Old Colony Mennonite Church

Of the approximately 8,000 Mennonites who immigrated from Russia to Canada during the 1870s, about 3,200 came from the Chortiza and Fürstenland colonies in southern Russia to a land reserve by the Red River in Manitoba. Despite being registered as the Reinlaender Mennoniten Gemeinde, members of the group were commonly called “Old Colony” Mennonites because of their connection to the Chortiza Colony, the oldest Mennonite colony in Russia. Beginning in 1895, many Old Colony Mennonites moved westward in search of isolated tracts of land. The first group resettled on a land reserve in the North-West Territories located in the Hague-Osler area. After 1904, others settled on reserves south of Swift Current and east of Prince Albert. By 1910, services were held in numerous villages, with total church membership well over 1,500 in Saskatchewan—making them the largest Mennonite denomination in the province. Intensely concerned about safeguarding their village way of life, preserving intact their private schools, and minimizing contact with outside influences, Old Colony leaders occasionally used forms of church discipline such as the ban and avoidance.

Following a Royal Commission of Inquiry in 1908 over the matter of Mennonite private schools, the government, during World War I, began to enforce a policy of compulsory attendance at provincially accredited schools in which English would be the sole language of instruction. The issue deeply divided the Mennonite community. After several petitions, fines and imprisonment of numerous church members, almost 3,000 Old Colony Mennonites from Saskatchewan (less than 40% of the Old Colony Mennonites in the province) and another 4,000 from Manitoba migrated to Mexico and Paraguay during the 1920s. This mass exodus included all but two ministers and forced those remaining to reorganize the church, which officially registered in 1936 as the Old Colony Mennonite Church. Subsequent migrations involving Saskatchewan Old Colony Mennonites who were searching for more isolated agricultural frontiers took place during the 1930s and 1940s to Fort Vermilion in northern Alberta, and during the 1960s to Prespatou in northern British Columbia. During the 1960s, the Old Colony Mennonites in Saskatchewan, in cooperation with Bergthaler Mennonite Church, built the Warman Mennonite Special Care Home, which remains in operation today. Although the Old Colony leaders in Saskatchewan were more open to cultural accommodation than their counterparts in Latin America, and despite the large influx of Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico back to Canada during the last three decades of the 20th century (the majority to Ontario), the active membership in Saskatchewan has continued to decline, numbering less than 300.

Bruce Guenther

Further Reading

Epp, F.H. 1974. Mennonites in Canada, 1786–1920: The History of a Separate People. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Plett, D. (ed.). 2001. Old Colony Mennonites in Canada, 1875–2000. Steinbach, MB: Crossway Publications.