“The Ältester: Herman D.W. Friesen, A Mennonite Leader in Changing Times”
by Bruce L. Guenther
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$34.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-572-5
When change inevitably intersects with strongly held traditional beliefs, there’s bound to be a clash. How one man and his community cope with the challenge of changing times is the theme of Bruce Guenther’s biography, The Ältester: Herman D.W. Friesen, A Mennonite Leader in Changing Times.
The Ältester is an intimate portrait of a family man, a community leader, and a religious role model in the Hague-Osler area north of Saskatoon, where Herman Friesen was born in 1908. As one of Herman’s grandsons, Guenther writes from a unique vantage point, showing how the family served as a “microcosm of the transitions taking place within the larger Old Colony Mennonite community in the region.”
Conflict arose over the Saskatchewan government’s insistence on English-language public schools for children, rather than private schools where Mennonites could teach their own language and religion. Unable to resolve this issue, many Old Colony Mennonites migrated to Mexico in the 1920s, but Herman’s parents stayed in Saskatchewan.
Herman’s story would not be complete without his wife. He didn’t have to go far to find love, marrying his neighbour, Margaretha Banman, in 1928. They had thirteen children, the youngest of whom died of whooping cough before the age of three.
In 1936, at age twenty-eight, Herman was elected as a public school board trustee for the Saskatchewan School District No. 99, where the ongoing issue over compelling children to attend school got so heated that one trustee attacked Herman with a hammer.
Ten years later Herman was elected as a councillor in the Rural Municipality of Warman, creating more conflict between secular and religious values. In 1962 he was elected as a minister in the Old Colony Mennonite Church, and a year later ordained as Ältester or bishop.
As an Ältester, Herman struggled to balance the demands of his family, his secular community, and his flock while operating a farm. Family members sometimes thought he placed a higher priority on church affairs than family matters.
Despite the public perception that Old Colony Mennonites were resistant to change, Herman didn’t hesitate to use new technology. He was one of the first farmers in the area to buy a combine, and among the first to hook up his farm with electricity. He also had a telephone, pump organ, and cabinet radio. In 1951 he purchased a brand new Plymouth sedan, for which a minister publicly chastised him in a sermon.
Unfortunately, Herman died tragically in 1969 after being pinned under a tractor. One can only speculate what further changes he may have made had he lived.
The Ältester contains twenty black and white photos as well as maps and tables, an index, bibliography, notes, an appendix of Herman’s sermons translated from German, and an appendix of his ministerial activities.
In The Ältester, Guenteher demonstrates how, as the forces of change intersected with traditional values, Herman tried to transition into the modern world, all while living a life devoted to his family, his community, and above all, his church.
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