The Steinbach-based Christian Mennonite Conference, formerly the Chortitzer Mennonite Conference, has opened up some very special archives. The conference had been storing 20 boxes of old documents in the basement of its offices and recently started to sort and catalogue them. Local historian Ernest Braun says one of the documents involves the original Canadian Government offer to the Mennonites in Russia.
"One of the things is a German version of the the Priviligium, whatever that contract was that John Lowe (Canadian Government civil servant) wrote out for the delegates in 1873. This would be one of the very rare original copies handwritten out by some assistant in John Lowe's office way back in 1873 and given to the delegates, probably to take home with them to Russia to present to the colonists at the Bergthal Colony and the other colonies that were interested."
The entire Bergthal Colony would move to Manitoba a year later.
Braun says the documents also contain detailed records of the church's Waisenamt or orphan's bureau among other things. He adds the bureau was set up by the church at a time of very poor inheritance laws.
"Mennonites had a system, and I think it came from western Europe, it was not a peculiar Mennonite thing at all, where, if a husband died, then the whole estate was appraised. Every cultivator, every piece of land, every building, every implement, every animal was inventoried and appraised and then was split in half, 50-50. The wife got 50 per cent and 50 per cent of the value of that went for the children. And that money had to be stored somewhere and the assets had to be protected so they essentially created a trust fund."
Braun says the collection of documents is so significant because it sheds a lot of light on this group of Mennonites.
"It gives much more minute detail about the transactions that accompanied our arrival here in Canada from Russia. It gives much more minute details about our leaving here to Paraguay. That's incredibly powerful historical material, genealogical material, but it's also fodder for a lot more research to find out; Who were we as a people that made us do all this? There's the stuff here for a lot of PhD studies figuring out, what does all this mean?
Mennonite Heritage Centre archivist Conrad Stoesz is helping guide the organizing process before everything is archived at MHC.