This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Small conference makes big historical find

When a small Canadian Mennonite conference began going through boxes of old documents a couple of months ago, it found an artifact of significance to Mennonites across the country.

The Christian Mennonite Conference, which changed its name from Chortitzer Mennonite Conference in April, had been sitting literally on top of the Canadian government’s original 19th-century invitation to Mennonites in Ukraine and Russia.

From left, Ernest Braun, Conrad Stoesz and Jac Doerksen look at a document from the early 19th century at the Christian Mennonite Conference office in Steinbach, Man. — Dave Reimer/CMC
From left, Ernest Braun, Conrad Stoesz and Jac Doerksen look at a document from the early 19th century at the Christian Mennonite Conference office in Steinbach, Man. — Dave Reimer/CMC

The CMC, which counts 10 congregations, mostly in Manitoba, had placed 20 boxes of old documents in its Steinbach, Man., office basement when it was built 15 years ago, but only recently began sifting through them.

The Department of Agriculture document, known in German as the Privilegium, outlined the privileges promised in 1873 to a delegation of Mennonites representing multiple groups in Europe. It outlined military exemption, a fixed quantity of land per male and the freedom to operate schools outside state oversight.

“The original invitation from the government of Canada to the Mennonites — that was in our basement, along with a German version of it, original and stamped,” said CMC bishop Dave Reimer. “Even the historians here didn’t know there was a German equivalent.”

The CMC traces its history back to Bergthal Colony in what is today Ukraine. Upon the recommendation of colony leadership, the entire colony moved to Manitoba in 1874.

Mennonite Heritage Centre archivist Conrad Stoesz, who has been helping guide the organizing process before everything is archived at MHC, said such a mass migration is unusual in Mennonite history.

“There would be parallels of moving to Mexico, when a whole colony moved,” he said. “But . . . this is rare to have such a body of institutional records coming from Russia.”

More than fragments such as family diaries, individual travel documents or church letters, the CMC collection can offer a detailed look at church life before and after the transatlantic journey.

The project is still in an initial sorting phase, with many items waiting to be translated, but items of interest have already turned up.

“There is a sermon, in old German gothic script, preached in January of 1874 and November 1874,” Reimer said. “So it would have been preached in Ukraine before they came here. It will be interesting to see what’s in there.”

Caring in community

An example of life in church and community can be found in many documents from the Waisenamt (orphans office), spanning from the early 19th century — even before the founding of the original Bergthal Colony — to the mid-1900s.

The organization looked after widows/widowers and orphans after the death of a parent or spouse. Assets were accounted and divided evenly between the surviving spouse and distributed among children. Funds were held in trust for minors.

Stoesz said the Waisenamt functioned as a kind of bank, loaning out some of the money, especially helping poorer families move to Canada with the rest of the colony.

“We knew the broad strokes of how the Waisenamt worked, the trials and tribulations, but this gives the individual accounts of each individual person,” he said. “It helps people doing family genealogies to understand their ancestor borrowed this money and they had to work it off. So it’s about ‘my family,’ ‘my history,’ and you can internalize it better.”

Beyond funds for orphans and widows, other financial documents detail a 1920s migration of some church members from Canada to Paraguay.

“There were seven ships and records of who went on which ship,” Reimer said.

Either moving to Canada or later to South America, church members would travel half way around the world on the word of conference leaders. Those leaders would hold an auction of possessions.

“As a pastor, the thing I find compelling is the kind of trust people had in their church leadership,” he said. “They would have left and trusted that the money would be sent after the fact. If there was any kind of trust like that today, we could get a lot accomplished.”

An agency of Mennonite Church Canada, the Mennonite Heritage Centre also archives documents of other Canadian Mennonite groups, including Mennonite Central Committee Canada, the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference and the Evangelical Mennonite Conference.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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