If you drive through the community of Randolph, it's possible you'll come across an old Church built in the 1800's. Local Church Historian Jac Doerksen explains the Chortitzer Mennonite Church went up in 1897 and is still being used to this day.
The Church was built by the Chortitzer people who came from Russia and settled in the RM of Hanover. Doerksen explains the original building went up around 1876-77, but was lost in a fire twenty years later. It was replaced by the existing building in 1897.
Doerksen says it is a timber framed wooden building with a high ceiling and wooden pews. It was a traditional Church, meaning singing was done by A Capella and there were no musical instruments. The original pulpit is still being used today.
Church services back then were different from today. For example, Doerksen says men and women entered the building through separate doors and then sat on opposite sides of the building. However, he's quick to note, the tradition of sitting with your gender is a practice that stayed with that Church. The Church has been decommissioned by the Chortitzer Mennonite Conference.
The size of the congregation varied from generation to generation. "When it was first built in 1877, it served the whole Rural Municipality of Hanover," reports Doerksen. "I believe there were about 440 families that came from Bergthal so this would have served the 440 families." But Doerksen says because of the distance people would have to travel, they didn't all attend the Church. However, he has found records of a Communion service that drew nearly 300 people.
Doerksen says the 116 year old building has held some very important functions. He notes the Mennonites came from Bergthal in order to preserve their own system of education. But in the 1920's there was a change in the education system, and sensing their control of the school system diminishing, many Mennonites decided to relocate to Paraguay. Doerksen says farewell ceremonies were held at the Church, packing it on the inside and even spilling outdoors.
Then, following World War I, Doerksen says many Mennonites felt the war had been a little too close to home and again packed their bags for Paraguay. This prompted another farewell ceremony in 1948.
The Rural Municipality of Hanover has purchased the Church site and will hold it on an interim basis. The ultimate goal is for the site to receive municipal and then provincial heritage site designation. "The site carries significant heritage and was prominent in the development of the entire region," notes Hanover Reeve Stan Toews. "The municipality would like to support heritage projects like this to recognize the importance of history and pass this information on to generations to come."
Doerksen says without the help of the RM of Hanover, preserving this history would be very difficult. He feels it's important the legacy of the Church lives on physically. "I think that we need to keep something to tell our children," he says. "So our children can know who we are, why we came to Canada and what we did here when we first came to Canada and how we tried to establish ourselves as a Church."
Toews says the Chortitzer Heritage Committee has been established and will be responsible for the day to day operations of the site with support from council.