Mennonite German Society (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada)

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The Mennonite German Society, known in German as Mennonitischer Verein zur Pflege der deutschen Sprache in Canada and later shortened to Mennonitischer Sprachverein, had its founding meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba on 27 September 1952. At a final meeting on 18 October 2003 members agreed to officially dissolve the Society on 15 November 2003. For just over half a century the Society worked at its goal of "finding ways and means to preserve the German mother tongue for our community in Canada."

The Society was organized amid the turbulence of the post-World War II era, with the strain of the recent traumatic experiences and also its exuberant hope for a better future. For the Canadian Mennonites these included their wartime experiences, including especially those individuals and families affected by military or alternative service. For the newly arrived European Mennonite refugees they included the experiences of oppression in Communist Soviet Union and the horrors of the war, as well as their hopes for a new beginning in Canada. A major concern for all was how to establish or re-establish their identity amid the significant changes in their own experiences but also in the broader Canadian society around them.

One particular focus of this discussion dealt with the continued use of their traditional German language in an Anglophone environment. However, significant as the language question was in itself, it also symbolized the larger Mennonite cultural and religious identities, which for many were synonymous. While some Mennonites were deeply convinced of the need to adopt the English language, others were equally opposed to this change, signifying, as noted, not only the language change but also all things "English," i.e., foreign and "of the world." It was in this context that the Mennonite German Society became a major vehicle for those who were dedicated to preserving and promoting the Mennonites' German language and heritage.

It should be noted that the Mennonites with Swiss/American background, primarily in eastern Canada since the nineteenth century, had adjusted to life in Canada longer and in different ways than the Mennonites who had emigrated from Russia; they were only marginally affected by this movement. However, the leaders of the two major Russian Mennonite groups--those related to the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren--were united in promoting the concerns of the Society. Smaller Russian Mennonite groups, like the Evangelical Mennonite Church and the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, also became involved to a lesser extent.

The aim of the Society was to promote German language and heritage activities among Mennonites across Canada, i.e., from Ontario to British Columbia (BC). The primary leadership and the most active programs were always in Manitoba, centered in Winnipeg, but there were active branches in other provinces, notably in Vancouver and Clearbrook in BC and in St. Catharines/Vineland and Leamington in Ontario. Membership figures are difficult to ascertain but appear to have reached a peak of about 1,500 in the late 1950s, with more than half in Manitoba.

The programs of the Society included the promotion of German language education in public schools, special German Saturday schools, choir and other literary programs, a sizable German lending library, and a limited amount of publishing activity. Funding was received through basic membership fees, program receipts, and grants from various government agencies in Canada and Germany. Major encouragement came from the report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1969: the recommendations of the report, which were accepted by the federal government, opened the way for a more positive view of minority ethnic groups in Canada, additional funding for ethnically-oriented organizations, and expanded heritage language programs in the public schools. In Manitoba this led to the organization of the Manitoba Parents for German Education (later Manitobans for German Language Education) which was actively supported by the Society and allowed thousands of Mennonite children in public schools to be taught in a German immersion program.

The initial support for the Society by church leaders gradually waned as the general transition to English continued and as other church priorities emerged. As Society leaders and members grew older and younger members did not join the Society in large numbers, the vision and energy for continued programs began to fade until the organization was dissolved in 2003.

Influential leaders in the Society were the "founding father" and first president of the Society, Gerhard H. Peters (1889-1972), Heinrich Wiebe (1917-1986), Elisabeth Peters (1915-2011), George K. Epp (1924-1997), Karl Fast (1921-2005), and Gerhard Ens (1922-2011).

Bibliography

Kliewer, Victor D. The Mennonite German Society (Mennonitischer Sprachverein) 1952-2003: A Brief History. Winnipeg and Steinbach, MB: [The Mennonite German Society], 2014.

Archival Records

Mennonite German Society materials at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives, Winnipeg, Vols. 4146-4149 and other miscellaneous materials; see www.mennonitechurch.ca/programs/archives/.

Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg; see "Mennonitische Verein zur Erhaltung der Deutschen Sprache" at http://cmbs.mennonitebrethren.ca/inst_records/mennonitische-verein-zur-erhaltung-der-deutschen-sprache-winnipeg-mb/.


Author(s) Victor D Kliewer
Date Published September 2014


Cite This Article

MLA style

Kliewer, Victor D. "Mennonite German Society (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. September 2014. Web. 19 Feb 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_German_Society_(Winnipeg,_Manitoba,_Canada)&oldid=138889.

APA style

Kliewer, Victor D. (September 2014). Mennonite German Society (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 February 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_German_Society_(Winnipeg,_Manitoba,_Canada)&oldid=138889.




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