CO memorial wall dedicated

A young girl stands next to the brick wall at Winkler’s Bethel Heritage Park. “Why are these bricks here?” she asks her mother. “That is what this Wall of Remembrance will do,” said Mennonite Central Committee representative Tina Fehr Kehler in her address at the dedication service on September 11, 2011.

Gathered in the shade with our lawn chairs for the service in Winkler, Man., my son and I joined some 250 people to commemorate conscientious objectors to war (COs) with a monument dedication service. The wall is made of 3,021 bricks – the number of young men from Manitoba who served Canada as COs during World War II, explained Bernie Loeppky, chair of the Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship (EAF). A handful of octogenarian COs, some on a day pass from the hospital, attended the event, sponsored by the EAF and Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society (MMHS).

The service opened with “O Canada,” hymns, and prayers. As MMHS representative, I gave a historical overview, linking the migration of Mennonites from Europe to Winkler with the strong belief in refusing military service. Anabaptists were persecuted in the 16th century for many reasons, including their unwillingness to fight in war. Mennonites emerged from the Anabaptist experience, migrating across Europe and eventually to Manitoba, continually seeking military exemption. Representatives from five denominations brought greetings and a call for greater faithfulness to Jesus’ teachings, including nonresistance and peacemaking. A singing group from the Winkler Bergthaler Mennonite Church rounded out the service.

The monument for COs stands on the opposite side of the park from the monument to war veterans, mirroring tensions still felt in families and the wider community, noted Mennonite Church Manitoba representative Justin Zacharias. Others observed that honouring both in the one park represents a continuing dialogue on this important topic.

In the book of Joshua, God instructed the Israelites to build a stone monument to help the people remember and tell the story of their ancestors and ultimately of God’s faithfulness (Joshua 4:1–7). The Wall of Remembrance follows this example. Funds donated at the event go toward the cost of the wall and the production of teaching materials.

On the way home, I took to the opportunity to talk to my son, discussing our history. I told him about his great-grandfather John Stoesz, who performed alternative service as a conscientious objector. The wall helped me tell our story.

Conrad Stoesz is archivist at the Centre for MB Studies, Winnipeg

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