Mother, seven children killed in farm blaze

Father, 41, returns home to find his entire family has perished

A devoutly religious farmer returned home yesterday to find his life destroyed: his farmhouse burned to a smoking heap, his pregnant wife killed alongside his seven children, and some of their bodies still lying in the rubble.

Marc Woerlen, 41, said goodbye to his family for the last time just days ago, when he left the farm near West Lincoln, Ont., and drove north to the plot of land he’d recently purchased south of Ottawa. They had planned to move after Christmas and set up another farm.

Those plans, and everything else in his life, changed when the two-storey home he had lived in since childhood was reduced to a smouldering mass of wood and brick.

Monika Woerlen, 39, died, along with their seven children: Susanna, 11, Elena, 10, Marcus, 8, Samuel, 7, Paul, 5, Nathan, 3, and Debora, 19 months.

Ms. Woerlen’s father, Fred van Stralen, said his daughter was devoted to her religion and to helping others. She was the eldest of his 15 children.

“She loved God, of course, that’s the way she was brought up, and believed in a real, practical Christianity.

“That’s what she gave herself for and part of that would be to receive the children as God would give them, that’s why the large family. She received them with such joy that it was a beautiful family,” he said.

The fire broke out around 11 p.m. Monday. As glass shattered around them, volunteer firefighters from Pelham and West Lincoln faced flames that climbed 10 metres into the night sky.

Initially told the building was empty, they soon learned an entire family was inside. But there was nothing they could do.

“The entire interior of the building [was] a rolling ball of flames,” Fire Chief Scott McLeod said.

Around midnight, shortly before the fire was brought under control, a body was spotted toward the front of the home, he said.

“The building was so badly damaged that I couldn’t put firefighters in the building because there was the possibility of going through the floor or the roof or walls collapsing on them.”

Leo Reus, a 26-year veteran of the Pelham Fire Services, said it was the worst night of his life.

“I knew there was a family inside but I didn’t know how many,” he said. “You just knew that whoever was in that building had no chance of survival.”

The family farmed corn, wheat and soybeans on their property, located in the lush agricultural belt south of Grimsby, Ont.

Five of the children attended Gainsborough Public School, where all 281 students are bused in every day. Principal Susan MacNeil arrived at work at 4:30 a.m. yesterday to prepare to deliver the news to students and staff. Two teachers were already at the school.

Leslie Comfort, a neighbour, said the children lined up together for the school bus every morning. The girls always wore dresses, she said, and the eldest, Susanna, was a mother hen, herding her siblings while holding a baby on her hip.

She said the family held prayer services in their home.

The Norwegian-based sect to which the Woerlens belonged is known simply as The Christian Church — or, by outsiders, as Smith’s Friends after its founder, a Norwegian ship’s officer named Johan Oscar Smith.

Mr. van Stralen, Monika Woerlen’s father, was the moving force behind the establishment of the Toronto-area church, known as the Palgrave Christian Fellowship.

Mr. Woerlen is known as a hardworking farmer, Ms. Comfort said, whose family has lived off the land in the area for generations. Yesterday, family members gathered at his parents’ home, barely half a kilometre down the road from the ruins of his own farmhouse.

“He’s in shock,” said Myrna Woerlen, 36, his sister-in-law in Steinbach, Man. She said his mother was weeping when she called her yesterday morning.

“She was crying a lot. My husband tried to talk to her, but it’s really hard.”

Mr. Woerlen had been in the Ottawa area to arrange for his family’s move to North Gower in the new year. They needed a place to live until they could build a home on a plot of land they had purchased, fronted by swaying pine trees, among the hay and corn fields that stretch outside the village.

Mr. Woerlen, who has a degree in agriculture, had spoken about his desire for a slower-paced life. They had family there, a brother with two children in the same school that some of the Woerlen sons and daughters would attend.

The area also offered the family a thriving church in their denomination, the Rideau Christian Fellowship Centre.

The two brothers had plans to start farming together on 2,000 acres east of North Gower.

It was separate from the land Marc Woerlen had bought for a home. In September, Mr. Woerlen and another member of his church had knocked on the door of Harold and Molly Harnarine’s home to negotiate the purchase of two parcels of land. The land transfer went through one month ago.

Yesterday, fire officials could not say what caused the blaze at the West Lincoln house. The home was heated by an oil-fired boiler, they said, and also had the capacity to burn wood. One of the few things left standing yesterday was the fireplace chimney.

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