The Eight Sons of Moeder Cordula.

One of my favorite Belgian singer songwriters, Willem Vermandere, wrote a song that captures the grief and sorrow of a mother who watched all but one of her sons emigrate to America in the early twentieth century.

Acht kloeke zeuns had moeder Cordula
En zeven zijn der naar ‘t vreemde gegaan
Zo wijd over zee daar lag Canada
Moeder Maria, lat dat schip nie vergaan
Lat dat schip nie vergaan

[Mother Cordula had eight stout sons, and seven went to foreign parts. Across the wide ocean was Canada. Mother Mary, don’t let that ship perish. Don’t let that ship perish.]

My English translation cannot do justice to Vermandere’s beautiful lyrics. The song recounts how Cordula prayed to safeguard her son’s journeys. How she never stopped waiting for them to return, met goud belaan [wealthy with gold]. How she treasured their letters. Two sons died early. The five others married and started families. Only one son returned, forty years years later, when he was old and worn. She did not recognize him. In her dreams they had remained young men with beautiful black hair.

So who was mother Cordula? And who were her sons? In a 2015 interview Vermandere revealed the song is based on his great grandmother.1 An exploration in the Belgian civil registration records can help us start writing Cordula’s story.

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The Belgians in Moline, Illinois: An Overview.

Sacred Heart (Belgian Church) in Moline, Illinois. (Wikicommons)

Did you know that during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Moline, Illinois,  was the major center for the Belgian immigrants? Not only did the area receive a large portion of the new arrivals, but the city even hosted its own Flemish newspaper, the Gazette van Moline.1

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How many Belgian-Americans are we talking about?

Today, about 356,405 people in the United States claim Belgian ancestry, an estimate which appears to be low, especially when compared with the estimated number of Dutch Americans: 4,289,116.(1) Did that many more Netherlanders immigrate to the United States?

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