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Walter Franz; a man of wisdom and vision


Walter Franz, pictured here with a scale model of a Native Ministry summer camp for Matheson Island, Manitoba.  That dream was never fully realized.

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Nov 23, 2007
- Deborah Froese

August 10, 1940 to November 12, 2007

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — According to friends and family, Walter Edward Franz had the wisdom, vision and strength of an eagle, a creature of spiritual significance to aboriginal communities. Considering Walter’s long-term commitment to Mennonite Church Canada’s Native Ministries, this image is particularly appropriate.

Walter passed away on Wednesday November 7 after an 11 year struggle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.  His funeral was held at Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church on the afternoon of Monday November 12.

Norman Meade, long time church leader, friend, and associate from Manigotagon, Manitoba, described a trip to Manigotagon just two days before the funeral.  “I was travelling with my son and we saw 13 eagles.  I’d never seen that many eagles together before.”  With his mind on the approaching funeral, he thought of the 12 disciples of Christ, plus one more; Walter Franz.  Thirteen eagles.  That idea resonated with him and it sparked the meditation he gave in tribute of Walter.

“Eagles have sharp vision, so did Walter,” Norman said.  “He was a prophet.  Walter was also strong like the eagle.” 

The funeral, most of which Walter had previously planned himself, had a tone rich in aboriginal context and emphasized the idea of death as a passage.  One of the selected hymns, “In the Bulb” spoke of the flower, a promise hidden in the bulb where only God can see it until the time has come for it to bloom.  Highlighting this important element, each of Walter’s grandchildren planted a bulb in a pot of soil during the family tribute.

Born in Tofield Alberta to George and Tena Franz, Walter spent his formative years on the family farm.  In 1955 the Franz family moved to Edmonton where George pastored First Mennonite Church.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Walter chose ministry as a profession. After high school, he attended Menno Bible School in Didsbury, Alberta for one year, followed by four years of study at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC), now Canadian Mennonite University.

Walter met his future wife, Hilda Penner, at CMBC.  They were married in 1962 and welcomed their first daughter, Laurie, one year later.  After graduating from CMBC, Walter pastored the Osler Mennonite Church in Saskatchewan for six years.  Son Chris and daughter Tamara were born in Osler. From Osler, the family moved to Swift Current where Walter became principal of Swift Current Bible Institute (SCBI).  The family grew again when in 1975, 7-year-old aboriginal son, Len, was adopted.

In 1979, the Franz family packed up their belongings and moved to Altona where Walter served as pastor of the Altona Bergthaler Mennonite church until 1990.  It was during this time that Walter began to assume various roles in the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (now Mennonite Church Canada), serving four years as conference moderator and eventually becoming Executive Director of the Native Ministry program, a role which he held until his retirement in September of 2005.  He also served on the steering committee of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT).  He took part in several CPT delegate assemblies, including one to Grassy Narrows, Ontario.

Walter’s commitment to Aboriginal Peoples shaped his retirement years; he and Hilda continued their work in a volunteer capacity as part-time pastors to the Riverton Fellowship Circle.  In a sense, Walter and Hilda traded places with Edith and Neill von Gunten, who left pastoral positions at Riverton Fellowship Circle to become co-directors of Native Ministries.

When Neill and Edith supervised church construction in Riverton at the aboriginal community’s request, Walter was there to encourage them despite insurmountable odds.  “He was there to say ‘you’re doing a good job.  Keep it up.’  That affirmation was very important,” Neill said.   Neill also described Walter as a visionary, taking note of details about people or situations that others might miss and seeing solutions where others could not.

Norman Meade felt Walter saw strengths and abilities in him that he was not aware of.  “He encouraged me to step out and do more than I thought I could do.” 

Edith von Gunten remembers his tenacity regarding relationship development.  “I know there were times after they moved to Riverton that Walter would say ‘I can’t seem to click with so-and-so.  Tell me something about them that would help.’”  So Edith or Neill would offer a suggestion and Walter would make another attempt to connect.  He would continue trying until he succeeded. 

Henry Neufeld, a long-time Native Ministry worker who has, like Walter, continued his ministry since retirement, also noticed Walter’s efforts at connecting with others.  “He didn’t have the language, but he wanted to get to know the [aboriginal] people, what makes them tick, their culture, and so on."

“I will miss his openness and support and the way he reached out to other people,” Henry said.  He spoke of a group of Somali refugees that Walter and Hilda befriended and invited to live in their home.  “He reached out to them to relate to them and to be of some service and help to them.”

Niece Judith Friesen Epp said that both Walter and his wife Hilda had the ability to connect with a wide variety of people.  “He and Hilda were models of faith for me.  They were always the ones who welcomed many diverse people into their home.  There were always guests there.”

Observing both family and church life, Judith noted that integrating work with everyday life was more seamless for Walter and Hilda than it was for many people.  “It really was a life for them and not just a job,” she said.

Hilda appreciated her husband’s approach to others.  “I always thought of him as wise, and never hasty to give ideas or impressions, non-judgemental.  He had a gift to really listen.  He saw the big picture, pulled the strings together.”

She shared a story that she felt epitomized Walter’s character.  Two days before he died, a visitor asked how he was.  Walter responded, “I believe I’m dying.”

“What do you think heaven will be like?” the visitor asked.

 In his quiet, thoughtful way, Walter responded.  “I think it will be non-judgemental and the squabbles that plague us here on earth will be settled.”

That, Hilda felt, was just like Walter.  He refused to focus on himself.

Before Walter died, Hilda told him that she would miss his wisdom.  Walter reminded her of Solomon’s prayer asking God to anoint him with wisdom.  He told Hilda that he had prayed for wisdom too, before he went into ministry.

“And I would say that his prayer was answered,” Hilda said. 

In his final hours, Walter Franz expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work with Aboriginal people.  “Results for the future are not in church buildings or the institutional church,” he said, “but in relationships.”

Fitting words from a man of wisdom and vision.