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Remembering Rev. John G. Rempel

by Helen Kornelsen

My life is richer for having known and been a student of Rev. J. G. Rempel. He made a tremendous impact on my life. I will not forget the many ways in which he contributed to my life through his teaching and mentorship, his personal interest and friendship he, no doubt, extended to all of his students.

I see him, even now, head bent thoughtfully to one side, clutching his black briefcase in one hand, walking down the path to the Bible School, the former Immigration Haus (house for immigrants). He always walked. His briefcase held more than his teaching script - much of his life conference work was done during his spare time in the basement, seated at the far end of the long dining room table. He was secretary of the Canadian Conference from 1930 to 1947, 16 years, the longest serving secretary of the conference. He also issued Sunday School lessons in use at that time.

I spent two winters at the Bible School, 1940-41 and 1941-42. They were happy hears, rich years. I had the privilege of Mr. Rempel's in- depth teaching of several courses; the regular Catechism, Church History, Mennonite History, Sunday School teaching an critique, etc. The course in Hymnology was perhaps one of the most meaningful courses in the years to follow. Who cannot be moved with a full-throated congregational sings the beloved chorales, such as "Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe," "O Haupt voll Blut and Wunden," "Befiehl Due Deine Wege," and many others. He explained that most of these beloved hymns arose from the times of persecution and suffering.

He taught a course on "Wehrlossigkeit" (inon-resistance) as well. It was war time, WWII, a critical time for conscientious objectors. He often made trips to Saskatoon to intercede for the Mennonite young men called up for military service. This made the course both timely and practical.

He could be very serious, but also had a great sense of humor. My diary records that on several occasions he had us in fits of laughter. He had a good rapport with students, and the students loved and respected him. We were all very much at ease with him. He always had time for each of us. We, in turn, were happy for occasions to show our love for him, such as surprising him on his birthday by coming to his home and singing for him. He was interested in all that his students did and took part in their activities.

He shared in the Christmas Box. He drew my name during my first year, but I do not remember what gift he had for me.

He enjoyed telling funny stories. He had a special relationship with Henry Friesen and liked to share stories about him. Henry had, on one occasion, found two plums on a plum tree in the Bible School yard. He ate one and gave the second one to Mr. Rempel. He, telling this, remarked drily, "Geteilter Schmerz ist halber Schmerz." (Shared sorrow is half the sorrow).

It was the practice to present programs in surrounding churches towards the end of the school year. He had us girls practice a play called, "Der Lebensweg" ( the Journey of Life). Eight girls met at the close of their initial schooling for a tea party at which time they shared their plans for the future. I was Maria. I wanted to become a teacher. The girls decided on a reunion 10 years later. When they did, I had become a missionary, teaching in India. Those of us in the play also decided on a reunion, and we met in 1955, on my first furlough from service in India.

Classes were held Monday through Friday. Saturday however, was work day. The boys had to chop a week's supply of wood for the kitchen. We girls cleaned the classrooms. My diary includes the mention of a butcherr-bee on one of those Saturdays. Half of the pig was for the Bible School, the other half was for Mr. Rempel.

Mr. Rempel's understanding of human nature, his tact in dealing with unhappy situations, and his discretion and diplomacy in the solution, made us respect him immensely. During my second year a new teacher, young, inexperienced, unattached, and nervous, and our class of mature students found themselves uncomfortably incompatible. Aware of our disinterest in what he was teaching, he changed the course three times in a short while. The inevitable happened. He forgot to erase his notes on the blackboard. When Mr. Rempel walked into the classroom he stood still, looked at the blackboard, gave us a questioning look, and asked, "Was ist denn dieses?" (What is the meaning of this?) Silence; we said nothing. The class proceded as usual.

Whether appointed or not, I do not remember, but the next day found me explaining to Mr. Rempel what had transpired. He heard me never interrupting to ask questions. He did not say much. He commented, "Er ist etwas verrutscht." What did he mean? He explained, when a person sits on the end of a bench he may be in danger of tipping over. The new teacher, in other words, was still a bit too unsure of himself. It was said kindly. We did not see our new teacher in class again.

At the close of the second year, Mr. Rempel offered to give me a certificate qualifying me for having completed a full course - three years. He felt I was qualified for it. I declined. I wanted, in the worst way, to return for third year. Soon afterwards Mr. K. G. Toews steered me to the Rosthern Junior College (then the German-English Academy). It was the Lord's way of opening the door, one of many more to follow, in confirming my call to missionary service.

Mr. Rempel had another suggestion for me. Would I like to work in the printing press where "Der Bote" was printed? In the course of the two years he had appointed me school reporter. I made several trips to the printing press to submit my reports to the friendly editor, Mr. H. H. Epp. I would have enjoyed working there, but the Lord had other plans for me.

Mr. Rempel was present at a very holy moment in my life several years later. He assisted Rev. J. J. Thiessen with my ordination for missionary service on July 15, 1948, in the North Star Mennonite Church, Drake, SK., the day following the Saskatchewan Women's Conference. That was perhaps, my last encounter with Mr. Rempel.

In 2006 his daughter Agnes Wall asked me to translate her father's travelogue, an account of his trip to the 1952 Mennonite World Conference in Basel, Switzerland, for the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg. As I travelled with him on his trip and on his sight-seeing tours, I was amazed afresh at his vast knowledge of literature, history, poetry, mythology, nature, architecture, world events, etc. What an over-whelming memory to draw from! When he made a comparison to "Der Erlkoenig" I had to do some searching and leg work to find the poem to draw the lesson from it.

On that trip he related many anecdotes of his encounters with people all over Europe. In Germany he vistied the Seniors' Home in Enkenbach. As he was about to depart an attendant rushed out to tell him, "I have acquaintances in Canada, but not in Manitoba."

"In Saskatchewan?" he replied.

"Yes, yes," she continued, "But I do not know where in Saskatchewan."

"In Rosthern?"

"Yes. But not in Rosthern, near Rosthern."

"In Tiefengrund," he answered her.

Not a little amazed she asked, "How do you know all that?"

He explained, "I come from that area. When someone inquires about relatives or acquaintances in Saskatchewan - then I already know. As a rule they are from Tiefengrund. The residents of this Home are from West Prussia, many of them from the Rosenorter congregation. Where else would they have relatives?"

The legacy Mr. Rempel left to his students, his congregation, his conference and to the world, we can appreciate but not fully evaluate. The Lord knows his deeds. In Revelation 13:14 and 14, we read, "Then I heard a voice from heaven say, "Write: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them."

Helen Kornelsen

Presented as a tribute to Rev. J. G. Rempel on the occasion of his recognition held at Bethany Manor by the Saskatchewan Mennonite Historical Society on August 10, 2008).

[last updated - May/12/2022]
Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

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