Statue to honor martyr

Manitoba museum commissions monument celebrating Dirk Willems, hero of the best-known story in 'Martyrs Mirror'

Jun 18, 2018 by and

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STEINBACH, Man. — Manitoba sculptor Peter Sawatzky has been commissioned to create a bronze statue of martyred Anabaptist Dirk Willems.

Based on an engraving of Willems by Jan Luyken in Martyrs Mirror, the life-size monument is intended to recognize the Anabaptist ideals of peacemaking.

Sculptor Peter Sawatzky applies the final part of a rubber mold on his sculpture of Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems before it is covered in plaster and sent to the foundry for casting. In the foreground are pieces of the prison guard, ready to be taken to the foundry. — Peter Sawatzky

Sculptor Peter Sawatzky applies the final part of a rubber mold on his sculpture of Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems before it is covered in plaster and sent to the foundry for casting. In the foreground are pieces of the prison guard, ready to be taken to the foundry. — Peter Sawatzky

The statue is expected to be completed this year as the focal point of a new peace exhibit at Steinbach’s Mennonite Heritage Village, a museum that attracts 40,000 visitors a year from around the world.

Sawatzky is renowned for his sculptures, including the “Seal River Crossing,” a 29-foot sculpture of nine caribou in downtown Winnipeg, as well as a 21-foot York boat in Selkirk.

Willems was one of around 4,000 Anabaptist martyrs killed in Europe in the 1500s. Holding to the doctrine that one should only be baptized upon confession of faith, they rebaptized adult believers and refused to baptize infants.

Willems became known for rescuing his captor after breaking out of prison. He was burned at the stake on May 16, 1569, near his home village of Asperen in the Netherlands.

Peace Exhibit Committee chair Elbert Toews said the commissioning of the statue involves something of a leap of faith.

The sculpture and base alone will cost more than $100,000. The completed peace exhibit, which will include an interpretive center and cairn to recognize Mennonite conscientious objectors, will cost several hundred thousand dollars more.

Donations are being solicited and can be sent to Peace Project, Mennonite Heritage Village, attention Al Hamm, 231 PTH 12 North, Steinbach, MB R5C 1T8.

“In 2025 it will be 500 years since Anabaptist history started in Zurich, Switzerland,” said committee member and historian Harvey Plett.

The committee felt Willems was the right subject for the monument because the Martyrs Mirror image of his heroic act is the iconic symbol of the spirit of the martyrs.

According to Thieleman J. van Braght’s account in Martyrs Mirror, Willems was imprisoned in a castle turned prison and escaped by letting himself out of a window with a rope made of knotted rags.

Emaciated from his imprisonment, he did not break through the ice surrounding the castle, but his heavier pursuer broke through.

Willems, hearing his guard’s call for help, turned back and rescued him. The guard wanted to release him, but the mayor ordered his recapture and imprisonment.

In 2007, a Mennonite delegation to the Vatican gave Pope Benedict XVI a framed picture of Willems saving his persecutor. Benedict spoke of a common understanding of nonviolence and active peacemaking at the heart of the gospel and a continuing search for unity.

The Peace Exhibit Committee placed a monument honoring conscientious objectors on the Mennonite Heritage Village grounds in 2016.


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