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A Brief Biography of John D. Friesen (1921-2004)
[Adapted from an autobiographical sketch prepared by John D. Friesen, 28 August 1997]
John D. Friesen was born in the village of Chortitz, 7 miles west of Hague, Saskatchewan, on October 6, 1921. His parents were David and Katharina Friesen. His father, David I. Friesen (1900-1987) was the son of Isbrand (1867-1945) and Anna (1874-1947) (nee Neudorf), both of whom had been born in imperial Russia. His mother Katharina (1895-1964) was the daughter of John and Katharina (nee Peters) Schapansky.
As a young boy, John attended the village school in Chortitz until it closed, and then was taught by his father who had been hired to teach by the village council (Schultenbot). Although his early schooling had been in the German language, he subsequently shifted to the English school of the Gruenthal School District #4714, located between the villages of Gruenthal, Schoewiese, and Chortitz. An incident that had a significant impact on him as a child and on the family as a whole was the death of John’s brother, Isbrand in 1935. John credited that death with leading to his conversion experience, when he saw that Jesus had died for him, and received a deep inner peace as a result of his newfound faith. He participated in the Jugendverein and Sunday School meetings in the village of Gruenthal.
On October 20, 1940, John D. Friesen married Mary Gerbrandt (1917-2004), whom he had met when she worked for their family in the village. Mary was the daughter of Thomas and Helena Gerbrandt. They were married by Rev. Isaac P. Friesen of Rosthern, in the little church east of Chortitz. Twin boys, Rueben and Ernest, were born on January 25, 1942. One daughter, Johanna, was born five years later on July 13, 1947. A second daughter, Magdalena Lois, was born on November 11, 1948, but passed away at the age of three. When the war came, John pleaded as a conscientious objector, and was allowed to remain to work on the farm and to make payments to the Red Cross in lieu of military service.
In the winter of 1943-44, John D. Friesen attended the Hochfeld Bible School operated near Hague, Saskatchewan, by the Western Children’s Mission, a missionary arm of the Mennonite Brethren church. He completed the two year course in one year. He had been doing correspondence courses from CSSM before his time at the Bible School, and later supplemented his formal studies with extension classes from Moody Bible Institute and Prairie Bible Institute, as well as with seminars for pastors in Rosthern, Caronport, and other places.
The Rudnerweide Mennonite Church formed as a result of a division of the Sommerfelde Mennonite Church in Manitoba in 1936. The leaders of the Manitoba church had been invited to hold meetings in the Rosthern Valley area in 1938. As a consequence, a group of Mennonites built a community church at Chortitz at which meetings were held. In March of 1940 John D. Friesen was one of the nine young people baptized there by the Rudnerweide leadership from Manitoba. After completing his training at the Hochfeld Bible School, he sent a letter to the Manitoba leaders requesting that they once again visit the Saskatchewan community, this time formally organizing a Rudnerweide church. In July, 1944, the church was organized, and John D. Friesen and H. B. Zacharias were ordained as ministers. In addition to the church at Chortitz, other churches were organized at Neuhorst (1946), and in the Blumenthal district known as Venice, east of Hague (1957). On October 5, 1952, Rev. Friesen was ordained as the bishop of the Saskatchewan Rudnerweide Church.
In 1959, Rudnerweide Church was transformed into the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference with John D. Friesen elected as its first moderator. Although this move eliminated the office of the former bishops, Rev. Friesen’s ministry continued to expand in new ways. He served as moderator and vice-moderator alternately for the Conference for 21 years. He helped to plant a new church in the city of Saskatoon which was to become the Westmount Evangelical Church in 1959. The Chortitz and Venice congregations combined and built a new church in Hague in the early 1960s. The Neuhorst Church was moved to Warman where it became the Warman Gospel Church. Another church was begun in Hepburn in 1964, and again Rev. Friesen assisted as interim pastor until another worker could be found.1 In addition to his church work, Rev. Friesen also became active in conducting evangelistic meetings in Mennonite communities throughout Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as into Mexico and Central and South America.
The radio ministry of John D. Friesen began with an inter-church meeting in Warman in 1961 to discuss the possibility of launching a Plautdietsch (Low German) radio program. The first program was aired in November of that year. In 1965, the program amalgamated with “Die Evangelische Botschaft,” in Manitoba. After over thirty years of broadcasting, Rev. Friesen’s messages on “The Gospel Message” were being heard on 28 radio stations internationally by 1997. 2 Towards the end of his life, he noted that he had “baptized over 250 candidates, married 85 couples, and served at 290 funerals.”3 When he and Mary retired to Bethany Manor in 1991, he continued to be active in conducting Bible studies and participating in the orchestra at the residence. He passed away on May 20, 2004, and was joined by his wife five days later.
1 For details of the growth of the Rudnerweide/EMMC churches in Saskatchewan, see: Search for Renewal: The Story of the Rudnerweider/ Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, 1937-1987. Winnipeg: Evangelical Mennonite Mission, 1987, pp. 98-112.
1 On the radio broadcast, see: John D. Friesen. Holding Forth the Word of Life: Messages and Sermons from the Experiences of John D. Friesen. Saskatoon: Friesen, 1989, pp. 150-184.
1 From his obituary in the Saskatchewan Valley News (27 May 2004), p. 11
2, 3Compiled by Alan M. Guenther, 21 February 2005.