(Continued from this post.)
“Alberta bound, Alberta bound… it’s good to be, Alberta bound…”
This charming, welcoming song is really quite the earworm, and I’ve only ever heard it once — in the Bergthal Mennonite Church on Friday, July 21st, 2023, when I was on the Russlaender 100 tour.
I’d awoken that morning in my Red Deer hotel room, breakfasted, packed, and then lingered in the lobby awaiting further instructions. We were going to Didsbury!
Didsbury, exclamation mark. Bet I’m the only one to ever write it like THAT.
Why was I excited to go to Didsbury? I felt like if there were Mennonite connections in Alberta, then I still needed to know about them — and, they would clearly be found there. Because the Historical Society of Alberta said so. But also because when I was in Bible School in Saskatchewan (wait, I haven’t told you about that yet, have I? well, I will yet) there were a lot of other Mennonites there (not a surprise) including one from Didsbury. I have this faint feeling that I asked her about it and she laughed and told me that oh yes, there are a LOT of Mennonites in Didsbury. (I only have faint feelings about this because it was a very long time ago and at this point I wonder if I’m just making this stuff up sometimes.) And I was surprised. I knew about the Mennonites in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and British Columbia (because of Abbotsford family, obvs) but Alberta was a Menno-mystery.
I was ready to learn just how Menno Alberta really is. And so I did.
There I stood, looking at the Bergthal Mennonite Chruch, which has a plaque in front of it! Oh yes, this was the real deal.
The church is entirely rural, surrounded by a row of towering cottonwood trees, and beyond the cottonwoods are fields of canola, which were in full bloom. SO PRETTY!
We were hustled into the gym, seated at long churchy tables, and then treated to a rendition of “Alberta Bound” and I was thoroughly charmed. I was particularly focused on Katie Harder, Chair of the Historical Society of Alberta. She is very proper and well put together and seemed to be running things. (I do like strong smart women!) She has this energetic, pleased, welcoming energy that I felt drawn to.
She mentioned that “Alberta may not have the cultural Mennonite pizazz that other Canadian provinces have…” and I wrote that down because I just love that sentence: “cultural Mennonite pizazz”. I think she went on to say that they have heart. And they do — to find ways to work together despite being a long ways apart.
Here are some random notes I scribbled as Katie Harder, then Brian Hildebrandt, talked:
The Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta is very small…
There are probably 55,000 Low German Mennonites in Alberta…
The cemetery had been moved! (Wait what why? I missed these details. And later saw the cemetery on google maps, a fair walk away. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t realize where it was while I was there because I most certainly would have disappeared into the cemetery and that is very bad form for a tour attendee and I was trying to behave myself.)
I also wrote down, “is it a church or a village?” But I think I have the rough answer — it’s a church with a community around it. There were no explicitly Mennonite villages in Alberta because settlement laws prevented Mennonites from replicating their village patterns here. Later when Brian spoke a bit more, he said that the church was built in 1903 at the eastern edge of the settlement (not village) and later moved to donated land, where it is today. I wonder at its original location. (So, which was moved, the church or the cemetery? I think I’m getting my facts confused. Surely they were not both moved.)
Then, a meal! I didn’t take pictures! And I only remember the Nanaimo bar I snagged from the buffet line when I was getting my first course. It was the most delicious one I had ever tasted. (Yes, really.)
Then, I figured I’d take a look at the church’s exterior. I realized I was being shipped from place to place with no time to actually look at the buildings I was in — and that’s a big part of what I would like to see. Outside, I found many more people with the same thought. It wasn’t long before we were hustled back into the church, this time to the sanctuary.
We sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness”. I can’t sing generally but this, I can sing, when in a full sanctuary with other folks who are also singing. I loved it.
Brian (who I think Katie said was her nephew and she had twisted his arm? #auntgoals) then spoke. He talked about a book called “Their Works Shall Follow Them” by John A. Neufeld, with forward and notes by Margaret Froese. Apparently around 1900, Jacob Shantz had negotiated for Mennonite settlers to move into the Northwest Territories near Didsbury. This reminds me that Alberta was not always Alberta. In 1900, it was the Northwest Territories. (And before that… it was not Canada at all. I know this but I forget the things that are not within my realm of experience. This is another reason why it’s important to learn about history, historical context, and sit with it. And yes I am scrambling everything. My notes are TERRIBLE.)
Then Abe Janzen from Blumenheim, SK spoke on Low German Mennonites. I wrote down, “Apparently the Hutterites in Manitoba are more progressive than the ones in Alberta … I really don’t think he’ll be able to get through all 40 of his slides before our bus leaves … he’s been giving us background information for a while.”
Then… abruptly, the bus. The schedule. They were waiting for us in Linden.
Speaking of Linden…
Brent Wiebe told me that one of the early settlers of Linden was Holdeman bishop Peter P. Baerg. I’m not sure if Brent knows this or not… but that’s my frindschoft. I was making note of Peter Baerg when I was reading Henry Fast’s Grunenfeld book (which I still need to post about). I had forgotten about this, and was so glad Brent reminded me of it while I was actually there. I sat with this, in the moment. I need to learn more about the Linden/Baerg thing. And my own family. This will require learning a bit more about the KG/Holdeman split. (It’s been well over a century and many generations since it occurred but I wonder if it is still too soon? Surely enough time has passed that I can press into this wound a bit by now?)
The bus brought us to the C.C. Toews Farm, Evergreen Farm, in Linden. I was entranced by this experience, and by the farm site. There was lots to explore, and much history here. There were so many people at this event! I really enjoyed squishing into the renovated barn to eat the very delicious meal. Afterward, we heard about the generosity of this farming family, how many millions of dollars do they raise for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank? Like 17 million maybe? This is incredible! I looked around and realized they’d been farming all this surrounding wheat and donating it. Wow.
And then… a break in my notes. Do you want to know why? The train that we were supposed to get on… was delayed 6 hours! (Apparently an unruly passenger refused to get off the train in Winnipeg so he had to be extracted, which is a time-consuming endeavor, and it is hilarious to me that the main trouble was this fellow’s desire to NOT be in Winnipeg.) Okay, so, the train station in Edmonton… is not great. By now, I know it well. Ha. But those hours in the station allowed me to converse a lot more with some of my fellow travelers. What an experience, honestly. The train finally arrived well after 2am I think. My fuzzy photos of finally walking toward the train to board, are time stamped 2:45am.
I climbed the ladder to my upper berth in a haze and fell fast asleep.