Saturday, August 02, 2014

From Mennonite to Ukrainian Greek Catholic in 80 years

 It was a blistering hot summer day when people gathered to attend the opening of a village church. The service began with church leaders on stage participating in opening prayer, and the building being sanctified and dedicated. Later, the hymn "Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich", was sung in German and greetings were extended from a Mennonite Pastor.  The much loved  German book "Geistliche Lieder und Gelegenheits Gedichte" ("Spiritual Songs and Poems for Various Occasions") by pastor/poet Bernhard Harder and published in 1888, was presented to the Church. Government dignitaries were present and friends came from surrounding communities.  The service ended with communion and then there was an outside communal meal with borscht. This was just part of the nearly 3 hour opening service of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the village of Snegurevka, formerly called Schoensee.

The original church was built in 1909. It was the largest Mennonite church in South Russia, now Ukraine. In 1934 this building with a fresco ceiling painted by an Italian artist, was closed by the Soviet authorities and became a granary. By the time Mennonite tourists returned to visit in the early 1990s only the basics remained, with original brick walls and steel roof beams, which I believe were installed later. Trees were taking over inside, and garbage was everywhere. It was a picture of neglect and despair.

In 2011 Father Peter Krenitsky, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest with a parish in Melitopol, visited the village and spotted the remains. He saw opportunity, where we saw costs; he had dreams where we had nightmares. With his genuinely warm smile, his quiet voice, and grasp of many languages, he brought out the best in you.  Soon he had parishioners coming to clear out the trees, and the seminary students laying down a cement floor. Friends from Czech and other Eastern European countries took their holidays here to help build. The Mennonite Centre provided funds for the floor and the ceiling, for which we received a warm applause at the service. After the service a women came up to me and said, "I can't believe how the Mennonite Centre seems to get involved in every project in this area."

This all-Ukrainian service with about 300 in attendance came at a much needed time in Eastern Ukraine. I had the sense that the work of our grandparents here provided the foundation for a renewal in this community, and in this church. In fact I understand that speakers used this occasion to call for renewal in the country. Zaporozhye pastor Boris Letkeman's comments were well received and Dema Bratchenko, Olga Rubel and I joined Boris and the young men from the seminary in singing, in German, "Great God We Praise You." For those of you who unfortunately are aware of my unique abilities in this area, do not despair, I was restrained in voice and volume. I also joined the villagers in taking communion from Father Peter.

The Bernard Harder book I referred to was donated by John B.Giesbrecht fom Vineland, Ontario. Actually John donated to the Mennonite Centre two books and I took the liberty of giving one to this Church as a gift from John and the Centre. John's grandparents came from this village and there is every reason to believe this specific book was used in this Church in the early 1900s. A great homecoming; thank you John. Pictures of the original church found in Rudy Friesen's book, "Building on the Past," were on display in the entrance.

After spending so much time focusing on the frightening events four hours eastward, it was good to come together to embrace the past, pray for the present, and look forward to a brighter future.

Pictures on this service will be on our Facebook page and our website.

Thank you for your interest,

Ben Stobbe

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine you can make your donations to "Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine." All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Rd., Beamsville, Ontario, Canada, L0R 1B1.
If you wish to donate online go to the website,, key in "Mennonite Centre Ukraine" and click on the search button. Then click on "View Profile" and then "Donate Now".
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