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Closet genealogist exposes passion for Mennonite heritage


Alf Redekopp, director of the Mennonite Heritage Centre

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September 28, 2007
- by Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — Alf Redekopp strains to slide the large, flat box off a sturdy steel shelf in the vault, and gestures for my help.

At a reference table in the archives, we remove the lid, revealing a near-ancient hymn book measuring two feet wide by three feet long. At over 500 years old, its cast iron braced, leather bound cover is so worn away at the edges that its wooden board substructure threatens to liberate itself from inside its bonds.

Redekopp, director of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, gingerly lifts the worn cover with cotton gloved hands to reveal meticulously scribed Latin hymns on brittle parchment. Selected letters are enlarged and beautifully illuminated in colorful inks.

“Menno Simons must have used books very similar to this,” says Redekopp, with a hint of reverence. “After all, he started out as a Catholic priest.” To touch history like this is to get a glimpse into the hearts and minds of a people passed, says Redekopp.

An 8th grade school assignment, encouragement from a teacher, and a cooperative Grandmother gave Redekopp an interest in Mennonite history, and in particular, genealogy. While he generated ancestry charts for his assignment, Grandma—whom Redekopp jokingly referred to at the time as “my secretary”—cheerfully wrote letters to friends and relatives to fill in the information gaps in Redekopp’s charts.

“I describe that period of my life as being a closet genealogist, because what kid in high school has a hobby working with family history!” laughs Redekopp, now a father of three young adult children. Ironically, history was his least favorite subject in high school.

A university degree in science as well as religious studies and a music teaching career later, Redekopp re-discovered his long-smoldering passion for history of the church and its people—work he first began on a part-time basis in 1987.

The youngest of four children, Redekopp grew up on small fruit farm in the scenic Niagara-on-the-Lake region of Southern Ontario. Three things stand out from his formative years: 1. a strong work ethic, 2. a Christian high school education, and 3. the importance of church life—all values passed on from his parents. “Church activities were never optional,” says Redekopp, even though they sometimes competed with more appealing community ball games.

Today it is precisely the value of church life that drives Redekopp’s passionate pursuit of preserving elusive church histories and family genealogies. “It’s important to know who we are and where we fit in. The need to have a corporate memory and remember stories from our past and how those stories inspire faith renewal, re-commitment to faith, and inspiration to faith makes this is a real ministry.”

Redekopp calls himself an outreach worker, and pauses to smile at the newly conjured metaphor for his work—a work that combines the skills of a sleuth and the sensitivity of a pastor. Redekopp launches into several stories of how historical detective work at the Centre has reconnected families and re-engaged people in their spiritual heritage.

An inmate in a US penal institution regularly uses the Mennonite Heritage Centre to trace historic family connections between Saskatchewan and Kansas. A woman discovered that her birth mother was a Mennonite and attributed her own inclination toward peacemaking to her family history. “She was able to discover a spiritual connection through researching her family history,” notes Redekopp.

A favourite historical character is the faithful and talented choral leader, Bernhard Dueck, who chose to remain in Russia during the 1920s when many migrated to North and South America. Dueck stayed behind and continued to build his reputation as a choral leader. “Yet,” observes a suddenly softer Redekopp, “There were no choirs at his funeral—a fact recorded in history,” he says, referring to records at the Centre.
Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA have named October 28 as Mennonite Heritage Sunday—a day close to the heart of Redekopp. “Although every church has a history, everything does not start and end with us,” observes Redekopp.

“History has a way of leading people to reconciliation. If we can understand what led to a breakage, reconciliation can come. In personal life one can’t ignore the breakages, and the same goes for the corporate world. Look at where there are major wars in the world. Usually the cause has nothing to do with the immediate. There are long historical reasons for the conflict. It’s a reminder to reflect and be grateful for what we have inherited.”

The historical Mennonite inheritance passed on to future generations will look quite different from today. Redekopp’s storage vault already has holdings in several languages—German, French, English, Chinese, Russian, and Latin. With ethnic diversity increasing in the Mennonite Church, future acquisitions will likely be in Korean, Laotian, Hmong, Spanish, or Japanese, says Redekopp.

Who knows, we muse, closing the huge Latin hymn book and returning it to storage. In 500 years, there could be a Japanese language hymn book carefully preserved in some Mennonite archive somewhere, helping to connect a distant generation with its spiritual heritage.

Sidebar: Mennonite Heritage Centre

  • A ministry of Mennonite Church Canada, Christian Formation.
  • Its mission is to “gather, preserve and share the stories of God at work in the Mennonite Church” and “articulate learnings from the past as encouragement and challenge for the future.”
  • Mennonite Heritage Sunday is honoured once each year the last Sunday in October. In 2007 it is October 28.
  • The MHC contains records of mostly Russian Mennonite origin. Other historical centres include Kitchener-Waterloo (Conrad Grebel University College), Goshen, and North Newton. Mennonite Church USA houses holdings of Swiss Mennonite origin.
  • If stacked in a single column, the archival records at the Mennonite Heritage Centre would reach as high as the CN Tower in Toronto.
  • Increasing multi-lingual holdings are a growing challenge to archivists who must identify multi-lingual holdings and write descriptions.
  • Technological issues propose challenges: the true archival life of digital documents, photos, and audio and video recordings is unknown. “I have a fear that we will lose stories and information. Paper still lasts the longest in terms of anything we know of,” says Redekopp.