Menno Wiebe—family man, devout Christian, justice advocate, poet, lover of singing and gardener--died peacefully on January 5 at his Simkin Centre residence in Winnipeg. He leaves his loving wife, Lydia, daughter Rhonda (Dean Richert), son Tom (Anita Krause), and grandchildren Joe Warkentin (Joanne Rodriguez), Karl Warkentin, and Leo Wiebe.
The fifth of ten children, Menno was born in Bannerman, Manitoba in 1932. His German-speaking Mennonite parents, David and Margaret (Ens) Wiebe had recently immigrated from the Soviet Union. The Wiebe family moved several times during the depression-era 1930s in rural southern Manitoba. In 1945, they settled in Mount Lehman in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.
While in his twenties, Menno’s volunteer stints in tornado-torn Oklahoma and at a horticultural experimental station in Paraguay satisfied an impulse to serve and showed a healthy streak for adventure.
In 1958, shortly after enrolling at the Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, he met the talented young pianist and singer Lydia Boese, from Tofield, Alberta. Lydia had recently started teaching in the music department at CMBC. They began a courtship and were married in 1959. Their daughter Rhonda was born the following year. A son, Thomas, was born six years later.
After Menno graduated from CMBC, he and his family moved to Newton, Kansas, where Menno obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree. From there, he went to Elkhart, Indiana, where Menno studied at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries.
After two years at AMBS, Menno was ordained into the ministry and accepted a leadership position with what was then “Mennonite Pioneer Mission” with the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. He was instrumental in changing that name to “Native Ministries.”
It was in his work with Indigenous peoples where Menno found his life’s ministry. Back when he was a boy, he had observed his mother trading chickens for fresh salmon with the coastal peoples of British Columbia, at a time when commerce between settlers and Indigenous groups was forbidden. When he asked her why she was breaking the law, she told him, “They’re our neighbours.” That moment crystallized for him the concept of what it is to be a neighbour, and how the systemic relationships between settlers and Indigenous peoples were often unjust.
Through his role at Native Ministries, Menno built relationships with many northern communities across Canada. Then, from 1974-1997 he served as Director of Native Concerns with Mennonite Central Committee Canada, and it was in this capacity that he advocated, as a neighbour and friend to Indigenous groups, testifying before the Lubicon Settlement Commission, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Northern Flood Agreement, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Leon Mitchell Inquiry re Treaty Land Entitlements, the Royal Commission on Northern Environment, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In an interview regarding his approach to his work with Indigenous Peoples, Menno responded, “If they remember me as someone who lived with them, fished with them, heard their songs...and know me as a minister, if I can voluntarily subordinate that role [and] create a milieu of openness where the family reads their own poetry, sings their own songs, and I say little—if we can again relate laterally, that would be an achievement.”
Menno’s passion for intercultural understandings extended to the academic world. He earned an M.A degree in anthropology from the University of Manitoba in 1973, and instructed anthropology at the University of Manitoba, Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Providence College, the University of Zurich, and Canadian Mennonite University.
Menno was both gregarious and introspective. He was infinitely patient with those in tough straits, and impatient with the powerful. He challenged oppressive institutions and averted interpersonal confrontation. He had a lot to say, and said it, and valued silence and solitude.
Family was important to Menno. He was a loyal son to his parents and was a source of calm and understanding among his siblings. He was an encouraging husband to Lydia and was proud of her successful piano teaching career. A patient father and grandfather, he was supportive of his children and grandchildren, and of their pursuits and accomplishments.
Menno’s hobby farm—with no running water or electricity--was his Eden. It was at the farm where so many of his yearnings—living simply and harmoniously with the earth, working with the soil, befriending the animal kingdom, and silence—came together.
He had other passions and gifts, too. Menno was a published poet, and wrote in a lyrical, probing verse. He possessed a sweet tenor voice and was an effortless harmonizer in any vocal quartet. A natural athlete, he volunteered as a hockey coach and placed emphasis on unselfishness and sportsmanship, like his hockey hero, Dave Keon.
Following his retirement, Menno continued to tend his farm gardens, often joined by Lydia. He remained a valuable resource for those interested in issues regarding Indigenous peoples and their relationships with Mennonites. In 2009, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by St. John’s College, University of Manitoba.
In his final years, Menno maintained a stoic grace in the face of numerous health setbacks. He would flash his wry humour, continued to brighten up when hearing his favourite music, and benefitted from the attentive love and devotion of Lydia, and from the rest of his family and friends. In his final months at the Simkin Centre, Menno received particularly exemplary care from staff members Lori Pawluk, Jo-Anne Hollander and the head nurse of his wing, Corinna Heieie. The Wiebe family offers special thanks to them, and to Dr. Darrel Drachenberg, who performed a life-saving nephrectomy on Menno in 2016.
Menno Wiebe’s life was a large, well-tended garden. In his love for family, in his kindness and generosity, and in his pursuit for justice and understanding, the many seeds Menno planted will continue to germinate.
A public celebration of Menno’s life will take place once COVID-restrictions are lifted.
The family invites you to join them at 1:00pm on Friday January 15, 2021 for a short service online at the link provided https://youtu.be/UNuXTI4AeBg.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Mennonite Heritage Archives through Canadian Mennonite University at https://www.cmu.ca/give/t/mharchives or a charity of your choice.
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