Arson in Vauxhall, Alberta

After immigrating to Canada, one of the first things Mennonite communities did was establish a church. They did this because church was important to them. If you moved to a city, you'd probably find out where the hospital, grocery store, and school were. You might also find out where the skating rink, library, and park were. These are all important parts of a city. They are so important that if a city didn't have them, people would probably get together and build them.

When the Mennonites came to Canada, they had to build their own churches. These churches often began with just a handful of people. With such a small group, a church building was not necessary at

Henry and Katherine Klassen
Early Vaux Mennonites. Photo from Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta.

first; there was more than enough room to meet at someone's house on Sunday morning for worship services.

Vauxhall, a small town in southern Alberta, was home to two such Mennonite churches. The first Mennonites came to Vauxhall in 1933. They, like many other Canadian farmers, were suffering from the

effects of the Great Depression. These Mennonite farmers were looking for better land. Soon after they arrived, they set out to form a church. The Mennonite Brethren church in Vauxhall began in 1934 with only twelve members. Besides meeting in houses, they also met in the local school. As the church grew, the members started planning to build a permanent building.

They bought an old farmhouse and moved it to a new location. They used wood salvaged from a barn to complete the structure. By 1939, five years after their humble beginnings, the members of Vauxhall Mennonite Brethren Church could finally give thanks for their very own church building.

              “Indeed, we were very grateful we finally had our own, large, lovely church!”

John J. Esau wrote this in 1974. He was a member of the church and kept a diary. Let's read along as he tells the surprising story of what happened next.

Early Vaux Mennonites
Rev. Wilhelm and Sara Martens. Photo from Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta.

“June the 18th, 1940, dawned as usual. During irrigation time I would always rise at 5 A.M. and, on going outside, had the habit of looking east, towards our church. Why was there smoke behind the church that morning? I rubbed my eyes and looked again and finally realized there was no church, only smoke. I jumped on my bike, rushing over there to see what had actually happened.”

“The church was burned down completely; only the storage shed still remained. I rushed to inform Mr. Langemann of the sad news and he followed me to the site to see for himself. Later

on we heard that the Conferenz church [the other Mennonite church in Vauxhall] had suffered the same fate. Two churches in one district burned to the ground by arsonists in one night. The Second World War was on, and, because of our language, we were mistaken for enemy aliens, and some persons schemed to do us harm. [It was] likely planned in the local tavern.”

Read the newspaper report in German, or the English translation.

Can you imagine how they must have felt? They had worked so hard and waited so long for that church building, and now it was ashes! The air in Vauxhall that day must have been filled with tension. How would the Mennonites react to this attack? Esau continues his story.

“Praise the Lord, we did not become bitter or [use] legal means to find and punish the culprits. We bore the loss quietly, and it was a huge loss, since absolutely no insurance was carried on the building.”    [CMBS, Vauxhall MB Church fonds, file #1] 

The Mennonite Brethren Church was one of the churches that burned that night. Vauxhall Mennonite Church also suffered at the hands of the arsonists.

The Vauxhall Mennonite Church was founded in 1938 with twenty-six members. They, like the Mennonite Brethren Church, met in homes until they could build a church. A renovated garage became their new church home in 1939.

Henry Dick was living nearby when the church burned down. He wrote down his memories in 1988.

“In the fall of 1939, World War II broke out, and soon anti-German feelings were directed at the German Mennonites, as we were considered to be German sympathizers, mainly because German was spoken in the homes as well as in the church. On the night of June 18, 1940, both Mennonite churches were burned to the ground. The R.C.M.P. clearly established that it was arson, and it became general knowledge as to who had set the fires. No legal action was taken, because of our peace principle.”

 

“This peace witness by both churches had a very positive effect in our future relationship with our non-Mennonite neighbors.”

Mennonites had lived in Vauxhall for less than ten years when the arsons occurred. Their German language made them objects of suspicion, but Henry Dick's last words on the subject show the commitment the Mennonites had to the community of Vauxhall:

“Both congregations proceeded to rebuild.” [MHC, 3542-5]