Mennonites settle on the Canadian Prairies
Mennonites in Europe
In 1566 the Mennonites were scattered over Germany due to misunderstanding and persecution of their culture. In 1780 they were deprived of their privileged status and were expected to take their turn in the military service. To escape this, many families moved to the eastern steppes of Russia and the Ukraine where they farmed happily for a time. The very first group of Mennonites arrived in Manitoba from eastern Europe during the summer of 1874 and settled on reserves east and west of the Red River. However, the Mennonites that settled in southwestern Manitoba – around Whitewater Lake particularly – did not arrive until 50 years later, and under a different set of circumstances.
Mennonites are a pacifist group of Christians who follow a biblically-based doctrine. Before World War One, the Mennonite colonies were quite well-to-do with beautiful homes and gardens, plentiful orchards and rich land upon which they produced good crops. After the war the Soviet Revolution brought imprisonment, plundering, mistreatment and murder upon the Mennonite people. This was followed by famine and finally a communist government which took over Russia and began to tax the Mennonites very heavily and further harass them.
After the Labour Party of Canada persuaded the federal government to open the door to the Mennonites in 1923, a group of the refugees were eager to find new lives on the Canadian prairies. The Canadian government, though, had a bit more on its mind than being kind to Mennonite people going through hard times. A president and associate professor at the University of Waterloo, Frank H. Epp later wrote:
“The real purpose was to fill the Canadian prairies with a united Canadian society, which would prove the possibility of prosperous settlement there, and, simultaneously, domesticate the lands in the face of Indian and Métis rebellion and discourage any American incursion.”
Between 1923 and 1929, over 25,000 Mennonites managed to immigrate, and though more wanted to come, the Canadian government closed the door in 1930. Some Mennonites were fortunate enough to sell their farms in Russia and had enough money to pay their way to the Canadian Prairies. Others arrived totally penniless, and lived in debt to the Canadian Pacific Railway which carried them to their new homes free of charge; transport that was later paid back. This created an inequality among Mennonites on the prairies between those who had money and those who didn't.
New Homes in Southwest Manitoba
Two groups of Mennonites arrived in southwest Manitoba; 14 families in one, eight in the other. These Mennonites arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs and Bibles in their hands. Though they had no money to speak of, they managed to secure tens of thousands of acres of land including essential start-up goods without making so much as a down payment. Instead, they promised half of their gross annual income until the purchase price and interest were covered. The Mennonites had a reputation for honesty and being good farmers, thus the landowners in the area thought them trustworthy.
The German-speaking Mennonites were adjusting quite well to their new lives until the depression hit. With the onset of drought, rust and grasshoppers, farming became a very slow method of earning money. Mortgage obligations couldn't be paid, and Mennonite immigrants either lost their farms through foreclosure or lived in debt for years, sometimes decades.
Many rural schools at this time were struggling to stay open due to a lack of students. The sudden influx of Mennonite children to the area repopulated the desks of many small schools, especially those of Petersburg and Strathallen where Mennonite children easily made up the majority. One morning in the winter of 1925, a sleigh full of Mennonite children pulled up to Petersburg School in the town of Whitewater, not one of them knowing a word of English. There was absolutely no money to buy books. One time Jake Harms borrowed 15 cents to buy a text book and it took a long time for the loan to be repaid. (Jake Harms later became an influential, well-loved and long-serving pastor of the Whitewater Mennonite Church).
In their new communities, the Mennonites took pains to preserve their own culture and religious heritage. Church was the hub of the Mennonite community, and the newcomers to Whitewater set about establishing a church with enthusiasm. At first, services were held in people's homes, but the rooms were often too small.
At the end of 1925 they moved into an abandoned church in Whitewater and operated without an ordained pastor until a young couple got engaged and desired to be married. Then Gerhard G. Neufeld, who had been ordained in Russia, was re-ordained and the nuptial couple were married two days later: Easter Day, 1927. In this way the Whitewater Mennonite congregation was born, independent and unaffiliated from any other existing Mennonite congregation.
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Author: Teyana Neufeld, 2009
Dyck, Ernie G. “The Russian Mennonites in Morton Municipality.” Beckoning Hills Revisited “Ours is a Goodly Heritage” Morton Boissevain 1881—1981. Altona: 1981. Page 118.
Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada 1786-1920 The History of a Separate People. Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1974.
Neufeld, Rev. G. G. “Where Did the Mennonites Come From.” Beckoning Hills Revisited “Ours is a Goodly Heritage” Morton Boissevain 1881—1981. Altona: 1981. Page 376.