Village News

The Legacy of Gerhard Ens

  • Barry Dyck, Guest Author
  • Retired Executive Director, MHV

The Mennonite Heritage Village, as a total project, has been a product of countless hands and hearts that have helped to bring it to fruition. That does not exclude special contributions from many persons who formed an “inner circle” of concern to make it happen, and stand behind it, so to speak, “through thick and thin” – whether in day to day labour, creating special events, or helping with committees and boards.

Among the latter one must mention Gerhard Ens. Beginning in 1946 he was a much appreciated teacher (largely a history teacher) and later principal of the Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna. He also served as editor of a very popular German Mennonite newspaper, Der Bote (headquartered for its later years in Winnipeg), and produced a Low German Mennonite history program on Radio CFAM heard throughout Manitoba and beyond.

These talks, it should be added, actually began ca 1971-72 as fifteen-minute “promos” designed to recruit interest in, and support for, “our Mennonite museum” then only ten years old. As time went on they turned into weekly-half hour Low German lectures on every imaginable topic in the story of the Mennonites around the world. These could be heard as such for more than thirty years. It all fit MHV purposes to a “T”. Thousands of listeners were glued to the radio when the time came for Gerhard to come on the air with “Gooden ovent, leve Leed and toheera” (Good evening, dear people and listeners).

Alongside all his virtually career-length involvements Gerhard seemed to treasure as much or more his work with Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. Gerhard helped to create the heartbeat of this institution from its initial conception to its serving of the public until he passed away in 2011. That constitutes a solid effort of more than six decades. His dreaming and more concentrated “push” began well before the late 1950s when he helped prodigiously with the reorganization of the Mennonite Historical Committee created by the Rhineland Agricultural Institute of Altona in the late 1940s and the formal organization of a Manitoba-wide Mennonite Historical Society in 1957-1958.

In his mind it was always taken for granted that this larger group would, among other things, create a museum which could become a major progenitor of heritage appreciation for the larger Mennonite community. That part of his design came to an initial fruition, one could say, with the establishing in 1979-80 of an independent board and general program for the museum two decades after its founding.

As a board member of MMHS (Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society) and then Mennonite Heritage Museum (as it was first called), Gerhard took on the task of recording secretary from the outset up to the forming of a separate museum society, and then moved along with the reorganization to carry on the same task until around 1987. About then he assumed the board presidency of MHM (later Mennonite Heritage Village).

He held this office for another decade, ending it with his retirement from the board ca 1999. I was glad I could still meet him there when I joined the board about that time. In his freshly-minted position as president-emeritus he then found a place to maintain his support actively as long as his health would allow. His many internal involvements in programs and attendance, too numerous to mention included speaking at many occasions (including the day of a mortgage burning for a major expansion in 1990), continuing to advise when needed, serving as informal historian for MHV, all the while keeping new board members and staff targeted on what he felt needed to be the museum’s primary mission, and serving generally as “elder statesman” of Mennonite heritage promotion in all capacities which gave him access to do so.

He is being remembered from speaking on special occasions, writing the column he used effectively for many years of publishing the MHV newsletter, Preserving our Heritage (prior to Village Review), and all the above-mentioned contributions. All this is concretely detailed on the plaque of acknowledgment which has been mounted in the Gerhard Ens Gallery of MHV. It is reflected and preserved in part in a volume of Low German materials written for his radio talks titled Dee easchte Wienachten enn Kanada enn aundre Jeschijchten (The First Christmas in Canada and other Stories), edited by Dr. Gerhard J. Ens and Erica Ens. It was donated by the family in quantity for sale in the MHV bookstore and is still available.

The legacy of Gerhard on these themes is simply really many-faceted and quite monumental. We hope the 50th anniversary year celebrations at MHV in 2014 will illustrate this often and well.