News from MHA

‘The past always has something to say’

Manitoba Mennonites’ ancestors benefit from immunizations 200 years ago

By Brenda Suderman, faith reporter, Winnipeg Free Press
May 1, 2021

Photo of Conrad Stoesz, Mennonite Heritage Archives archivist, with microfilm of lists of Mennonite children innoculated against smallpox 200 years ago. Mennonite archivist Conrad Stoesz uncovers 200 year-old of Mennonite children who were innoculated against smallpox in Russia under an initiative by Catherine the Great, demonstrating that history has some lessons for current vaccination situation.

For a Winnipeg archivist, a bold move by an 18th-century Russian empress makes a strong case for people to get vaccinated during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Conrad Stoesz was reading about the efforts of Catherine the Great of Russia to protect her country against smallpox when he realized her connection to 200-year-old immunization records of Mennonite children held at Mennonite Heritage Archives at Canadian Mennonite University.

“I know people are discussing vaccinations and the safety of them and they’re wary of them,” says Stoesz, who has written about Catherine the Great’s immunization campaign in social media posts and German-language newspapers read by conservative Mennonite groups.

“Two hundred years ago people were trying out vaccinations and it works. Vaccines have shown to reduce illness.”

The 1809 and 1814 records lists names of about 400 children in the Chortitza and Molotschna Mennonite colonies, now part of the Ukraine, who were immunized against smallpox by medical personnel travelling from village to village, Stoesz says.

Descendants of those children were among the thousands of Mennonites who emigrated to Manitoba in the 1870s, including previous generations of Stoesz’s family.

“I might not be around today if some of (my) ancestors weren’t vaccinated,” he says of his personal connection to the two century-old lists, held on microfiche provided by Odessa Archives in Ukraine.


Catherine the Great began a country-wide immunization effort against smallpox in 1768, after inviting British physician Thomas Dinsdale to use her and her son Paul as test subjects for an inoculation procedure that provoked a mild form of the disease in a healthy person.

English surgeon Edward Jenner had developed a smallpox vaccine derived from a pox-type virus related to smallpox in the late 18th century. Smallpox killed about 30 per cent of those infected, and often marked the recovered with deep pitted scars. In 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eradicated.

Printed copy from microfilm, of lists of Mennonite children innoculated against smallpox 200 years ago.

By 1800, about two million Russians had been vaccinated, and these Mennonite records demonstrate that the efforts continued into the 19th century, says an American family physician who transcribed the original records two decades ago.

“Our Mennonite ancestors were being pretty avant-garde and were starting to immunize their children against something very lethal at the time,” says Dr. Tim Janzen of Portland, Ore., who researches Mennonite history and genealogy in his spare time.

Like other families in Russia and around the world, Mennonites would have lost children to smallpox and may have been eager for their children to gain immunity, says Janzen, who fields questions daily from his patients about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

Stoesz says the historical immunization lists offer some hope for our situation in the current global pandemic and set an example for some religious groups hesitant to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The past always has something to say,” he says.

“We just have to be looking for it and be attentive to it.”

Mennonites are encouraged to set another trend during this pandemic by lobbying Canadian politicians to donate excess vaccine supplies to other countries in need, says Anna Vogt, director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Ottawa office.

“The pandemic won’t stop anywhere until the pandemic stops everywhere,” she says of the reason for the campaign launched April 19 by the international relief and development organization.

Vogt says although Canadians have access to vaccinations in 2021, many others in the world don’t, and Canada has purchased more vaccine than it can use. MCC sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, federal cabinet ministers and opposition MPS asking them to create and implement a plan to redistribute excess Canadian vaccines to essential workers in low and middle income countries.

She encourages people of faith to send their own electronic message to political leaders by following the links at

“We’re really hoping Canadians of faith will join us in asking our government to do more in support of equitable vaccine access,” says Vogt.


*The original article can be viewed on the Winnipeg Free Press website.

The Move to Mexico and Paraguay: A Call for Materials

The Mennonite Heritage Archives (MHA) is working with the Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) in Steinbach, D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation, and the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada in preparation for the commemoration of the movement of Mennonites from Canada to Mexico and Latin America in the 1920s. But we are looking for your help!

MHA is looking for archival materials that tell this story including oral interviews, photos, correspondence, diaries, and journals. MHV is looking for artifacts, which could include clothing, items relating to farm and home life, travel items, toys, or any other item with a story to tell that relates to the emigration of Mennonites from Canada to Latin America.

In the context of the First World War, the provincial governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan wanted more compliant citizens. Officials believed they could instill more British values through the school system and, therefore, legislated that all children must attend government-run schools.

Three women at the Altona train station saying good bye to friends, ca. 1926. Far left is Helen Stoesz (1877–1968). Photo credit: MAID CA MHC PP-22 – Photo Col. 639-20.0.

Some Mennonite groups complied with the new legislation, believing they could instill their values in other ways. However, other Mennonite groups resisted, believing education was the responsibility of the church and home, not the government. They pointed to the federal government’s 1873 letter of invitation explicitly offering freedom of religion and education.

The provincial governments also expropriated land for the new schools. If parents did not send their children to the government school, they were fined, imprisoned, and had their farm implements, livestock, and even food confiscated.

Between 1918 and 1925, there were over 5,500 prosecutions in Saskatchewan alone. In Manitoba, between 1917 and 1921, there were over $3,600 of fines collected from parents charged with not sending their children to the government-run schools. While the details of the larger story are documented, we lack individual stories revealing the struggle parents had in the education question, the impact of the fines on the family, the experience of having machinery or livestock confiscated. What was it like packing up the house and selling much of the household goods? Was the trip to Mexico exciting? What were the first months like in Mexico? These and other questions are being asked ahead of the 100th anniversary of this momentous migration.


About 7,000 Mennonites left Canada in the 1920s, believing Canada had broken its promise (see the lead article in Mennonite Historian Volume 47, No. 1 March 2021). It was one of the largest movements out of the country since Canada’s confederation in 1867. These events have made an indelible mark on those who left, those who stayed, and on the countries they call home.

Some Mennonites who moved south were in dire straits because of the fines and travel costs. Even if they wanted to return to Canada, many did not have the means. Getting established in Mexico and Paraguay was difficult.

The move to Paraguay in 1926 saw 9.5% of the immigrants die by the end of 1928. But with hard work, ingenuity, and support from within the community, the
Mennonites were able to thrive. Today they are major economic players within their countries. But the scars of the government schools issue have left some with a longstanding suspicion of higher education.

The move to Mexico and Paraguay also changed the identity of the Mennonites who stayed in Canada. It is common for people to talk about “conservatives” and “liberals”; other rubrics use the terms “tradition-minded” and “assimilation-minded” as opposite ends of the continuum. The groups that left were the more tradition-minded, and they were in the majority in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Their views and values were the norm.

Not only did the more tradition-minded leave in the move to Mexico and Paraguay, their farms were taken up by some of the 20,000 Mennonites escaping hardship in Russia between 1923–1930. These new immigrants were related to those in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Mexico, and Paraguay, but 50 years of separation had resulted in many differences between the newly arrived Russländer and the Kanadier who started from scratch on the prairie in the 1870s.

Many who emigrated maintained ties with Canada, and in some cases citizenship, so that some of their children and grandchildren have returned to Canada.


This story has themes related to justice, immigration, education, and multiculturalism. If you have materials that could help tell this story, please be in touch with Conrad Stoesz at the Mennonite Heritage Archives ( or Andrea Klassen at the Mennonite Heritage Village (

New MCC Archivist

By Conrad Stoesz

Andrew Klassen Brown. Photo by Conrad Stoesz.

There is a new Mennonite archivist in town!  Andrew Klassen Brown began his role as Records Manager and Archivist at Mennonite Central Committee Canada at the beginning of December 2020.  A series of short-term church and archival jobs have helped him prepare for this new role.  Klassen Brows says that “I seem to have stumbled upon the Mennonite archiving community almost by accident.” 

In 2016, Klassen Brown graduated from Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) and was chosen by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission for the Archival Internship program.  He spent of five weeks visiting each of the Mennonite Brethren archival Centres in North America (Fresno, Hillsboro, Winnipeg, and Abbotsford) during the months of May and June.  His tasks included scanning images, keeping a blog, compiling information on the theme of migration, and entering data into the Mennonite Archival Information Database.  During this time Klassen Brown had moved his career goal away from becoming a high school teacher and enrolled in a master’s degree at CMU in Theology and History. 

In the summer of 2017 Andrew landed a term position at the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies funded by the Young Canada Works program.  Under the supervision of Director Jon Isaak, Klassen Brown developed his skills around archival arrangement and description. From 2018-2019, Klassen Brown was the executive assistant at Mennonite Church Canada where he put his organizational skills to good use.  Through the denomination’s transition to a smaller organization, there was a lot of sorting out that needed to be done.  


In the spring and summer of 2020, he worked for the Mennonite Heritage Archives thanks to funding from the Young Canada Works program.  Andrew organized and described a number of congregational records from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  Because of the pandemic this work was mostly accomplished at home but with daily check ins via zoom with archivist Conrad Stoesz.  For many of the congregations he also wrote Facebook posts.  This task encouraged deeper thinking about the records he was working with, the congregation, its context and the people who were part of that community.  It led to long discussions about the church, community, urban, rural, and conservative, liberal, and changing values. The social media posts he created were well received with an average of 7000 views for each post. According to Klassen Brown “working with Mennonite archives has not only been a job for me but has also connected me to people in my community, allowed me to learn more about my faith, and has paired well alongside my academic work throughout my studies.” 

Andrew continues to be involved with the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society.  He plans on graduating with a MA from CMU in Spring 2021.  His thesis explores the connections between apocalyptic expectation and peace theology in the sixteenth century, using Clemens Adler and Menno Simons as case studies.  

Andrew is excited to be in this new role with MCC. “My hope for this role is that I can make the stories of the good work that MCC does around the world and in our backyard accessible to inspire people in the present and future to continue the vital ministries of relief, development, and peace in the name of Christ. 


Royden Loewen: Farmer, Historian, Storyteller

Interview conducted by Robb Nickel

Newly minted retiree, Royden Loewen grew up on a farm near Blumenort, East Reserve, southern Manitoba. I knew there was a guy named Royden Loewen who taught Mennonite history at the University of Winnipeg (UW), but I really got to know him when he and Mary Ann (his partner) began attending Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship. He became more than a historian, I saw him in the role of father, grandfather, friend, avid reader and willing volunteer when it came to church assignments. I also got to know the farmer who parked his red pickup truck on the driveway beside the Red River at his home across the river from mine. Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Archives presented me with the privilege of interviewing Royden and hopefully, the following questions and answers will shed a light on who this man is…

Robb: First, tell me a bit about your background, childhood, growing up in the Kleine Gemeinde Church near Steinbach, something about the experience of having grandparents who moved to Mexico, what led you to the study of Mennonite History and acquiring a Ph.D.

Royden: I recall the Blumenort EMC church (formerly Kleine Gemeinde) when it still had its German Sunday, no piano, the pastor (my uncle John) without a tie, my older sisters chastised for not wearing head coverings; all that changed in my youth, but I nevertheless witnessed it, and knew about the plain people part of my history.  My own grandparents, Isaac and Maria Loewen, moved to Mexico in 1950 with most of my uncles and aunts, and I have been to Mexico in every decade of my life – that Mexico connection and that we had not moved was part my identity.  My father was the rebel – the true evangelical Christian does not run from the world – he doubled down to make sure we would assimilate; he expanded the farm and sold the cows, pigs and horses and specialized in poultry, my mother dressed to the nines, we children were not allowed to speak Low German, dad would have been so pleased if we had all married non-Mennonites and non-white Mennonites at that!  I rebelled by studying Mennonite history and marrying a Mennonite!  About Mennonite history: I had other interests – politics, law, geography – but I consistently obtained my best marks in history, and my first-year history prof at MBBC, Dr. George Epp, had me spell bound in the first year Western Civ. course.  I honed my teaching (and my worldview) at Fisher River First Nation where I taught from age 24 to 26, and there found deep satisfaction in adding Indigenous history to the high school curriculum, at the very time that I was invited to write a history of my home community of Blumenort; the exercise of these two initiatives both rested in the idea of creating narratives for ‘people without history’, to allude to Eric Wolf’s classic by that title.   Mennonite history was my narrative and Blumenort became my MA thesis, and a history of the Kleine Gemeinde, my people, in Nebraska and Manitoba, became my PhD dissertation; my newest book, in press right now at Johns Hopkins University Press, and based on the Seven Points on Earth project – an environmental history of seven Mennonite farm communities from around the world – is merely the offspring of a life-time interest in creating narratives for people, and the Mennonites are my people. 


Robb: How did the Chair in Mennonite Studies at the UW become yours? What was the program like when you took over, how has it changed under your leadership and where do you see it going after you leave?

Royden: Well, I applied for it and this is the job I got; within the month of being interviewed for the Mennonite Studies position I was also interviewed for Canadian history at the University of Washington at Bellingham, and before that for positions in Ethnic Studies at University of Calgary, Canadian history at Isaac Brock in St. Catharines, and there were a number of other possibilities; so, it must have been destiny!  I think the timing was good: in 1996 I had just completed a stint as Fulbright Fellow at the University of Chicago, my first university press book had won some nice awards, so I think I had somehow come onto the radar of the folks at UW; it didn’t hurt that Dr. Harry Loewen, the Chair in Mennonite Studies at the time asked me to give the fall public Mennonite Studies lecture at UW the year before in 1995 and the lectures were on the history of gender, which was a new turn in a sense in Mennonite Studies which had had a more literary and theological focus.  My answer to this question I think will be fleshed out in answers to questions below.

Robb: What are some of the changes you have seen in the field called Mennonite Studies? Also, how is your work integrated with the work being done at the Mennonite Heritage Archives?

Royden: I think the big changes come with changes in leadership: my predecessor Dr. Harry Loewen was an expert in Reformation Studies and German Literature, and my own was in Canadian Social History, and my successor is an expert in yet another subfield of Mennonites.  So the changes of note are those at the nexuses of generational succession.  My own interests have changed somewhat – perhaps from issues of ethnoreligious identity to those of power and nature – but at the foundation they have always been with the everyday expressions of culture and faith, with seeking to understand how people put their local worlds together.  Thus, my abiding interest and the things I have written about, relate to everyday religion, gender relations, generational succession (inheritance, mythology, lore, personal narratives such a diaries and memoir).  At heart I think I’m an anthropologist, I wonder about how people order their worlds in the chaos of life and create symbols of meaning.  The Mennonite Heritage Archives is crucial in these pursuits: historians can only write about stuff they can know about; I have chatted with Conrad Stoesz, and before him Lawrence Klippenstein, and the other directors, on a regular basis over the years; the role of the archivist is an absolutely crucial role for any community; the archivist is the custodian of the record of knowledge; the historian’s job is to interpret and mobilize that knowledge.

Robb: List a few of your major accomplishments as Chair of Mennonite Studies.

Royden: I would rather answer this question with regard to what were my most satisfying activities, and they were numerous: I loved editing the Journal of Mennonite Studies and working with the some 300 individuals who published in it over the 24 years I was editor; I enjoyed developing new courses, (and to the final year, gained satisfaction in developing an Indigenous-Mennonite relations course that I never got to teach); I have always found peace in the act of writing and much enjoyed putting together a variety of history narratives in book form; I gained a great deal of satisfaction in working with various groups of scholars in creating and delivering on the annual (October usually) Mennonite Studies conferences; I loved teaching at all levels and rousing the curiosity of Mennonite history in students; I enjoyed working on the bones of the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies (CTMS), negotiating with UW administration; I felt great satisfaction in working with colleagues and they are too numerous to enumerate, but Hans Werner, Andrea Dyck and I were for a long time a team at CTMS, and in more recent years it was Aileen Friesen and Jeremy Wiebe; even the process of working at handing off to Ben Nobbs-Thiessen, my successor, was satisfying.  

Robb: Has the interest in Mennonite Studies grown during your tenure, have the students changed and has there been an increase in interest in this field?

Royden: For sure: class size has grown steadily; remarkably Mennonite Studies I and II, our second-year foundation courses, easily compete in size with other history or religious studies courses at UW, and graduate students wishing supervision in some aspect of Mennonite history have been there in respectable numbers as well.  The students themselves were similar somehow over the 24 years I served as Chair: oftentimes I thought, they were 1/3 practicing Mennonites, 1/3 near Mennonites (they were dating a Mennonite, their grandmother was a Mennonite, they somehow had fallen in love with Mennonites) and then 1/3 who had no clue about Mennonites or Christianity or Protestantism, but needed a history or religious studies credit; one student once told me that C.J. Dyck’s Introduction to Mennonite History was a lot less expensive than the textbook required for the first year biology course he was also considering, so, of course, he enrolled in Mennonite Studies.  My greatest satisfaction came from making Mennonite history come alive for each of these student cohorts. 

Robb: What are some of the challenges you have worked at and see for the future of Mennonite Studies? Is there adequate funding for this kind of program?

Royden: One of the main preoccupations in the last years at UW was to create the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies (linking the Chair in Mennonite Studies formally with the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation) and seeing it continue from the place that Hans Werner and I had taken it to.  Getting the UW administration to agree to fill Hans’s position as Mennonite historian and ED of Plett and finding that person in Dr. Aileen Friesen, a gifted specialist in Russian Mennonite history and then my own position ultimately with Dr. Ben Nobbs-Thiessen, an equally gifted specialist in Latin American Mennonites from an environmental history perspective, was a bit of work. The future of the program is in their hands now; and given that we have a specialist in Canadian Mennonite history, Jeremy Wiebe, working as the Centre’s financial and communications officer, rounds out a dynamic team of young scholars.  And without going into details, the CTMS at UW is very well-funded, with generous support from a range of donors, beginning with a very substantive  gift back in 1978 from David and Katherine Friesen of Qualico Homes, the Federal Government, the UW itself, and from a host of more recent donors, all allowing for endowments to undergird every aspect of its program: and with possibilities of growth in the future, and collaboration with other institutions, such as Canadian Mennonite University.

Robb: What are some of the important lessons you have learned over the years about education, about Mennonites, about yourself and the community you choose to be a part of?

Royden: Education is to know yourself within a wider context, to build an identity, to learn how you are rooted in that context.  History is story that makes you who you are.  I am never bored talking to anyone, that is, if they allow me into their stories.  Every person has a story that is complex, consequential, compelling.  And I have my own story: I talk easily about my grandparents moving to Mexico and my grandfather Isaac Loewen opening an English language book store once he got there; I grew up in a happy home, was close to my father, respected him, came to know my mother well after my dad died, hearing her stories of growing up in very poor circumstances; I admired their commitment to non-violence.  My world expanded at MBBC which in the 1970s had discovered and embraced the ‘Anabaptist Vision’ as well as critical thinking. I found in Mary Ann a soulmate and we have travelled a parallel intellectual pilgrimage of finding meaning in a poetics of faith, and locating ourselves within community, in the various church communities we have been members of or even churches we have attended fleetingly on our various sabbaticals – Chicago, Victoria BC, Guelph/KW, Cambridge (England), Santa Cruz (Bolivia) – it’s been humbling and life-giving and redemptive.

Robb: How do you feel about leaving your “post” and what are you going to pursue in retirement? Maybe share a bit about your farming, organic and all.

Royden: I feel really good about leaving with a Centre in place with talented, energetic, committed young scholars; I have told both Aileen and Ben that I will gain a great deal of pleasure watching to see how they grow and develop the CTMS program.  I’m not easily given to sit back (for better or worse) and will be doing things: I have two lovely grandchildren – Remy and Kay – who live a 10 minute bike ride from our house, I talk to each of my own children – Becky, Meg and Sasha – regularly and often, and am challenged by their own aspirations and the big questions they ask. I love being with Mary Ann (cycling, talking, drinking coffee, planning).  We have a large garden and a dozen chickens at Millview, our acreage near Steinbach.  I still serve on too many Mennonite history committees and boards.  And there is our Millview Grain Inc,  a certified organic farm from which I gain a great deal of satisfaction – organic ag is more work and more involved but much more interesting to me than conventional or chemical-based farming; just this last week I had multiple phone calls with Alden Braul from BC regarding alfalfa seed sales, a rep from Harvest Manitoba regarding hemp sales, an organic wheat purchaser from Quebec, crops we grew on the farm this year, all now safely tucked away in granaries.  And I look forward to final fall tillage, preparing the seed bed for next year, tending to drainage and fertility; and building on this I serve on the Manitoba Organic Alliance board.  Of immense importance, my partner on our farm is our son Sasha, who is studying agriculture in Montana and using our farm program as part of his dissertation.  And then too, there is the new Transnational Flows of Agriculture Knowledge (TFOAK) research program that is well funded with a multi-year SSHRC Insight Grant, and sees a team of students analyze everything Mennonite about this intellectual problem – how does agricultural knowledge envelope itself with power and within an international context.

Robb: Give me a final word, perhaps about what gave you the most joy in your Mennonite Studies work.

Royden: There was a lot of joy: to help provide people with a story of who they are: to teach Mennonite Studies I (i.e. Anabaptist history) to students of Mennonite descent or even practicing Mennonite, but who were unaware of the rich and varied history of the Anabaptists – the politicized vision of the authors of the Schleitheim confession, the remarkable women, the odd mystics, the passion of Menno Simons, even the nasty Anabaptists; to explore Mennonite history in all its iterations, especially apparent to me in the annual Mennonite Studies; to see the Anabaptist hermeneutic work its way out in the various themes of the 25 conferences I had the privilege to work on – regarding Mennonites and money, mental health, literature, Indigenous-Mennonite relations, technology, pacifism, anthropology.   I come back to helping people find stories that root them and tend to their curiosities of who they are and who their neighbours are.

Robb: Thank you, very much, Royden, for providing interesting and thoughtful answers to my questions. May God go with you in retirement, as you seek to serve God in the many endeavours you have shared with us.


Mennonite Heritage Archives part of groundbreaking storytelling project

Thursday, November 12, 2020

When we think of preserving history in archives, our first thoughts might be of digging through boxes of grandma’s things in the attic or leafing through yellowing photo albums. But that is not the whole picture.

The Mennonite Heritage Archives (MHA), located on CMU’s campus and supported by CMU, is calling on Mennonites and Anabaptists to share their experiences during the remarkable historical, biological, and social events of 2020 as part of Anabaptist History Today (AHT), a groundbreaking collaborative storytelling project.

CMU Chapel arranged to provide physical distancing, as captured by Conrad Stoesz, Archivist at the MHA. (photo: Conrad Stoesz)

AHT was launched in the summer of 2020 and is the first large-scale, collaborative digital project of its kind in the Anabaptist community. The MHA is one of sixteen North American Anabaptist archives and history organizations participating in the project, led by Mennonite Church USA Archives and Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.

It can often take decades for stories to reach the archives, but AHT is using crowdsourcing to capture history being made right now, from COVID-19 to the Black Lives Matter movement to climate change. The online form that guides people through uploading their contributions is easy to use and empowers the average person to create a lasting record that will be stored in the archives.


The MHA invites individuals, congregations, schools, and organizations to tell their stories of living during these changing times. Contributors can share their experiences through a variety of media, including videos, audio recordings, photos, journal entries, artwork, poetry, and personal reflections.

Marpeck Commons at CMU set up to facilitate physical distancing (photo: Conrad Stoesz)

At the time of this article’s publication, 33 records had been submitted to the project so far. Conrad Stoesz, Archivist at the MHA, hopes the website will continue to receive more contributions to get a broad perspective of how Mennonites are experiencing life during these unprecedented times.

Stoesz has already entered multiple submissions, including two photos of CMU from March 2020. One shows an empty Marpeck Commons, with tables spread far apart and a lone chair seated at each table. The other depicts the CMU chapel set up for physical distancing in preparation for a staff gathering.

He hopes the AHT project will raise awareness about the important work heritage institutions continue to do in our world today. To learn more, visit


*This article was originally published on CMU’s Media Centre Stories page.

Mennonites and Anabaptists Called to Join Groundbreaking Storytelling Project

by Candace Derksen and Chris Sumner, Pembina Valley Online
Friday, October 16 2020

Stoesz says the digital archive will capture the stories happening in our communities during this “unique” time we are living in. Supplied photos.

Mennonites and Anabaptists are being called upon to share their experiences of 2020 as part of a groundbreaking storytelling project.

Anabaptist History Today is the first large-scale, collaborative digital project of its kind in the Anabaptist community, and includes 16 partner organizations from across North America. It relies on crowd-sourcing to detail peoples’ experiences of the remarkable historical, biological and social events of 2020.

“It recognizes that we’re living in some very unique times, and so how do we capture what’s going on in our communities? “, said Conrad Stoesz, archivist at Mennonite Heritage Archives (MHA), one of three Canadian partners in the project.

While MHA’s focus, for the most part, has been to highlight what COVID-19 has brought and taken away from our communities, Stoesz notes their American partners have added material that centres more on the political and social events happening in that country.


Individuals, congregations, schools and organizations are invited to tell their stories of living during these changing times and can share their experiences through a variety of media, including videos, audio recordings, photos, journal entries, artwork, poetry and personal reflections.

The goal, according to Stoesz, is to give people a sense of what living through 2020 and 2021 was like by depicting what has changed, what’s different or stayed the same, how people are coping or taking care of each other or what cracks in the system they are observing.

“Even masks,” he added. “Masks are a big thing these days. Wouldn’t it be nice to upload some pictures of people wearing masks and the creative ways they are expressing themselves?”

Stoesz notes this project is a unique way to capture how the year is impacting a variety of people and gives the average person a voice. He says these contributions will be preserved for the future and will live on in the community archives.

*The original article can be read at Pembina Valley Online.

Here are two interview clips of Conrad Stoesz talking about Anabaptist History Today to Chris Sumner for the CFAM Blog.

This is the first large-scale, collaborative digital project of its kind in the Anabaptist community. In total there are sixteen North American Anabaptist archives and history organizations participating.
Conrad spoke about Mennonite Heritage Archives role in the project in an interview with Chris Sumner.


MHA COVID-19 Update

by Conrad Stoesz, Mennonite Historian
September 2020, Volume 46, No. 3, page 6

The effects of COVID-19 have been wide and far reaching.  The pandemic has significantly affected the archives but in perhaps surprising ways.

In early March things were operating normally but with a heightened awareness of the changing nature of our understanding of the virus and its potential impact until the archives, and the entire Canadian Mennonite University campus, was closed down on March 20, 2020.  For the next two weeks Selenna Wolfe and I worked from home.  Plans were made for an extended work from home period.  On April 3, Selenna was placed on temporary layoff until August 17.  Conrad was allowed to come into the archives for a few hours once a week.  Starting May 25 Conrad was allowed to work from the office part time and gradually back to full time work in the office.  During the work from home period, the Archives’ website was updated, writing projects were undertaken, meetings via Zoom were attended, Selenna took some professional development, and new ideas were considered.

As people were spending more time at home some of the “one day I want to” projects were started including sorting through family materials and starting family research projects.  These projects lead to more email inquiries about archival materials and resources. Most of these requests were placed on hold until staff could return to the office on a more regular basis.  Some volunteer projects could continue away from the office.  Helen Ens and Erica Ens continued translating, Carole Grier began typing manuscripts, Henry Fast continued indexing the newspaper Unterhaltungsblatt, and Alf Redekopp migrated our finding aids into the Mennonite Archival Information Database (MAID).  MAID itself underwent a huge shift with five new partners joining MAID and the migration of their finding aids was completed.


Our grant application for the digitization of film and sound recordings was not approved as the funder decided to direct money towards “projects that benefited vulnerable populations” during COVID-19.   However, in mid-January the application to the federal Young Canada Works program was completed and on April 30 we were notified that our application was successful. We were fortunate to hire Andrew Klassen Brown who has worked at processing records previously at the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies.  In addition to processing congregational records from home, Andrew has written Facebook posts and scanned the magazine Intotemak.

Travel has been severely impacted with the global lock down.  Our friends at TourMagination, that specialize in Mennonite heritage tours, adjusted their plans and called together a dozen Mennonite archives and museums in North America and created “The Anabaptist Story Lives on: Virtual Museum and Archive Tour.”  The Mennonite Heritage Archives was the first “stop” on the tour and Conrad’s thirty minute presentation was viewed by over 270 screens.  It was followed by a lively thirty minute question and answer period.  Response to the presentation has been very positive and can now be viewed on our website.

Conrad was part of the production of Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba 1890-1940.  Over half of the photos in the book come from the Mennonite Heritage Archives and features four photographers from the East and West Reserves.  It and the accompanying exhibit was delayed since the archives was closed, affecting last minute fact checking.  The launch finally happened outdoors on July 23rd at Altona’s Gallery in the Park.

Another new initiative is our participation in the “Anabaptist History Today” website collecting stories related to COVID-19 and the current remarkable historical, biological, and social events of our day.  All Mennonites/Anabaptists in North America are encourage to submit photos, video, poetry, essays, works of art, or personal reflections.  Sixteen Mennonite historical agencies in Canada and the USA are collaborating on this project, launched at the end of July, 2020.

Conrad and Selenna are now back working in the archives full time.  Unfortunately, our volunteers will not be coming to the office for the time being.  While the archives has been negatively affected by COVID-19 and its ripple effects, work has continued and offered some unforeseen positive opportunities.


Mennonite Heritage Archives seeks input for collaborative 2020 Anabaptist storytelling project

September 11, 2020

The Mennonite Heritage Archives (MHA) in Winnipeg is calling on Mennonites and Anabaptists to share their experiences during the remarkable historical, biological and social events of 2020 as part of Anabaptist History Today (AHT), a groundbreaking collaborative storytelling project.

The MHA is a partner in the project led by Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) Archives and Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, AHT is the first large-scale, collaborative digital project of its kind in the Anabaptist community. In total there are sixteen North American Anabaptist archives and history organizations participating.

It can take decades for stories to reach the archives but Anabaptist History Today uses crowd sourcing to capture stories happening today.  The easy to use online form allows anyone to upload their experiences from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter to politics. AHT empowers the average person to create a lasting record that will be stored in the archives.

The MHA invites individuals, congregations, schools and organizations to tell their stories of living during these changing times. Contributors may share their experiences through a variety of media, including videos, audio recordings, photos, journal entries, artwork, poetry and personal reflections. An online form guides contributors through the process.

To learn more about the AHT project, visit

The Mennonite Heritage Archives has been collecting the story of the Mennonite community since 1933 and is supported by Mennonite Church Canada, Canadian Mennonite University, and the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies.

Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba, 1890-1940

Roland Sawazky (left) and Conrad Stoesz (right) standing in front of Conrad’s favourite photo in the book. Roland’s holding the book, which features his favourite picture on the cover. Photo from Chris Sumner, CFAM Radio 950.

A new book available for purchase at MHA

On Thursday, July 23, 2020 the Mennonite Historical Arts Committee launched the book Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba, 1890-1940. In attendance was Mennonite Heritage Archives (MHA) archivist Conrad Stoesz. Stoesz co-authored the book and spoke at the event. Many of the original photographs in the art exhibit, currently at Gallery in the Park in Altona, MB, and book reside at MHA.

The book Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba, 1890-1940 is available for purchase at the Mennonite Heritage Archives and online at

“When many people think of the past – of family members we may never have met but are long gone – often a black and white image will come to mind.  A stiff image of people standing in front of the camera with a neutral expression on their face. This book has examples of this.  We tend to think of the past as black and white.  As a time when things were less complicated – when life was more black and white.

“But really is wasn’t.  People have always lived in full colour with complicated nuanced lives. Of course on many levels we know this – we and our ancestors saw in colour.  But I think the advent of black and white photography, while amazing, has also hindered our imagination of the past – confining it to black and white. Part of the beauty of this book is how – while the images are black and white – they help us see the past in colour – as complicated – as interesting.  You will find the stiff image of people posing for the camera, but you will find images of ingenuity, joy, pain, loss, make-believe, adventure, beauty and nature.  Thankfully these photographers took and kept images they created that show a fuller life experience than the typical portrait image.

“Projects like this not only show case history, it also validates it.  By going to all the work of creating this book and display people learn about the past and are encouraged to see this history as valuable.   But is does more – it creates momentum.  A reader of the Winnipeg Free Press read the article about this project and remembered a handful of negatives from the early 1900s stuck in a desk he inherited.  He contacted us and has now donated this set of negatives to the archives.   So projects like this create awareness, value, and momentum for more research and study.

“It has been a lot of fun working with this committee that has so many complimentary skills. We think you will enjoy this book helping us to see the past colour.”

Conrad Stoesz
Thursday, July 23, 2020
Speech given at the Book Launch of Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba, 1890-1940

Below are two audio clips from Chris Sumner of CFAM Radio 950 interviewing Roland Sawatzky and Conrad Stoesz, co-authors of Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba, 1890-1940, at the book launch.

Chris Sumner, CFAM Radio 950
Chris Sumner, CFAM Radio 950

* The audio content and photo found here are from Chris Sumner’s CFAM Blog post “New Book And Exhibit Challenges Assumptions Of Mennonite Settler Lives,” Pembina Valley Online.

‘We want to tell the story’

Tour company hosts virtual tours of Mennonite museums

Janet Bauman, Eastern Canada Correspondent, Canadian Mennonite
June 3, 2020, Volume 24 Issue 12

The original diaries of Johannes D. Dyck (1826-1898) tell, among other things, the stories of his adventures in America, including an escape from an ambush during the California Gold Rush. (Photo by Conrad Stoesz)

A Mennonite man escapes an ambush during the California Gold Rush because he had a fast horse. We know his story because he left behind a set of diaries. 

Another Mennonite stuffs his child’s doll with British and American currency, and smuggles it out of Russia in 1927. When his whole family is ordered off the train at the border and searched for valuables, the money remains safe inside the doll, sitting under a bench in the waiting room of the train station. Later, he uses the money to buy a farm in Saskatchewan, where the family eventually settles. We know this story because the family donated the doll to a place where it can be preserved. 

As Conrad Stoesz, archivist at Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, said, “Each piece tells a story.” The diaries and the doll are just some of the pieces he showed during a recent virtual tour of museums and archives dedicated to preserving Anabaptist-Mennonite stories. 

TourMagination, which normally leads faith-based group tours to many destinations around the world with heritage and cultural interest to Mennonites, had to get creative while travel is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Audrey Voth Petkau, the company’s president, who is passionate about history, and Sandra Reimer, communications strategist, initiated a meeting with eight archive and museum leaders from Canada and the United States who are struggling to “keep the story alive” while their centres are closed to the public during the pandemic.


TourMagination, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in June, has now paired up with these heritage experts to host “The Anabaptist story lives on: Virtual museum and Archive tour,” highlighting unique artifacts, photographs and documents that are part of the Anabaptist-Mennonite story. 

Reimer facilitates the online tours on Tuesday evenings in May and June. Each week archivists describe the features of their facilities and highlight some of the unique pieces of the story they house. There is time for participants to ask questions, and the virtual tours are recorded.

Doll from Johannes Dyck's Collection
In the doll that Johannes J. Dyck (1885-1948) gave his daughter he hid money and smuggled it past guards as he and his family escaped Russia by train in 1927. (Photo by Conrad Stoesz)

During the first tour, Stoesz discussed the importance of stories and how they can raise important questions and reflections.

He showed the diaries of Johannes D. Dyck (1826-1898), who left Prussia in 1846 to seek adventure in America, and got caught up in the California Gold Rush. And he showed the doll that Dyck’s grandson, Johannes J. Dyck (1885-1948), used to smuggle money out of Russia.

Was this Johannes “a clever man who fooled officials?” Or was he greedy, putting his family and others desperate to flee Russia at risk? These are the interesting and complicated questions that history invites people to ask, according to Stoesz. 

In the second virtual tour, Richard Thiessen, executive director of the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford, B.C., took his turn to help “connect and tell our stories” during the pandemic. Using several artifacts, he told the story of a Mennonite church in the Prussian/Polish village of Deutsch-Kazun that faced many transitions and tragedies from the time it was opened in 1834.

During the Second World War, the village was caught between warring sides. Hit by German shelling in September 1937, the church suffered severe damage. A half-dozen Mennonite homes were destroyed and seven Mennonites were killed. The Polish army, suspicious of German-speaking Mennonites, arrested and executed eight men and incarcerated the rest of them.

Within a matter of days, the Germans released the men. A stamp with a swastika on one of the church documents indicates that the Third Reich ruled the region for a time before the Soviet army advanced. Just before the village was overrun by the Soviet army in 1945, the last minister of the church had the foresight to grab several items from the church, bundle them together and carry them with him to Germany, and eventually to Canada. 

In his virtual tour, Thiessen showed the church registers, communion cups, plate and tablecloth that the last minister rescued in order to “preserve the story of the church.” One of the registers was damaged by a shell from the initial German attack. Thiessen posed the questions, if people today had to flee on short notice, “would we take anything from church, and, if so, what would we take?” 

In describing the role of archives and museums, Thiessen said, “We want to tell the story.”

These virtual tours offer participants a window into the unique artifacts that can help to do just that.

Future virtual tours will visit the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg, and the Mennonite Archives of Ontario in Waterloo, Ont., as well as make stops in Lancaster and Harleysville, Pa., Hillsboro, Kan., and Freeman, S.D. The complete list of tours, information on how to register, and links to recordings from past stops can be found at

TourMagination anticipates resuming its regular tours in 2021, or whenever the World Health Organization deems it safe to do so. Reimer said that tourism provides important income for many communities it visits around the globe.

Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Eastern Canada? Send it to Janet Bauman at


*To see Canadian Mennonite’s official article visit and the tour of Mennonite Heritage Archives is available on our Public Events webpage.

Century-old photos shed new light on Mennonites

New book portrays village life in Manitoba

by Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe, Manitoba Correspondent, Canadian Mennonite
May 20, 2020, Volume 24 Issue 11

Johann E. Funk took the cover photo for Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba 1890–1940 in 1903.

Hundred-year-old images on fragile glass negatives, discovered in a dusty barn in the heritage village of Neubergthal, Man., open a window to Mennonite life in Manitoba in the early 20th century.

These photographs, along with other archive collections, make up the new book, Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba 1890-1940. The volume is a collaborative effort of the Mennonite Historic Arts Committee, a group that formed in 2017 to work on this project. It is edited by committee member Susie Fisher, curator at Gallery in the Park in Altona, Man.

The book features images, many of which have never been seen before, by four Mennonite photographers from Manitoba: from the West Reserve, Peter G. Hamm of Neubergthal and Peter H. Klippenstein of Altbergthal; and from the East Reserve, Johann E. Funk of Schoenwiese and Heinrich D. Fast of Gruenfeld (now Kleefeld).

Peter G. Hamm took this photo of a horse and wagon in the 1920s. (Mennonite Heritage Archives photo)

Frieda Esau Klippenstein, a historian with Parks Canada, was doing heritage work in Neubergthal in the 1990s, when someone gave her a box of Hamm’s photos. “Looking through them, she realized how important they were not only to the history of the village but to the history of thinking about Mennonite settlement in Manitoba, and what kind of incredible detail they reveal about that early time,” Fisher says.


The committee spent several years discussing how to present the photos. Which ones should they choose? Many were cracked or mouldy; should they leave them as is or restore them to their original condition? They decided on a broad range of images that were clear and well preserved, and did minimal editing, removing only blemishes that distracted from the photo.

Peter H. Klippenstein took this photo of the Altbergthal village road in the 1930s. Subjects unknown. (Mennonite Heritage Archives photo)

The book shows what these Mennonite photographers were: artists. In addition to portraiture, “they were also observing their surroundings, being creative with the photos,” Fisher says. “We have quite a few photographers experimenting with things like double exposure, taking photos of their friends having fun. I think it changes the common opinion that Mennonites were sort of drab and dark and opposed to this kind of art. They obviously weren’t.”

Mennonite Village Photography is available now for pre-purchase and will be released in June. An exhibit at the Gallery in the Park is planned for June, but it will move online if restrictions due to COVID-19 continue. It will travel to the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery in Winnipeg the following year and the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach the year after that.

Photographer Peter H. Klippenstein took this portrait in the 1910s. Subject unknown. (Mennonite Heritage Archives photo)

Fisher emphasizes that the committee needs purchases and donations to make this project possible, saying, “We’re excited for it to finally get into people’s hands.”

To order Mennonite Village Photography, visit

Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Manitoba? Send it to Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe at


*To see Canadian Mennonite‘s official article visit

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