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Park Place of St. John

The Bond of Sisterhood: A Journey from Amsterdam to Park Place

The Bond of Sisterhood

Few bonds are stronger than sisterhood, and few sisters are closer than Gerrie Natelborg and Tini DeBoer, two residents at Park Place of St. John. 


Gerrie, 91, and Tini, 90, grew up as close as two sisters a year apart in age could be, with matching clothes, matching haircuts, matching bows in their hair. Their childhood was typically idyllic in the small village of Abcoude in the Netherlands where they lived, the two oldest children in a family of four girls. Their father Johannes (John) Fortuin was a well-respected horticulturist and landscape architect, and their mother assisted him in the greenhouse as much as she could. Along with their younger sister Bette, the sisters sang in churches at the insistence of their grandfather, forming a musical group called the Fortuin Sisters. They were a close family, but their father was certainly outnumbered at mealtime when everyone was excitedly talking together. 

“Sometimes he would throw up his hands and say, ‘Please be quiet,’” Gerrie says, “but we loved to talk and laugh. Eating together, with all of us, was special.”

“But maybe sometimes a little too loud for Papa,” Tini adds, and the sisters laugh together.

However, World War II changed everything for their family. Their father, who stood against the Nazi regime, was drafted into the Dutch Army. John had no intention of assisting Hitler’s cause and joined the resistance movement. He had been imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor, but after developing an illness while in Kamp Altengrabau, a prison camp, he was sent to a Dutch hospital. There, he was still considered a prisoner, but somehow he escaped from the hospital and returned home. He went into hiding in various spots, including under the floorboards of their very own house or in a local farmhouse. 

“We have no idea how he escaped,” Tini says. “It was truly a miracle.”

“Our Papa was no ‘sit-still,’” Gerrie adds. “He moved constantly. He could have crawled home from the hospital.”

One morning, the girls were whispering in the early morning air in their home where they shared a bed on the top floor when they heard heavy boots on the stairs leading up to their bedroom. Soldiers burst in, swastikas on the forearms of their uniforms, shouting, “Where’s your papa?”

The girls were too shocked to speak at first. Finally, little Gerrie managed to say, “We don’t know.” Eventually they listened as the boots tramped back down their stairs, then heard the soldiers searching the rest of the house and the greenhouse futilely, yelling, as the girls clung to each other with fear.

“Papa had said, ‘They got me once, but they’ll never get me again.’” Tini remembers. “Mama was so brave. She kept everything together, all of us, and never gave in to fear of those men.”

They truly didn’t know exactly where their father was, but they knew he was likely nearby. His location was always kept secret from the sisters, and from most of the family (their grandpa lived across the street, and he didn’t even know). 

Thankfully, on May 5, 1945, victory was declared against Hitler and the family felt deep relief. But they were also looking toward their future. Desiring more freedom for his business, a departure from communism and socialism, and concerned about the waning attendance in Dutch churches, the family moved to the United States when the girls were in their early teens, traveling to stay with family in Munster, Indiana. 

“We were all happy to move,” Tini says. “We never looked back.”

The United States was a culture shock for the sisters. 

“We landed in Hoboken, New Jersey,” Tini says, “and we moved on to New York, where we waited for a train to take us to Hammond, Indiana. We walked around the city for a bit, and I noticed the potatoes. We never saw potatoes that big!”

Gerrie laughs, adding, “I remember getting my first stick of gum, Juicy Fruit in the yellow wrapper. We never had gum—we used to chew on grain kernels until they became gum!”

The family became members of First Reformed Church in Lansing (now known as First PCA), and the sisters enrolled at Illiana Christian High School, where they assimilated quickly, thanks to being fluent in both Dutch and English (as well as German and French). They soon married just five months apart, Tini at 19 and Gerrie at 20, to boys they met at church. They raised their families in Northwest Indiana, and now both reside at Park Place. Because they live at separate ends of the retirement living building, they meet in the middle of the building daily for dinner, and they also enjoy bingo, bunco, knitting, hymn sing, and Bible study together at Park Place. Sometimes the two ladies get together to play a game of Uno or Skip-Bo and share what’s happened in their days. Tini subscribes to a Dutch newspaper, and when she’s done reading it she passes it along to Gerrie to enjoy.

The two sisters have different pursuits as well. Tini attends United Reformed Church in St. John twice a day on Sundays. Gerrie is still a member at First PCA, and she enjoys visits at Park Place by her pastor and other members often. Gerrie loves Wii Bowling competitions, dominoes, and Scrabble, while Tini plays pinochle and uses her computer to keep up with her British pen pal of over 70 years.

“I don’t do anything on computers,” Gerrie adds with a laugh.

Family is still everything to these two sisters. Tini has 4 children, 12 grandkids, and 24 great-grandkids, while Gerrie has 5 children, 18 grandkids, 42 great-grandkids, and 1 great-great-granddaughter. Their children take turns helping when needed, but the sisters love the freedom and space they have with their private apartments. They’ve expanded their family more to include the many new friends they’ve made at Park Place. But when they want to have a private conversation, they speak in their secret sister language—which just happens to be Dutch!

These sisters have seen a great deal of change in their lifetime, but they both look at the course of their lives with faith and gratitude, and both feel especially happy with the lives they’ve built at Park Place.

“When we were girls, Gerrie and I shared a bed, and our younger sister Bette slept in an alcove with a bed built into the wall,” Tini says. “Now look at us! We couldn’t ask for anything more.” They say they are both looking forward to the hope of being reunited with their family one day.





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