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Johann and Justina Peters

Johann and Justina Peters and Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Sherks
Johann and Justina Peters and Mr. & Mrs. Benjamin Sherk

Johann and Justina Peters

The above two couples and their families were brought together in 1875. The above photograph, taken in approx. 1915-1920, reflects a bond of friendship that lasted over the years. I will try to share some of the story behind their meeting.

The couple on the right of the photograph are the Benajamin Sherks. They are descendants of Mennonites of Swiss origin who settled in Pennsylvania. In 1683 the first Mennonites of Swiss and south German origins came to Germantown, which later became a part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Sherk famlly came to that area (Lancaster County) in 1727. They had come to the USA because they were being persecuted for their beliefs in Switzerland. In the USA they were offered freedom to live according to their convictions.

This land, too, began to become densely populated and these Swiss Mennonites began looking for a new home. In 1786, the first Mennonites moved to Canada from Pennsylvania, and settled in Upper Canada near the Niagara River. Canada seemed to offer freedom for the Mennonite religion, an abundance of good land, and easier continuance of German culture. (1)

Johan and Justina (nee Boldt) Peters on the left side of the above photo are descendants of Russian Mennonites who came to Canada in the 1870s.

In 1788, when these Mennonites moved to Russia they had been promised by the Russian government, freedom of religion, education, and exemption from the military. By the 1870s, the Russians government no longer held to these promises. They were now forcing Mennonites to use a Russian curriculum, and young men were being drafted into the army (or serve in alternative service). Mennonite delegates were sent to Canada and the USA in 1873. Both governments made concessions for these people.

The delegates returned to Russia and people began to prepare for a move to Canada. The expense of such a trip for a poor family was too great. Many also could not sell their farms in time for the move, so they did not have the assets to make the move.

The Mennonites in Russia appealed to their brethren in Ontario for aid. The aid was to be seen as a loan to be given at a low rate of interest for a certain number of years, until the people were able to repay it, and in case the party was not able to repay it then the whole church would make themselves responsible to pay back the principal and interest to the party who gave it, or to his heirs. People were encouraged to give the money as a gift if possible, or possibly given without interest, or at a very low rate of interest.

A committee called the Russian Mennonite Aide Committee was set by the Ontario Mennonites to help these brethren. The Ontario Mennonites responded by saying, "Let us think of our brethren in bonds as being bound with them and thus help to bear one another's burden. . . We would indeed show ourselves ungrateful and unworthy in the name of Christians if we would leave our brethren in a condition in which they must deny the faith, and do violence to their consciences, or fall prey to the persecutor on account of their poverty, and not make an effort to relieve and help them." (2)

One key person who set up the aid committee and negotiated between the Mennonites and their respective governments was Jacob Y. Shantz. His work consisted of assisting the Mennonite lmmigrants who wanted to settle in Manitoba with transportation and supples as well as helping them settle on the land.

By Nov. 1874, it was reported that 1400 Mennonites had been placed in Manitoba, and that five years later the number had grown to 7,000.

Shantz not only obtained most favorable travel rates for the immigrants, but often used money from his $100,000 personal credit fund in a Berlin, Ontario, bank to assist his friends from Russia by helping them pay their transportation cost, equipment, and farm machinery. Shantz was also placed in charge of a $100,000 Canadian government loan to the Russian Mennonites guaranteed by the Ontario Mennonites. As treasurer of the aid committee of Ontario, Shantz also dispensed the funds loaned to the immigrants by his fellow Mennonites. He lived to see the day when all of these loans were repaid, the final settlements having been 1907. (3)

In addition to loaning money, the Ontario Mennonites met the immigrants in Toronto to see that they supplied with food and supplies for the balance of their journey to Manitoba. "A group of immigrants arrived late in the fall of 1874 spent the winter in Ontario Mennonite homes before moving on to Manitoba . . . The entire journey from southern Russia to Manitoba took from 6-8 weeks, including sea voyage of about 20 days." (4)

The Johann Peters family arrived in Canada from Russia on the S.S. Sarmatian. This ship arrived in Quebec City on July 6, 1875. It is possible that they, too, stayed for the winter in the home of Benjamin Sherks, being too late to plant a crop in Manitboa that summer. A deep friendship emerged from this meeting that lasted until their deaths.

The Peters moved to Schoenfeld, Man., from Ontario. At the turn of the century they came to Saskatchewan and settled in the village of Reinfeld (north of Hague ). Here Mr. Peters operated a windmill for gristing grain. It was used for grinding whole wheat flour for brown bread. Many descendants of the Peters family still live in the Valley area.

The photo was contributed by Katharina Peters, a granddaughter of the Peters, who recently moved to Altenhelm from the Blumenheim village.

This is the bi-centennial (2OOth anniversary) of Ontario Mennonites since their arrival in Canada. We, as descendants of Mennonites from Russia can also celebrate with these Ontario brethren. For without their love and generosity many of our Russian forefathers would not have had an opportunity to come to Canada.

(1) Frank H. Epp, "Mennonites in Canada Vol. I" p. 42 and 56, McMillan Co. of Canada, pub. 1974 Toronto, Ont.
(2)Clarence Hiebert, "Mennonites in Deed to Mennonites in Need," p.79, Faith and Life Press, Newton, Kansas. 1967.
(3) Mennonlte Enclopedia Vol IV, p. 511, Mennonite Publishing House, Scottsdale, Pennsylvania,I959
(4) Frank H. Epp opcit. 202.

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