I cannot start at the beginning: The Russlaender 100 Tour visits the Ukrainian Heritage Village

You know how many (a GREAT many) family history books in the Mennonite vein begin with the history of anabaptism? Um, I’ve never read those (this is likely painfully evident). I’ve only observed that nearly every book I open in the “Mennonite Books” section of the MCC opens with “in the 1500s there was a man named Menno Simons…” and this is a pattern I shall not be echoing.

I cannot start at the beginning.

I think this story, for me, is circular. Or, a messy intwining of stories. I cannot decipher where the beginning would be.

Instead I’ll tell you what, for me, comes next. What is meant to be told, today. With lots of pictures.

Okay, so the third leg of the Russlaender 100 journey (the leg I was officially on) departed from Saskatoon but really was an Alberta-B.C. leg. The only thing we did in Saskatchewan… was leave. (I knew this going in, don’t worry — I read the itinerary religiously.)

We spent five hours on the bus, stopping briefly for a picnic lunch, where I met three generations of women, a family, traveling together. What a great introduction to my time on Leg 3! I also sat with them again at the very end of our time together. A lovely bookend.

And then we arrived at the Ukrainian Heritage Village near Edmonton. This museum tells the story of Ukrainians in east central Alberta. Why would the Russlaender 100 tour stop here? Because Mennonites knew Ukrainians well — they’d been living among them for over a century.

On the bus, I eavesdropped on conversations. I took delight in overhearing Dr. Aileen Friesen say something to the effect of “the Russlaender are part of the memory of those villages, that community.” I tried to write it down so I could repeat it here.

Upon our arrival, the first thing I did, was meet Bill and Pearl Franz, whose names I have seen in the comment section of Mennotoba’s Facebook account. So very good to meet the people behind the fantastic comments! And then, because we’d been told the village was very large, I felt I needed to hurry off to see what I could see. I raced to the woods (where we were told to begin our time here). As I followed the path into the woods, it went right and left. I had a decision to make. I looked right, and there were horses. I was not expecting that. I looked left, and saw an enchanting forest path with Professor Friesen in the centre. I was so surprised! I took a picture, which is the feature photo for this post.

Together, we found the first structure of the village — the sod hut.

See the costumed interpreter in the garden?

It wasn’t long before we met many others from our group, including Dr. Nataliya Venger, whom I quite enjoyed venturing into Ukrainian abodes with, as her observations were immediate and precise.

Dr. Venger and Dr. Friesen.

Before venturing on this journey, I was told to “find the Shires”. These haunting instructions were unintentionally followed to the letter as this family was the next I happened to unwittingly join up with, in my explorations:

The professors and the Shires.

And then we found the horses. Well my goodness. Aileen and I realized we had missed a key opportunity when we encountered the horses in the woods. Whoops!

I am being filmed.

Inside the schoolhouse, the good interpreter was cunningly questioned by Aileen and Nataliya. (I was enjoying myself immensely, simply eavesdropping.)

The interpreter then gamely played us a song on his mandolin, true to character. And then I felt bad for stalking the professors and went to photograph the church. I had lined it up exactly when the door flew open an an interpreter in full costume burst out and hurried away, apologizing for “ruining” my photo.

“You made it better!” I declared. “You’re in costume!”

I was now exploring with the expectant Rebekah and we realized we were hot, sweaty, exhausted, and done. I took one last picture of the very large village…

Then we headed to the “red barn” where we’d been instructed to wait for the evening program. Everyone was sitting outside in the shade but I was curious as to what was inside. I peered through the doors and found my friends Brent and Gail Wiebe!

Brent is with the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta and was one of the presenters. As part of the evening programming, he took us on a “virtual trip through history” through his use of video game technology, his imagination, and some “rough calculations” to recreate Mennonite villages, representing “Mennonite life on the Black Sea steppe”.

He pointed out that many village street plans don’t show the landless, which he said would be stretched out along the road. This interested me because I believe most of those I’m descended from were landless. “If you owned no land, you really were a nobody.”

Andrew and I had met Brent and Gail two years ago he had delivered a presentation at the MHV, and it was great to see them a few years later!

And that is how I ended up sitting at their table, where they told me there was a spare chair.

This was the day I met Katie Harder, Chair of the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta. She shared a bit about the challenge of the MHSA, which had not occurred to me before — they are all very spread out, and rarely meet in person, if ever. (Zoom has been a very helpful tool for them.) Here in Manitoba the population is largely in the south and we can get together without thinking too much about it. I’d been taking this for granted.

The day I met Katie Harder. I really like her!

Also, I was sitting next to Ted Regehr. What a legend. I didn’t say anything to him because I haven’t read his books yet even though I have at least one and I felt like a total dummy.

He told us that really the Russlaender in Alberta could not replicate their villages because of homestead laws. “They scattered all over the province in small groups.”

“I’m old enough that I’ve talked to Tommy Douglas.” – Ted Regehr

And here’s Dave Toews! Not THE David Toews whose grave the Leg 2 people saw in Rosthern. This Dave Toews is alive and is the Vice-Chair of the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta and it was a pleasure to meet him!

I didn’t take pictures of the food! A highlight for me was the cornmeal dish which, I don’t know what it was called, it did not look too pretty, but it was absolutely delicious! I heard everyone saying that, too. And the buns were incredible. At the end of our time there, they begged us to take food home. I heartily took them up on it, bringing two buns back for my night snack that evening in my Red Deer hotel room.

Our tour leaves the red barn and loads back onto the buses bound for Red Deer. Day one of the final leg of the journey, complete.

(A note about the feature photo, taken when I was surprised to encounter Dr. Aileen Friesen in the woods at the Ukrainian Village. It felt magical!)