German services come to an end at Alberta church

Jan 5, 2015 by and

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Calgary, Alta. — Fond memories and deep gratitude mixed with feelings of loss as First Mennonite Church held its last German worship service Nov. 9.

Charlotte Wiehler, left, poses with her friend Dora Janssen and Pastor Ed Kauffman. At 96, Wiehler is the oldest member of First Mennonite Church of Calgary and clearly recalls the early days of the church. — Donita Wiebe-Neufeld/Canadian Mennonite

Charlotte Wiehler, left, poses with her friend Dora Janssen and Pastor Ed Kauffman. At 96, Wiehler is the oldest member of First Mennonite Church of Calgary and clearly recalls the early days of the church. — Donita Wiebe-Neufeld/Canadian Mennonite

After 68 years of holding a regular German service, a dwindling population of German congregants and difficulties in finding preachers made the continuation of the services too difficult.

Thirty people braved icy roads to attend the final service. As snow fell outside, the small congregation sang hymns from the Gesangbuch Der Mennoniten and listened to speakers share Scripture, memories and stories.

Pastor Ed Kauffman said that at First Mennonite the German language has been about more than just words and grammar.

“Closing this chapter is a loss for you,” he said. “It may be the only remaining place where you get to hear and speak the language that is most comfortable to you. . . . As we end this chapter, we recognize that the book is still being written.”

Looking back

The beginnings of First Mennonite coincided with the Depression in the 1930s, when recently immigrated Russian Mennonite farmers struggled to make a living. Many of the young women from these communities found work in the city as domestic help. Maedchen Heim homes for these women were formed, and the Mennonite conferences of the day were asked to send ministers, mostly from Didsbury, Alta., to lead worship services.

In 1944, the number of young Mennonite women and families in the city warranted a more formal organization. Pastor J.J. Sawatzky from Didsbury was asked to move to Calgary, and the old Scarboro United Church building was purchased.

On May 29, 1946, the church was officially organized, with 27 founding members signing the constitution. Two years later, more immigrants began to arrive from Europe, bringing a second wave of German speakers into the church.

With the arrival of immigrants from Russia, Germany and later Paraguay, a trend toward English was reversed, as some felt that without the German language Mennonites would not survive. In 1953, a Saturday German school began. Worship services continued to be mainly in German.

The language, however, was a problem for members who had come to the city from rural churches that were already switching to English. In 1963-64, a number of people left the church, largely because of language issues, and formed an English congregation that would eventually become Foothills Mennonite.

In 1969, a decision was made to hold two services each Sunday, the first in German and the second in English.

Looking forward

Although there will be no more regular services in German, the language continues to be important to many at First Mennonite.

Jake Wiebe served as pastor from 1967 to 1993 and often spoke at the German services.

“German is still significant,” he said. “We often sing and pray in German in the hospital.” He added, though, that “language is not the important thing, it is your relationship with the Lord that is most important, no matter what language you use.”

While German speakers will miss the services, the feeling at the Nov. 9 service was upbeat and hopeful as congregants looked to the future.


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