A Short History of the Steinbach Mennonite Brethren Church: From 1927 to March, 1985

by Lenora Süss

Many Mennonite Brethren families had settled around Steinbach by the 1920s and were worshipping with the existing Bruderthaler (Evangelical Mennonite Brethren) congregation. In spite of similarities, it was only a matter of time before the M.B.s terminated their fellowship with the E.M.B.s and formed their own church. On January 3, 1927, Brother G. H. Unruh called a meeting, and 38 brethren and seven sisters met to organize.

After meeting for several months in the E.M.B. church, in the fall of 1927 the group purchased and remodeled an old school at the corner of First Street and Lumber Avenue, where the Steinbach Grace Church is today.

In this building the first Bible School was also organized and conducted by the M.B. Church in 1931. After a lapse of some four years, classes were begun again in 1936. In the spring of 1938 several Steinbach churches got together to organize what is today the Steinbach Bible College. In 1939 the school moved from the M.B. Church to a new building.

The present lot was purchased in 1942, but a new church could not be built because of World War II. A basement with a roof over it served as a meeting place until five years later, when the new sanctuary was completed.

The original church building at Lumber and 2nd Street in Steinbach.

Before the late 1940s there were as many as five affiliate groups meeting at Burwalde, Rosengard, Grunthal (or Barkfield), Bergthal and Halbstadt. The arrangement was that these groups of believers or daughter congregations would all meet at Steinbach with members of the mother church for [2] what was known as “Vierteljahres Versammlung” (quarterly meetings). As transportation by car became more and more common, the members began coming to Steinbach for services.

In 1957 the building was enlarged at the front or the Second Street entrance to provide more space and Sunday School rooms as well as indoor washrooms. In 1970, the Education Wing was added at the back, providing two auditoriums, another entry and more Sunday School rooms. This building was the first in Steinbach to use a concrete slab ceiling construction.

In 1978 the adjacent property with Parson’s Apartments was purchased for parking and possible expansion. The property was paid for in 1983 and the block was taken down.

In the late 1970s, the brethren George Ewert, Jake Epp and Albert Loewen were asked to do a study on “Projections for the Eighties.” The report included program and building projections. One of the suggestions that a community fellowship church be established received temporary council approval but cool membership reaction. The church, sensing that the issue could be a divisive one, responded cautiously and slowly. Finally, several members in favour of establishing a separate congregation tried to get the church to take the initiative. The church decided not to support the idea of a separate congregation at this time. Two of the authors of the study, along with approximately two dozen members, subsequently left the congregation to start the Community Fellowship Church in 1983.

Later that year the membership elected a Building Committee to plan a new sanctuary. The building was to replace the old church but be attached to the newer Education Wing. The church applied for the government NEED [New Employment Expansion Development] program. A grant was approved [3] (amounting to $194,000). However, the membership reconsidered the issue and in 1983 rejected the grant. The rejection was partially based on a desire to maintain a separation of church and state, and on ambivalence about the details and stipulations of the grant itself. Because the news of the rejection was picked up by the media, our church received wide, and mostly positive, publicity. Instead the congregation is now trying to raise the money on its own and plans to proceed with the construction as soon as three quarters of the total estimated cost is collected. April 1, 1985 approximately $100,000 was still needed before construction could begin.

Many dedicated leaders have shaped the ministry of this church. For forty years a number of brethren have faithfully provided pastoral leadership without remuneration. The following served as leaders during these years:

  • 1927–1933 Rev. George Unruh
  • 1934–1942 Rev. Abr. A. Regehr
  • 1943–1952 Rev. Jacob H. Epp
  • 1953–1964 Rev. H. A. Regehr
  • 1965–1966 Rev. Peter Martens

The first full-time pastor, Rev. John D. Reimer, served this church from 1967–1974. In the years 1975 until his death of cancer in 1984, the Rev. Jake Falk provided pastoral leadership. An associate pastor Les Riediger served in 1980–1983. At present we are looking for a pastor.

This church has always had the benefits of a multiple ministry and has ordained the following brethren:

  • 1934 — Abr. A. Regehr
  • 1934 — Peter Riesen
  • 1935 — Wm. Schroeder
  • 1935 — Henry Enns
  • 1947 — Joe Wiebe
  • 1957 — Peter Martens
  • 1969 — Corny Rempel
  • 1982 — John Nikkel

[4] A number of ordained ministers moved to Steinbach over the years and continued to serve here.

The church ordained the following deacons:

  • 1937 — the Jacob Isaaks, the John Harmses, the Abr. Neufelds
  • 1956 — the Jacob Giesbrechts, the Isaac Goertzens
  • 1969 — the George Bergmanns, the Abe Pletts
  • 1975 — the Abe Friesens
  • 1978 — the John Arendts, the Barry Dycks, the Henry Harmses
  • 1981 — Henry Bergmanns, Menno Duerksens, the Bert Süsses
  • 1984 — the Cornie Goertzens

Over the years the church has sent out a number of workers in both missions and in M.C.C. assignments. The first of these was Margaret Willms, who in 1946, went to India (the late Mrs. P.V. Balzer). Others include the Bill Schroeders to Paraguay in 1955, Miss Sally Schroeder (H.C.J.B.), in Ecuador, Miss Viola Reimer to Mexico, Calgary and Winnipeg, Miss Ruth Ewert to Kenya, J.M. Klassens to Korea, Dr. John Dicks to Vietnam, John Nikkels to Jamaica, Arthur Rempels under M.C.C. at Altona, the George Ewerts (Project Look-Up in Florida), the George Klassens to Zaire. The Joe Wiebes, the Peter Martenses and the John Nikkels were sent out under our Home Missions to points in Manitoba.

For these messengers we are grateful.

In 1956–1973 the church adopted a small group of Christians at Overstoneville. On every second Sunday afternoon a male quartet, pianist and speaker conducted services in this community chapel.

Some of the Overstoneville, Man., residents served by members of the Steinbach MB Church.

Members of our church who served on a regular basis for longer periods of time were Irvin Penner, Abe Penner, Jac Thiessen, Peter Enns, George Ewert, Corny Rempel, Werner Rempel, John and Esther Rempel, Henry Bergmann, Mrs. Anne Rempel, Mrs. Clara Toews, Mrs. Adeline (Redekop) Muller.

[5] In addition, outreach Sunday Schools and D.V.B.S. [Daily Vacation Bible School] were conducted in some of the one-room school houses in the surrounding communities of Lister West, Rosengard and Rocky. Members who served as administrators here were Rev. Peter Martens, Jake Ketler, A. D. Hiebert, Abe Friesen and others.

Until 1976 baptisms were held mostly outside in a gravel pit near Kleefeld or Blumenort. A few times the E.M.B. Church was used because it has a baptistry. In 1976 the maintenance committee had a baptistry installed.

The English Sunday morning service was broadcast on radio station C.F.A.M. in the years 1976–78.

In 1979 our Laotian refugees family arrived. Many other Asian refugees visited our services in the ensuing years. Even though many moved, the special Sunday School class that was organized for Asian adults has had some students all these years.

The original language for the first twenty-five years was almost exclusively German. The first membership meetings were recorded in German Gothic [more accurately, Kurrent] script. By 1950 the Arabic [rather, English cursive] script was used, and by 1960 the minutes were recorded in English. By this time the membership decided to have an English message once a month, and English hymn books were purchased for the congregation. During the 1960s membership meetings were a mixture of English and German, but during the 1970s the meetings were mostly in English, and in the 1980s what is expressed in German (at membership meetings, and any other times) is carefully translated into English for those who don’t understand the German. About seven of our original members who were part of the church since 1927 have experienced the transition from German to English.

[6] Today [ca. 1985], during the first hour on Sunday morning, German Sunday School (Bibelklasse, as it used to be called) and worship time are offered. The English Sunday School also takes place during this hour. Then the whole congregation has a worship hour in English. Today German is also used at the Wednesday Bible Study (Bibelstunde) and at Schwesternverein. In the past, our church would not have considered hiring a pastor who was unable to preach in German. In the future this will not be a prime pre-requisite.

The church council was re-organized in 1968. Before this date the council was made up of ordained ministers and deacons and one elected member. Now the council has five or six members by virtue of office and twelve members with three-year terms of office. This has contributed to effective decision making.

Membership in the church began with sixty-five, but by the 1950s the number had grown to almost 300. There has been a considerable turnover of members over the years. Some joined and others transferred out. In its first 50 years the church had baptised 477 persons and received 674 by transfer, making a total of 1151 additions. The total number of members has been just below and in some years just above 300 members for three decades. In 1984 membership is 280.

The church has been noted for its music making. The first piano was purchased in 1941, and the first organ in 1956. It was felt that the quality of music was important and that the music speak to the heart. For many years during the 1950s and 1960s there was a junior choir as well as a senior choir. Choir singing was upgraded by song-fests directed by visiting conductors and combined church choirs sometimes with the E.M.B. church, sometimes with Niverville, Arnaud and sometimes Winnipeg choirs. A conductor who served our church faithfully for many years is Albert Loewen. In 1974 a choir [7] reunion was organized for all who had sung under his direction over the years. A picture of the singers at this reunion hangs in the pastor’s office.

Photo of past and then-present choir members attending the 1974 reunion.

The church has always sought to inspire the young people. In the early years “Jugendverein”, a monthly Sunday evening program, gave opportunity to develop talents and inspire the audience. For a number of years five churches in town even gathered for a joint program several times a year. Gradually the interest in the “Jugendverein” waned (earlier for the joint programs) and in the late 60s these services were discontinued.

In the mid 40s Brother J.P. Epp, the church leader, began the “Jugendabend” (Young Peoples). Formerly close to half of the group was post high-school age, including teachers, nurses and others who attended along with the senior high-school young people. Presently the group consists of students, grades 9–12.

Some years, six (more in later years) church groups in town combined to have a United Young People’s service several times a year.

This group also undertook to raise funds for the food hampers for under-privileged families. On a designated night shortly before Christmas, the young people were grouped, and each group would go to the selected homes, give them the hampers and also present the Christmas message in song and sometimes also in word and prayer.

Until a decade ago M.B. Conference rallies in this area of Manitoba included young people from Arnaud, Niverville and Steinbach. An annual Youth Sunday, usually an outdoor picnic type of gathering, included baseball and volleyball games and other physical activities and a devotional time. We praise God that His Spirit has been at work among the young people of our congregation.

[8] The children were always part of the Sunday morning program. At first the organization was fairly simple. There was no curriculum, and there were no lesson helps. The simple truths of the Bible were taught by means of Bible stories from the Old and New Testaments. Willing and capable brethren and sisters were found to teach these stories. The Sunday School and Young People’s were natural and challenging fields for Bible School students and graduates to practise what they had been taught.

German was the language of instruction for many years also in Sunday School. Gradually, as German was no longer taught as much in day school, and the Saturday morning German classes petered out, English began to replace German as the language of instruction in our Sunday School classes. The transition was not easy for teachers and involved tension and testing of motives and goals for leaders and parents, around 1960. Some leaders who served faithfully and long in Sunday School and Bibelklasse were Br. I. Peters and Br. J. Wittenberg and Br. J. Wedel. Superintendents for a number of years were J. J. Toews, Jake Enns, Abe Friesen and recently H. K. Friesen. Teachers too numerous to mention, but just as dedicated, have taught God’s Word effectively, and some for many years.

Wednesday evening has been a time for children’s meetings for many years. In 1967 the AWANA program was used. In 1970 the Pioneer Girls and Christian Service Brigade program was adopted. In the 1980s, Wednesday evening expanded to include a pre-school group called Sunbeams and a group for boys and girls in grades 1 and 2, and the name changed from Pioneer Girls to Pioneer Clubs. The Wednesday Clubs include many children whose parents do not take part in our other services. The church is a busy place on Wednesday evenings.

The women’s groups have made a significant contribution over the years. Schwesternverein has been meeting for many years.

Photo of the Mission Sisters group in 1955.

[9] By 1966 the Mission Sisters divided and Ladies Fellowship became a third group. A Prayer Chain was organized in 1977 to enable ladies to pray for specific needs as the requests come in. Our first M.O.M.’s (Morning Out for Moms) program was held in 1984. All these groups have encouraged spiritual growth, fellowship, service and outreach.

The 25th anniversary was celebrated in 1952. The church took time to praise God and look to Him for renewal. For the 50th anniversary celebration in 1977 a “Church Pictorial Directory” was collected with a brief history of the church. The “Historical Reports” presented at the 50th Anniversary celebration were compiled in 1977 with contributions by George Bergmann, the late Rev. Jake Falk, the late J. J. Peters, Albert Loewen, Rev. Corny Rempel and Rev. H. A. Regehr.

This historical overview [above] has been written by Lenora Süss with numerous quotations from the above two sources [the 1977 “Church Pictorial Directory” and “Historical Reports”] and several updates since 1977 by her husband Bert.

A historical overview was requested by the Canadian M.B. Conference. This short resume was in a collection of 170 M.B. churches in Canada.

[See Historical Updates after 1985 for more recent developments.]