Ken Thielemier, a native of Pocahontas, had spent years trying to untangle the mystery of his German roots. Since 2005, he has been on the trail of his great-grandparents, Bernhard and Anna Kleine Thielemier, who arrived in the U.S. in 1881.
“Bernhard Thielemier is the progenitor of more than 700 descendants in the United States,” Ken said. “There are so many of us around and yet we don’t even know where he is buried. I thought it’s a shame we don’t know more about him and his family. There had to be more to the story.”
The American chapter of the family story is well-documented. Bernhard and Anna settled in Corning, Ohio, where Bernhard worked, and in 1884 died, in a coal mine. The widowed Anna, three sons in tow, moved to Engelberg in 1885 at the urging of Father Eugene Weibel, a former Benedictine priest who established several Catholic parishes and schools in the northeast corner of the state. Once there, Anna met and married Joseph Brunner, who owned land on the Fourche River bottoms.
Such detailed information is thanks in large part to Ken Thielemier’s first cousin Sister Henrietta Hockle, OSB, who has been tending the story of the family tree for decades. Her work inspired Ken, who now lives in Memphis and is a member of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Cordova, Tenn., to tackle the family story prior to 1881, where, much like the coal mines into which Bernhard descended day after day, the story had yet to be hewn out of history and brought to the surface.
At one point, the trail had gone completely cold. Despite poring over page after Internet page of foreign phone books, immigrant registries and other resources, the name Thielemier simply vanished from public record. Undaunted, he continued to peck away, and either through fatigue or divine intervention, accidentally misspelled his last name as “Thielemeier.” New leads flooded the computer screen.
“I was elated,” Ken said.
By 2009, Ken was able to cobble together enough of the story to home in on St. Elisabeth Catholic Church in Sudhagen, Germany. He found a willing accomplice in Father Hans Jurgen Rade there, but the two were unable to establish a firm link between the European and American factions of the family.
Meanwhile, a family reunion of the Heinrich Herman Thielemeier family in Germany was being planned. Organizers had enlisted the assistance of a local genealogist to trace the Thielemeier family history and on that family tree, Bernhard’s name was penciled in with only the notations he had married Anna Kleine and emigrated. When Father Rade and the genealogist crosseds paths, they discovered the parties each was doing research for was the link the other was seeking — thousands of miles and two continents apart.
Ken and his sister, Bernadette, attended the March 20, 2010, family reunion of the Heinrich Herman Thielemeier family in Westenholz, Germany. The two Americans were introduced to 260 Thielemeier descendants and in so doing sowed the seeds for some of the German cousins to visit America.
“We used to have reunions every five to seven years,” Ken said of the American side of the family. “The last one was in 2007 and it was just too big to handle. There are so many of us there isn’t a hall big enough for us in town.”
However, with the discovery of the European cousins, people were eager to resuscitate the event and on July 29, 130 members of the Thielemier family gathered in Engelberg, including Sister Henrietta and six cousins from the family’s German homeland. Ken said he was struck by how little the American family members had in common with their German counterparts save for their name and their Catholic faith, shared at Mass in St. John Church; but that was enough.
“I feel like this experience made my whole life, to connect the generations” he said. “It was a lot of work and there’s still some things I’m trying to track down. But it was also so much fun.”
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