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Beloved former CC Editor Bert Witvoet dies at 85

Memories of a bold editor, attentive mentor, servant leader and loving husband, father and grandfather.

After 85 years of adventures with family, church, culture and creation, Bert Witvoet has been enfolded into the loving arms of his Creator and Father. After a few weeks of struggles with his health, on Tuesday morning, March 10th, he peacefully passed away in Niagara Health Centre (St. Catharines, Ont.) surrounded by his wife and all his children. 

Bert was a beloved Editor of Christian Courier for 17 years, a role he returned to twice more when duty called. He continued mentoring young and beginning writers and writing lively editorials until his final retirement in 2016.

Bert was born in Joure, Friesland, on June 11, 1934. He immigrated to Canada in 1950, settling down in Bowmanville, Ontario, and attending Rehoboth Christian Reformed Church (CRC). It was in the young peoples’ group that he met his future bride, Alice Oldejans, whom he married one year after graduating from Calvin College. We imagine Bert as a fun-loving student, mischievous at times, with a keen intelligence and a little daring.

 
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  Bert (left) arriving in Canada at Pier 21 on SS Vollendam in May 1950.

He first taught at Hamilton District Christian High School for four years and then moved to Toronto District Christian High. One of the most dramatic moments in Bert’s career took place here, where a dispute over whether he could teach Catcher in the Rye boiled into debates with the board that landed Bert, and many of his teaching colleagues, without a contract for the next year. His relationship with Second CRC in Etobicoke was also strained. 

It was a difficult time for Bert, with his growing family of five children, but he loved his job and was loved by the students. He could be found outside at recess, playing sports with his students. Or he would take a class outside for a lesson on the romantic poets. Students would even come by his home to talk about personal problems, as they trusted and admired him. Ron Rupke, a current CC Board member who was one of Bert’s students from 1965-69, says he can still remember specific lessons from his Man in Society class. 

Bert taught in public school briefly (Harbord Collegiate in Toronto). He then launched Scarborough Christian High School while also working as a mail courier. He also went back to school and obtained a Masters of Arts in English at University of Toronto. This all took tremendous effort and Bert suffered from exhaustion, eventually giving up his role in the fledgling high school, which by then had some 20 students or so.

Writing career
Bert was not only a teacher; he was also a writer. He was the Managing Editor of Vanguard magazine; he wrote for The Banner and for local publications including the Toronto Star. He had a column in the Woodbridge newspaper called “Welcome to my Perch,” a reference to his love for raising canaries and finches – small colourful birds that represented Bert’s gentle side.

Bert became the new Editor of Calvinist Contact in 1982, taking over from Keith Knight. The family moved to St. Catharines and joined Covenant CRC, later joining the founders of Jubilee CRC. Bert was a good writer, a fair evaluator, a quick judge of character and a little quirky. He had a sense of humour and he was theologically astute when it came to covering matters of the church and Synod. 

 
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  Bert with his wife, Alice.

Bert made some bold moves as Editor of CC. In March 1989, Bert wrote under the heading “No Cultural Ghetto” that the last Dutch articles had been published, and that Dutch ads would slowly be phased out as well. A letter to the editor the next month quotes a grandfather to a grandson at Calvin College: “How are things with you in Grand Rapids? Are you still Reformed or has everything become English?”

Significant figure
Bert was a significant transitional figure – and not only by moving the paper more decisively from Dutch to Canadian language and culture. He changed the name from Calvinist Contact to Christian Courier, because, as he once quipped at a CC staff meeting, “Calvinists don’t have a corner on the truth.” The Contact function shifted to Courier, as “our primary task is not to keep contact, as the early immigrants understandably felt they should, but to ‘go and make disciples of all nations.’” Yet the publication retained a distinctive subtitle – “A Reformed Weekly” – because its goal was to redeem, not compliment or oppose, culture. That worldview continues in the pages of CC today. 

His tenure as Editor ended in 1999 upon his first retirement, but after Harry der Nederlanden died of cancer in 2008, Bert stepped in as Interim Editor. When Angela Reitsma Bick came on in 2009, Bert was a mentor and contributor for many years. 

Ongoing adventures
Alice and Bert had an international vision. They traveled to South Africa a number of times in this period, building up Christian schools, organizing Christian education conferences, and stocking Christian school libraries. When at home, they were especially attentive to the lives of refugees, including some from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Romania.

Bert suffered some health problems over the last two decades, but that didn’t stop him from supporting Alice as she biked across the country (“Sea to Sea for the CRC”) in 2005. His son, Ed, was the tour manager, and they were able to visit all their children as they covered the length of the country. Bert rode in their blue Westphalia camper-van as a SAG Wagon (“Support and Gear Wagon”).

Family ties
Bert’s family was always dear to him. One son recalls with deep affection when Bert took him on a walk and apologized to him for not spending as much time with him as he thought a father should. He was readily forgiven, a window of the grace that lived in his intimate relations, which we believe was also demonstrated in many of his more public roles. He was an elder of the church, often in the literal sense, but also in a figurative sense as well. He was a mentor and support to many younger people.

Recent illness
Bert had been having trouble breathing this month, and had been in hospital briefly. His energy was dissipating and his family freed him to let go. He died yesterday, March 10th, at 6:03 am, surrounded by his immediate family and two grandchildren. Four of his five children live west of Ontario, and it was a grace that they, too, were able to arrive in time to say goodbye. They held his hand, spoke of their love for him, prayed, read Scripture, and sang some familiar songs. Alice was always at his side. He died peacefully, as his breathing gradually slowed until it came to a halt.

“He was a giant in our Reformed community,” said an elder on the phone today. “There are few adults in our circles who would not know his name.”

God bless Bert and his family, as we commend his spirit to God and as we all look forward to the new creation he so deeply yearned for. Hopefully the canaries and finches will accompany him, as a foretaste of that future glory.

Visitation with family will be at Jubilee Fellowship CRC (13 Wilholme Dr, St. Catharines) this Friday, March 13th at 2-4 pm and 6-8 pm.

 

A Memorial Service will be held at Jubilee Fellowship this Saturday, March 14th, at 2pm Reception to follow.

Correspondence

To leave a note for the family online, visit this page

Request: Bert asked that condolences be expressed through donations to his favourite kingdom agencies (rather than flowers):

  • The Institute for Christian Studies (59 St George St, Toronto, ON M5S 2E6)
  • World Renew (P.O. Box 5070, Burlington, ON L2R 3Y8)
  • Hamilton District Christian High School (92 Glancaster Rd, Ancaster, ON L9G 3K9)
  • Edu Deo (621 Barton St E, Hamilton, ON L8L 3A1)
  • Christian Courier (PO Box 20022 Grantham St. Catharines, ON L2M 7W7)

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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