On the brilliant early fall morning of Sept. 22, 1919, Marguerite (Margie) Isabel Ries was born in a tiny homesteader shack seven miles south of Castor in the grasslands of east central Alberta.
Ninety-seven and a half years later, on the spring morning of April 1, 2017, with her daughters at her side, Margie took her last breath at Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital in Castor.
She died in the hospital where her nursing career began 76 years earlier, in the community that she so cherished and that cherished her in return.
Margie’s life spanned almost a century and was a vivid testament to the regenerative power of love, compassion and gratitude.
Margie demonstrated these qualities to everyone in her long life: nursing patients, extended family, friends and especially her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
When Margie turned her brilliant blue eyes on you and touched you with her soft, warm hands you knew you were the most important person in the world at that moment.
She made everyone feel special and had an astounding capacity to remember the details of the lives of those she loved. And she loved so very many.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to help an elder die. At the end, Margie often spoke of how grateful she was to call Castor her home.
“I was so blessed to belong to this community. Whatever the plans are for my funeral, please let it be a joyful celebration of my 97 years,” she said many times in her last weeks.
Margie was the third of seven children born to George Ries, a Swiss-German Mennonite teacher and farmer from Freeman, South Dakota, and his Austrian wife, Maria.
Like so many of her era, Margie’s parents were first generation immigrants, with father George lured from South Dakota to Alberta in 1906 by the promise of free land for homesteaders.
Although she had two older siblings, Alfred and Virginia, Margie assumed the role of nurse and ‘little mother’ to the younger children Harold, George, William and Rita.
The family saved up to buy a little rocking chair so she could soothe the babies near the wood stove in the kitchen.
Margie was the family caregiver, but also loved to get up to tricks and roam the fields with brother Harold (“Harky”), her closest sibling in age.
The Ries children came of age on the virgin prairie. They gathered shooting stars and crocuses in spring and delighted as fields, sloughs and skies came alive with birds and little creatures.
They ran behind a stone boat to help Grandpa clear the land for seeding. They roamed far and wide to find the best saskatoon and gooseberry patches in summer.
They walked over a mile to Willow Prairie school even in the bitter days of winter.
Margie was proud to be a child of pioneer parents. In a beautiful tribute on the occasion of brother William and sister-in-law Shirley’s 50th wedding anniversary, she wrote: “Their spirit of adventure, courage and perseverance was a precious heritage. Their legacy was a love for the natural environment. We experienced both the beauty and harshness of the western prairie landscape and were the heirs of the wide open spaces, vast blue skies, distant horizon, glowing sunsets and star studded night sky.”
Margie remembers a wonderful sense of community enjoyed by the early pioneers south of Castor, with barn raisings, schoolhouse dances and Sunday suppers with neighbours.
One of Margie’s fondest memories as a child were family singalongs led by Grandpa George with his deep bass voice. The children developed a lifelong appreciation for art, music and poetry which is still evident in the talents of many extended family members.
Margie’s high school years coincided with the Great Depression. Fortunately she was able to work at the Theresetta Convent to help pay for her high school education. Margie was moved by the devotion of the Daughters of Wisdom, who served the Castor community for many years in the school and hospital. The foundation of her deep Catholic faith was formed during these years.
In high school, Margie decided on a career in nursing. She graduated from Calgary’s Holy Cross Hospital nursing school in 1941. Her first job was at Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital in Castor.
Margie continued her education in a community nursing and midwifery program with the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) in Montreal and a post graduate public health program at the University of British Columbia.
Over the next decades, Margie worked as a district public health nurse in Ganenoque, Ontario and in Stettler, Grassland, Valleyview and Hinton, Alberta.
As Margie worked all over the country and explored the world, she maintained strong roots in Castor with many visits home to her parents and siblings.
She was treasured by a growing flock of nieces and nephews, who delighted in visits from an exotic Auntie who brought presents and stories from her travels.
Margie had a soft, welcoming lap and an eternally loving nature. She was the keeper of the birthday book, never forgetting a family occasion.
In October of 1958, Margie married Vincent Carl Harper, a chef of Irish descent from Toronto, in Churchill, Manitoba.
Their first child, Marguerite (Margo) Harper was born in March of 1960, followed by Carolynn in June of 1961. Margie and Vince raised their girls in the northern Manitoba town of Cranberry Portage.
Margie considered the birth of their daughters the greatest of her myriad achievements. The girls grew up inspired by her deep faith, compassionate nature and intellectual curiosity. She passed on to them the family gifts of literature, music and a deep respect for the wisdom and fragility of the natural world.
The family moved back to Castor from northern Manitoba in 1975, as Vince was terminally ill.
Margie and the girls moved in with her widowed father George Ries and Margie cared for both her father and husband in the next year.
Margie became a widow at the age of 57 when Vince passed away on Jan. 10, 1977. Margie will be buried next to Vince in the Castor cemetery.
As the girls finished high school, Margie nursed in Castor and surrounding area. Ever the adventurer, she took one last nursing job at the age of 69, travelling to Inuvik for a stint in the local nursing home.
One of the great joys of Margie’s life was becoming an “instant grandmother” to four children – Eduardo, Ernesto, Ivan and Elisa Aragon – when daughter Margo married widower Eduardo Aragon in July of 1988 in Castor.
The next year Margie’s family circle expanded when Carolynn married Gavin Bilton in July of 1989. Together, Carolynn and Gavin raised five children: Ryan, Kimberly, Claire, Emily and Caitlin Bilton.
In time she became a proud great grandmother to Hennessy Bilton, Jacob, Paige and Markus Falkenberg and Ariela, Miguel and Gianna Aragon. Sadly she did not live to meet her eighth great grandchild, who is due in August of 2017.
In retirement Margie travelled widely and gave of herself generously to her extended family, friends and community.
She continued her lifelong ministry to the sick and lonely long after her formal nursing career was over. This loving presence was Margie’s signature and life work.
Her grace, thoughtfulness, and wisdom made her a revered elder and undisputed “Grand Matriarch” of the Ries clan. Her death leaves a tremendous hole in our hearts and in our community. She will be greatly missed.
Margie was predeceased by parents George and Maria Ries, husband Vincent, sister Virginia and brother -in-law Reiny Griebel, brothers Alfred and William Ries, brother Harold and sister-in-law Patricia, brother George and sister-in-law Maria and brother-in-law Edward Renschler, as well as nephews Richard Griebel, Christopher Griebel and Norman Renschler.
She is survived by sister-in-law Shirley Ries and her only living sibling, beloved sister Rita Renschler of Bowden, Alberta.
Card of Thanks
Her family wishes to thank the staff at Paintearth Lodge, where Margie lived in her last years, for their kindness and professionalism in maintaining such a beautiful facility.
We wish also to pay our deepest respects and gratitude to the staff at Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital for the excellent care and compassion during the last weeks of Mom’s life.
From the bottom of our hearts, we also wish to thank our “schwester” and Margie’s nursing soulmate, the incomparable Marilyn Weber, for giving Mom so much support and loving care throughout her senior years.
Services will be held at Our Lady of Grace Parish in Castor. Prayer Vigil was Sun.., April 9 at 7 p.m. and Funeral Mass on Mon., April 10 at 11 am, followed by internment at the cemetery and reception at the Castor Community Hall.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Development and Peace (Canada), Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital Foundation or Paintearth Lodge.
As we say goodbye to our precious Margie, let us remember her beautiful blessing for almost every occasion, especially this one. “Love Never Dies, my darlings”.
Funeral arrangements entrusted to Parkview Funeral Chapels & Crematorium, Box 186, Castor, AB T0C 0X0, 403-882-3141.
To send condolences to the family, please visit www.parkviewfueralchapels.com