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Mennonite Historian -- Volume XXI, No. 4, December 1995
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The first Canadian Mennonite Central Committee was formed on 18 October, 1920 in response to the same need which led American Mennonites to establish a Mennonite "central committee" several months earlier: relief for the Mennonites in Russia. The Canadian committee, created at a meeting in Regina, Saskatchewan, was attended by fifteen representatives from several Mennonite groups in western Canada. H. A. Neufeld, minister of the Mennonite Brethren congregation in Herbert, Saskatchewan, chaired the meeting.
The group quickly agreed "that it is absolutely necessary that the Canadian Mennonites should establish a Central Committee in order to provide our people in Russia with the best possible aid." Peter P. Epp (Altona, MB), Abraham Loewen (Acme, AB), Cornelius K. Unruh (Hepburn, SK), P. M. Schmidt (Drake, SK) and Johann Thiessen (Greenfarm, SK) were elected to form a "central committee". Subsequently this committee designated Epp, from the Bergthaler Church, as chair; Thiessen, a Mennonite Brethren member, as treasurer, and Unruh as secretary. (Minutes in Mennonitische Rundschau, 24. November 1920, p. 5 and Der Mitarbeiter, December 1920, pp. 84-85.)
The founding group also decided that "our Central Committee should establish contact with the Central Committee of the American Mennonites". On 21 October the secretary wrote to Levi Mumaw, the secretary of MCC located in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, to report the formation of the Canadian committee and to declare its readiness to cooperate. Mumaw welcomed the offer of cooperation and outlined two options: the Canadian committee could collect funds independently and receive information from MCC or it could be represented on MCC and have the same status as the other member organizations. However, "concerning the work on the field, we think it is very desirable to have only one organization there."
The Canadian committee did not become a member of the American MCC though Epp did attend its meeting in Chicago in December 1922. Nor did it fully centralize the collections of cash or clothes by Canadian Mennonites. An undetermined amount of funds flowed from Canada to MCC directly from the donors or via the relief committees of the bi-national conferences.
The Canadian MCC recruited two dozen local representatives, including several from the "Old" Mennonite Church. Its treasurer investigated different channels to send funds to Russia but nothing seemed more practical than sending funds via MCC in the U.S. Thus MCC received separate contributions from various communities in Canada. By the end of 1921, $30,450 had been forwarded. One year later the total reached $54,347, which amounted to about 10% of MCC's total income to date. Less than $3,000 was sent in 1923 and the final tally of MCC's income in March 1927 listed $57,101.86 from the "Canadian Mennonite Central Committee."
The members of the Canadian MCC were quite keen on sending clothing to Russia, either directly, or with a Mennonite agency in Germany or via MCC, though the latter had advised against them because of the freight costs and customs complications. Indeed, those sent to MCC caused some frustration because of inadequate documentation.
In the fall of 1921 Peter Epp obtained information from A. A. Friesen, one of the Russian Mennonite Studienkomission delegates to North America, on the prospects of sending Mennonite workers into Russia. Epp indicated that the Canadian committee was considering sending a representative to Russia, someone who was familiar with the language and the culture. He named C. J. Andreas, employed at the Herbert Waisenamt Union, as a qualified person and asked Friesen, who was writing from Philadelphia, to present this suggestion to MCC. Friesen did so but not until the following April. By then the Canadian branch of the Save the Children Fund had stated its readiness to facilitate the entry of a Canadian Mennonite worker who would then be free to select any area in Russia in which to work. Thereupon the MCC Executive Committee meeting of 24 June invited the "Mennonite Central Committee of Canada" to recommend a worker for this purpose.
Andreas' primary purpose for going to Russia was to purchase clothing in Europe and to monitor its distribution. A. A. Friesen wrote several letters of introduction for him. However, in August 1922 Andreas withdrew his willingness to travel to Russia, stating that he wanted to end rumours that his trip was to be a pleasure trip. Eventually Friesen instructed Andreas to send the funds collected for clothing to his office in Rosthern.
After a meeting in August 1921 Epp wrote to the Save the Children Fund to inquire about the possibility of sending flour and clothing via this organization. However A. A. Friesen, now secretary for the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, had already written to SCF on this matter. Friesen's request had been forwarded to the London SCF office with the comment that the Mennonites in Canada had been contributing substantially through the MCC in the U.S. but that "they are anxious that Canada should have the credit for the relief work they are prepared to do." SCF London was also informed that "the Mennonite people are prepared to pay the expenses for one of their members to the Russian areas."
In a letter to Epp dated 6 October, Friesen acknowledged that this matter was actually the responsibility of the relief committee and assured him that "we do not want to intrude in the work of this committee in any way." Epp requested Friesen to continue the negotiations with SCF in order to simplify communications and to present a united position. Friesen soon received a positive response from SCF regarding flour shipments from Canadian Mennonites. The flour, ground from donated grain, would be shipped to SCF's field of operation along the Volga with the freight to Liverpool paid by the Canadian government and from there to Russia by SCF. In return SCF would purchase the equivalent amount of flour in Rumania and ship it at its expense to Ukraine for distribution in the Mennonite districts.
However, the communication between Friesen and the relief committee faltered. After hearing that the collection of flour had already begun in Saskatchewan, Epp chided Friesen for not informing him of the agreement with SCF. On the other hand, Epp neglected to forward instructions to other communities. Epp and the other members of the relief committee were relegated to promoting the grain collection in their local areas while Friesen assumed responsibility for communicationing with SCF.
During the winter of 1922-23 carloads of flour totalling 324,328 pounds were shipped from Herbert, Rosthern, Steinbach, Altona, Gretna, and Winkler. On 5 December 1922 Friesen emphasized for SCF the "express desire" of the donors that the flour should reach the Mennonite people. He also notified SCF that a worker would not be sent to supervise the distribution. He requested that the flour be turned over to the American Mennnite Relief if SCF did not have a representative in the area.
From the outset of MCC's relief efforts Friesen had protested AMR's
refusal to direct its aid primarily to the Mennonites. Thus the AMR was
not the preferred agency for Friesen. Nevertheless SCF transferred 297,356
pounds of flour to American Mennonite Relief. Eventually it was the Canadian
Mennonite Colonization Board which received reports, with thanks, from
Russia on the arrival of the flour. By 1924 the projects initiated by
the Canadian Mennonite Central Committee had been taken over by the Canadian
Mennonite Board of Colonization, in particular, its secretary, A. A. Friesen.
The Canadian MCC had terminated its own work at that point.
Right now he is proposing the preparation of an index to all former Mennonite estates in the FSU, based on archives in Moscow. He showed me some of the preliminary listings already printed out. He is looking for help to complete the project - a Notebook computer and ca $1000 US to cover expenses for a two-month project.
Please write us if you would like to know more about Peter's work or if you would consider giving financial assistance to Peter in his endeavours. He is e-mail "connected" and we would supply his address to anyone interested.
It is alleged that all Mennonite Blocks in Russia are descended from this Peter Block. Other writers say that he is the ancestor only of all Blocks in the Chortitza Colony. Various versions of this story can be found in several Block records, but I have been unable to determine its original source.
In the records at Mennonite Genealogy Inc. I have found no evidence of this story. The Block information we have in our files is mostly about the third brother, i.e. Peter Block, who will be referred to as the Kronsgarten Peter Block in this article. It could possibly be said that he is the ancestor of all the Blocks in the Chortitza Colony. However, there are also several Block lines of families in the Molotschna Colony and further study is needed to determine whether or not they have a common ancestor.
In 1895 the Kronsgarten Peter Block's son, Peter (1822- 1901), was looking for the descendants of his father's brother. A letter of his appeared in the May 29 issue of Mennonitische Rundschau. This letter reveals quite a different story about the origin of the Block brothers. Peter Block wrote that his father came to Russia in 1819 and settled in Kronsgarten, leaving behind in Prussia his mother, four brothers, Heinrich, David, Jakob and Johann, and one sister, Anna. All of his father's brothers remained single, except David. Peter Block was the only one of his family to move to Russia from Prussia.
This information helps to confirm the belief that the Kronsgarten Peter is the son of a Salomon Block2 found in the Montau church records of Prussia. This Salomon Block, a resident of the village of Montau, Kreis Schwetz, was married in GroŠ Lubin3 on August 24, 1792. The following are believed to be his children: Heinrich, 1793-1794; Heinrich, b. Jan. 1, 1795, (possibly the one who moved to Deutsch Kazun where he died in 1841), no record of a marriage; Peter, b. April 29, 1797 (the Kronsgarten Peter Block)4; David, b. Jan. 27, 17995, and Maria, b. Dec. 21, 1803.
This family also included: Katharina, b. Oct. 26, 1801; Anna, b. March
The many requests we have received for information on the Kronsgarten Peter Block indicate the large number of his descendants presently living in Canada. Their genealogies have been documented in at least eleven family histories in our library.
In the past decade Henry J. Block from Campden, Ontario, has taken on the phenomenal task of compiling the genealogy of these families and also collecting interesting stories reflecting their life and character. His computer is now able to produce not only the genealogy, but a variety of other fascinating statistics about these families.
Let me briefly introduce you to Peter Block, the person whose life has sparked the interest of so mamny of his descendants. Besides being a wealthy9 farmer and entrepreneur, he was elected minister of the Kronsweide Mennonite church in Kronsgarten in 1833. Kornelius Hildebrandt, the son of the Zltester Jacob Hildebrandt (1795-1867), reported that Peter Block discontinued preaching because of apparent quarrels in the church. It would be interesting to find further details about this disagreement.
Peter Block had 15 children with his first wife, Maria Bartel. After Maria's death, he remained a widower until all his children had married. He was over 70 years old when he went to the Molotschna Colony to choose his second wife, namely the widow Anna Neufeld (nee Zacharias) who was younger than most of his children. Two daughters were born to this marriage.
It is interesting to note that both of his wives had connections with Kleingemeinde families in the Molotschna. I have often puzzled about a note in the Tagebuch of Cornelius Loewen (1827-1893) referring to money he had borrowed from Abraham Block (Peter Block's son) in 1864. Now the research of Delbert Plett has revealed the connection of this large Kleingemeinde Loewen clan to this Frisian Bartel family, namely the line of Peter Block's first wife, Maria Bartel.10
For those researchers who have been unable to connect to the Kronsgarten Peter Block, I would like to list a few Block families who settled in the Molotschna Colony. Any additional information, corrections, or comments from the readers would be appreciated.
The following data should serve to distinguish the Peter Block in Klein Lubin from the Kronsgarten Peter Block, born April 29, 1797 in Montau. The Peter Block who lived in Klein Lubin had the following children: Heinrich, b. March 17, 1792; a daughter, b. July 8, 1795; and Peter, b. August 20, 1797.
This Peter Block who was born in the same year as the Kronsgarten Block, could be the Peter Block in the 1835 census in Franzthal with children as follows: Heinrich, b-d?; Peter, who went to Konteniusfeld and married Katarina, b. 180711; Johann, b. ca 1801; David, b. ca 1801; and Jacob, b. ca 1812 and married to Anna Ratzlaff.12
The Dietrich Block family listed as resident of Franzthal in 1835 came from Reichenberg, Kreis Danzig, and was the son of David Block, b. 1779. He married Katharina Braun, b. 1779. Their children were: Katharina, b. 1799; Dirk, b. 1802; Maria, b. 1804; Heinrich, b. 1808; David, b. 1811; Sara, b. 1815; and Wilhelm, b. 1817. This family moved to Russia in 1818.
Another Block family is listed in the Tragheimerweide Mennonite Church records. The name Martin is prominent in this family. Martin Block (1740-1813) lived in Rudnerweide, Kreis Stuhm. His son, Martin, b. 1782, was married first to Maria Tgahrt (1780-1813) and then to Maria Block, b. 1791. Maria Block was the daughter of Gerhard Block (1742-1811) from Klein Schardau. Martin Block, b. 1782 was Zltester of the Rudnerweide Gemeinde (1807) and went to Russia in 1819. His family is listed in the GroŠweide Census of 1835. His children were Heinrich, b. 1806; Martin, b. 1811; Maria (1815-1816); Gerhard, b. 1816; and Peter, b. 1818.
The Lutheran Church Record of Culm lists a Hermann Block, b. 1823, residing in Dorposch, Schwetz and married in 1847 in Sch"nsee to Elizabeth Buller, b. 1820. We have no record of this family moving to Russia, but it resembles the Hermann Block line that lived in the Molotschna and later in Memrik. Hermann Block (1821-1912) in the Molotschna was the son of Hermann Block and was still living in Prussia in 1855. His brother Johann Block went to the Molotschna earlier since his son Heinrich was born in Liebenau, Molotschna in 1852.
The poet, Alexander Blok, who died in St. Petersburg in 1918 and sometimes mentioned as a possible descendant of the Kronsgarten Peter Block's brother, may have been confused with the Mennonite teacher and poet, Theodor Block, b. 1885. Theodor Block's poems were published in the 1920's and he is remembered in particular for writing the Hungerlieder.13
Although I was unable to connect the line of this talented writer to the Kronsgarten Peter Block, his ancestry may be of interest to our readers. Theodor Block's great-grandfather was Gerhard Block,14 b. 1778, who married Ewa Kliewer, b. 1804. At the age of 79 years he moved from Poland to Russia taking his belongings with him on a two-wheeled cart, with son Peter in the harness. Because of family connections, he settled in the Molotschna Colony.
The following children were born to Gerhard Block and Ewa Kliewer: Peter, b. 1827, married Katarina Jantz in 1850; David, b. 1829, married Marianna Rose in 1850; Andreas, b. 1831; Helena, b. 1841; and Sara, b. 1843.
Their son, Peter Block and Katarina Jantz had the following children: Heinrich, b. 1851 in Mentnau, and father of the poet, Theodore Block, b. Nov. 9, 1885 in Rueckenau, Molotschna; Kornelius, b. 1854 in Kicin (lived in retirement in Goessel, KS); and Peter, b. 1856 in Kicin.15
The theme chosen for the weekend was taken from Joshua 24:15, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." The process that culminated in this large number of people assembling in Winkler was started three years ago with a small, rather insignificant notice placed in several Mennonite publications. The notice simply stated, "Looking for Niebuhrs" and included an address and a telephone number. That little notice was the first step. It was followed by a small group meeting in Winnipeg on several occasions, and a meeting of 32 people in Donwood Manor, Winnipeg, MB in March of 1994.
All of the Niebuhr descendants at the meeting in Winkler discovered that they had one common ancestor in a Jacob Niebuhr (1766-1835), who was born in Prussia, came to Russia in 1789, had four children from a first marriage and ten more from a second marriage to Aganeta Wiebe (1780-1848). Of these fourteen children, four died at an early age, and of the remaining ten, only eight are known to have descendants: Anna B. 1797, Jacob b. 1801, Maria b. 1803, Aganeta B. 1806, Abram b. 1807, David b. 1813, Gerhard b. 1818, Katharina b. 1822, and Aron b. 1826.
The Abram and Gerhard lines produced several generations of factory and mill owners in Russia, but the affluence that these Niebuhrs experienced came to an abrupt end following the Russian Revolution. Some of the Niebuhr descendants who gathered in Winkler for this occasion had never even heard of these affluent ancestors; with others it was just a memory. Most of those who came for the Niebuhr gathering were more interested in hearing of God's mercy in the lives of our ancestors as well as in the lives of present-day Niebuhr descendants.
According to the registration at the Nieburh gathering, all four western provinces, as well as Ontario, were represented, but 75% of those present came from Manitoba, mainly from Winnipeg and the Winkler area. Four people had come from Germany and a family of five had arrived from the state of New Mexico.
A desire was expressed at the Winkler gathering by some to have another assembly in the future and have a book prepared about the Niebuhrs. A decision regarding those wishes is pending.
by Harry Loewen
Dr. Harry Loewen is currently the holder of Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.
J.B. is not a weeping is not a weeping Jeremia - he is much too rational and realistic for that - but like the Old Testament Job, whose name resembles Toews' initials, J.B. asks questions, reflects on the ways of God, and struggles with God and colleagues about his own life and that of his denomination. The burden this MB patriarch carries is evident in every chapter of this autobiography - even in his writing style.
"As I reflect on my years in various levels of conference leadership," he writes, "I continue to grieve over the relentless move toward greater professionalization of the ministry . . . it has resulted in the institutionalization of the church. From a covenant people . . . we have drifted to become a mere association of independent churches. This is partly due to the influence of American evangelicalism with its emphasis on the benefits of salvation without a consistent biblical theology . . ." (pp. 191-92).
Born in 1906 in Ukraine, J.B. escaped from the Soviet Union as a young man and then went to Germany, Holland, England and eventually to Canada. Unlike many other Mennonite young men in the 1920s, Toews had begun to study liberal arts and theology in Europe. In Canada he had to help his family with farming, but his quest for knowledge, education and purpose in life left him restless and unfulfilled.
The thought of serving his church was always present, but he resisted it, for he did not want to remain poor all his life. It was his future wife, Nettie, who assured the struggling young man that, "it was alright to be poor". This put J.B.'s mind at ease and together with Nettie he devoted all his energies to the building of the Mennonite Brethren Church in education, missions, and conference work.
This autobiography of a Mennonite leader is different from other Mennonite memoirs. Toews does not merely record the various stages in his and his church's pilgrimage. Like a true prophet he expresses great love for his church and points out the direction for its future. But he also criticizes the MB conferences and their present leadership.
"Throughout my ministry I have been troubled by the absence of historical perspective among Mennonite Brethren. Esteemed leaders and colleagues, though deeply committed to the Scriptures, do not connect our theological heritage to our Anabaptist origins in the sixteenth century." Even the MB "Distinctives" of 1966, according to Toews, "made no reference to our historic origin so distinctly focused in the 1860 founding documents of the Mennonite Brethren" (pp. 120-21).
While recognizing his leadership gifts, Toews throughout his book expresses humility and modesty and readily acknowledges his own failures and weaknesses in ministry. With regard to his late wife Nettie and his three sons, J.B. becomes attractively human. His deep love and respect for them and his regret for having neglected them so often due to his many absences from home, are most touching.
The book includes numerous photographs of J.B.'s life and work. Mennonite Brethren would do well to heed the voice and pointing finger of one of their very best leaders.
A Christian Response to Hunger. A History of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (pb., 146 pp.) was researched and written by Betty Dyck. A research draft is available from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank at: 400-280 Smith, Winnipeg, MB R3C 1K2.
Isaac Tiessen of Aylmer, ON has published Why I do Not Take the Sword (Pathway Publishers, 1991, pb., 158 pp.). For copies write to the author at Route 4, Aylmer, ONT N5H 2R3. Includes an interesting section on the Selbstschutz, and parts of a diary by Tina Hildebrand (1919, Eichenfeld).
A major study of the Church of the Brethren titled Brethren Society. The Cultural Transformation of a "Peculiar People" (pb., 491 pp., 1995) has been written by Carl F. Bowman and published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Write to: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2715 North Charles St., Baltimore, Maryland, USA 21218-4319.
In conjunction with the 70th anniversary of Mennonite immigration (1925-1995) to this area the Essex-Kent Mennonite Historical Association has published a book entitled Biographies of our Late Leaders and Histories of the Mennonite Churches in Essex and Kent Counties. It was edited by Gisela Schartner and Astrid Koop. The publication contains reports from the 14 Mennonite congregations in Essex and Kent counties, Ontario, and features the life stories of 27 deceased ministers. The 8" x 10 1/2" book consists of 150 pages of easy-to-read print and 41 photos. To order write to: EKMHA, 31 Pickwick Drive, Leamington, ON N8H 5C3. Cost: $14.95 with $3.50 extra for postage and handling.
Walfried Goossen has written Anabaptism. A Dying Candle (Winnipeg, MB: Henderson Books, 1994, pb., 79 pp.) as a searching critique of currently-practised applications of Anabaptist thought and ideas.
Plough Publishing House now offers its readers, He is our Peace. Meditations on Christian Nonviolence. From the writings of Howard Goeringer, Eberhard Arnold, Christoph E. Blumhardt, and others (pb., 169 pp., $10.00 US incl. postage). Order from: Plough Publishing House, H.B. Service Committee. Spring Valley Rd. 2, Box 446, Rt. 381 N., Farmington, PA USA 15437-9506.
Many people will be interested in Abram B. Giesbrecht's list of the first Mennonite immigrants moving to Paraguay. The book is entitled, Die ersten mennonitischen Einwanderer in Paraguay. (pb., 84 pp., $10.50). The lists include names of immigrants, age, place of birth (country), date of birth and place of origin at time of moving. Order from Loma Plata in the Menno Colony, Paraguay. Just off the press is Orenburg. Die letzte mennonitische Ansiedlung in Osteuropa by Karl Fast with editorial help from Gerhard Ens (pb., 225 pp., $25.00). Another new book on Orenburg Mennonites is Jacob Rempel's Dolinowwka zur Geschichte eines deutschen Dorfes in Russland (1995, pb., 88 pp., $20.00). We also noted recently that an older but still very useful book Orenburg am Ural by P.P. Dyck has been reprinted. Another very new book is Memories from My Life - Heinrich J. Friesen edited by Rudy and Irwin Friesen (1995, pb., 192 pp.). All items may be ordered from the Mennonite Heritage Centre.