“But underneath this dedication to his family and to the worshiping community of faith was his devotion to his Lord,” said Draayer. “An essential part of the work [Polet did as a fieldman] was in striving to have immigrants become part of a Christian Reformed church or at least part of some church. He loved the Christian Reformed Church, and he loved the whole of God's church.”