Sunday, 26 August 2018


Mary and I have completed our term as North American Directors at the Mennonite Centre in Halbstadt Ukraine.  We are now in Amsterdam for 3 days before flying home. It has been a busy and rewarding time in Ukraine.  Following are some highlights that come to mind.

The weather has been hot but not as bad as we had expected.  It turned out that the dire predictions of temperature in the plus 40 C (104 F) range were based on temperature readings that people had taken in the sun.  That was not our assumption when we heard the predictions and it made us expect the worst.  The hottest we experienced was 36 C (96 F).  That compared well to some temperatures back home in Winnipeg where they also had a heat wave.  We would be prepared to come back mid-summer again and enjoy all the fresh fruits and vegetables that the local gardens have to offer.

The Mennonite Centre hosted a wedding on our lawn last Saturday.  We were asked if they could use our facility as we have the most attractive setting in Molochansk.  Our lawn is green as it is the only lawn that has been watered.  We are also one of the few places with a lawn mower as most people use goats to trim their grass.  Not surprising that it is the best-looking place in town.  It gave me an opportunity to get a unique picture of our building.
Wedding at Mennonite Centre Molochansk

It was interesting watching the wedding.  As expected, everyone was very well dressed.  The attendants all were personally introduced before they walked down the grass aisle one at a time.  The outside of our fence was lined with uninvited locals who wanted to watch the proceedings.  The ceremony concluded with the release of two white doves by the groom and bride.  The talk in the town the next day was that the wedding had been for our staff.  That made for some interesting rumours and probably some consternation by a few locals who were surprised that they had not been invited.
Release of Doves

When walking between our office and apartment we always pass the house of Anatoli and Raisa.  They have had a special bond with all North American Directors.  This is somewhat surprising as they have no knowledge of English and have never come to the Mennonite Centre for any assistance.   I suspect that his personal link to us is that he is one of a few people in town who knows his history.  His grandfather had been a coachman for a prominent Mennonite business (Franz and Schroeder Machine Factory) in Halbstadt. Anatoli is very proud of that connection.

Anatoli’s wife Raisa died this past winter.  Anatoli is quite deaf and blind, but he did communicate with Oksana at the time that she should inform Alvin and Mary of his wife’s passing.  He has aged a lot in the past year.  He is now 91 years old.
Mary Anatoli and Alvin

Mary was walking past Anatoli house the other day.  Anatoli’s son and grandson were outside and recognized Mary.  The grandson has good English and asked us to come for a visit that evening.  We did not really know the son and grandson, but they had heard good things about us from Anatoli and we were treated royally.  The son is a veteran of the ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  He fought there from 1982 until he was wounded in 1985.  Anatoli’s grandson is an engineer specializing in ferrous metals at the steel plant in Zaporozhe. They are all warm caring people and it is a privilege for us to see them as friends.

There are always challenges for us in the field of medicine in Ukraine.  They sneak up on you in surprising ways.  The last challenge involved medications.  Our local hospital has a new gynecologist. After giving women a mammogram and finding a cyst, she would give the women an expensive prescription and tell them that the Mennonite Centre would fund it.  The women would then show up asking for the money.  That is not how the process works.  People must apply for assistance and the Mennonite Centre must assess their financial needs and decide if the request is legitimate.  Mary being a nurse, was wondering why there was no follow-up procedure to the discovery of the cyst and what kind of medication would cure this condition.  After extensive research with the assistance of GOOGLE, it was determined that the prescription was a food supplement.  In fact, it was an extract from broccoli.  The Mennonite Centre funds medicine based on evidence-based treatment as is practised in the West.  These requests are all being declined, and people referred to a local market where they can buy their broccoli.

I have been writing these blogs for 7 years.  This will be my 48th blog that I am posting.  I have a good idea who many of my readers are but there are some surprises.  I have statistics by country as to how many readers there are.  The all-time total for the 10 top countries, breaks down as follows:
Canada                       17,879
United States              5,831
Russia                         4,154
Ukraine                       2,524
Germany                     1,004
France                         473
Poland                        328
Netherlands               258
United Kingdom         190
Japan                          133

I had no idea I had so many friends in Russia, not to mention Japan.  For those who don’t know me personally, please feel free to leave a comment on this blog giving me some clues as to who you are or what your interest is. That would be appreciated.

A rumour spreading through town is that the old guy from Canada working at the Mennonite Centre crawled into the tunnels under the old Mennonite Credit Union.  I am being stopped unexpectedly and congratulated on my stupidity.  Well, we all like to be remembered.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 18 August 2018


It has been a week of new adventures. While we might have a basic plan for the day, the events often unfold in surprising ways.  This week was no exception to that rule.

Last Sunday we were invited to attend the service at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Tokmak.  After the service, they were going to have a light lunch for everyone and then have a “round table” discussion with us. There was no clue for us as to what the topic of the discussion would be.  It turns out they were just curious about us and had many questions.  The questions included: what are Mennonites, what were our ancestors doing in this area of Ukraine, and why did they leave.  They were all reasonable questions from people who had limited knowledge of their local history but were curious as to why the Mennonite Centre exists.  I have gotten used to giving a two minute history of Mennonites including why our ancestors moved to Ukraine. 

The question as to why the Mennonites left Ukraine gets into a delicate area.  History has many changing perspectives in defining who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”.  My parents knew exactly who the “bad guys” were.  They were the bandits that plundered, murdered and raped the Mennonite villages during the unrest of the Civil War in 1917-1921.  The bad guys were also the communist authorities that destroyed the Mennonite way of life.  The current local population will have had a life time of learning in schools that the bad guys were the “kulaks” (rich people) who got their wealth by stealing from the poor.    As there is no common understanding of who the “bad guys” are, there is no point in using labels in describing anybody.  I did acknowledge the disruption and hurts of the Civil War without trying to pass judgement on anybody and how that resulted in 20,000 Mennonites leaving Ukraine for Canada in the 1920’s.  I also described how the events of World War II resulted in all remaining Mennonites leaving the area, either voluntarily or forcibly.
Deep in Discussion

I also had a question for them.  For people who had grown up under communism, which actively promoted an atheist way of life, I asked them why they were attending a church and if they could give me a glimpse into their faith journey.  Most answers were a bit of a cop-out as they described why they left the Orthodox Church to join the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church.  A few did attempt to address my question of why they had a faith life.  For some there had been a parental influence, one person referenced a radio program that got her started, and a number commented on the warm influence of Father Taras, their young priest.  It was a beautiful warm conversation that we all enjoyed.
Group with Father Taras at the End

On Sunday afternoon we took a drive with George Dyck out to the south-east area of the former Molotschna settlement to look at some Mennonite villages.  This included the village of Alexanderthal, my father’s ancestral village.  I had been there a number of times and was recognized by one of the locals.  We continued on to the site of the former Steinbach estate where we turned around to retrace our steps back to the highway.  As we drove back through Alexanderthal we were waved down by a man I had never seen before.  He must have heard that there were Mennonite tourists in the area and desperately wanted to show us a photograph.  It was an old picture of a class of children posing with their teacher.  We took a picture of his photo.  George Dyck posted the picture on Facebook on a site dedicated to Mennonite genealogy and within an hour the photo had been identified.  It was the 1938 class in the Alexanderthal School.  As the entire population of the village was forcibly moved east to Kazakhstan in October 1941, one has to wonder about the irony of the children with smiles on their faces.  Many of them would not have survived the forced relocation.   Now I must go back to Alexanderthal someday with an interpreter to find out how that man got the picture.
Class of 38

On Tuesday morning we had an appointment to explore the tunnels under the former Mennonite Credit Union building.  A number of people from town had expressed an interest in joining us.  Mary had that look of quiet apprehension about my joining the group.  Oksana was busy asking if anybody in the group had training in CPR.  The director of the Sport’s School (the Credit Union Building in Mennonite times) wanted us all to sign a statement releasing her from all responsibility.  Otherwise everything else appeared normal.  The entrance was quite small and I can admit that I felt a bit apprehensive.  I decided to deal with my apprehension by crawling in first.  It was a fairly tight fit but I was assured that the tunnel would be larger than the initial opening. 
Tunnel Opening

Yes the tunnel was larger than the initial opening.  While others could walk in a very stooped fashion, I was too tall and lacked the flexibility to move around as quickly as the others.  A more straight forward way of describing it would be too say that I was too old to be exploring tunnels.  I did manage to crawl and see some parts of the tunnel including a well located inside the tunnel.  I was the first to emerge from the tunnel and did see a look of relief on Mary’s face.

Well in the Tunnel

The rest of the crew did a thorough examination of the tunnels and emerged from the depth with great smiles on their faces.   There were 3 parallel tunnels under the Credit Union building.  The disappointing fact is that despite all the local folklore, we have not seen any evidence that the tunnels really go beyond the buildings. Further exploration (by others) is required.

 We have less than a week to go before we leave Molochansk.  The time has gone by too quickly and we sit here wondering if there is some way we could extend our stay.  That would get too complicated, but it reflects our feelings about the work of the Mennonite Centre.
Contemplating our Future with some Ice Cream

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:


Saturday, 11 August 2018


It has been a week of new experiences in Ukraine for both of us.  The newness may come in subtle ways or be an entirely new experience.

A new experience for us was to attend the pilgrimage service at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in Schoensee last Saturday.  We had been invited by our friend Father Peter to join them in the culmination of this event.  The pilgrimage started on Friday in the city of Melitopol and wound its way over 50 km (30 miles) through many former Mennonite villages to end up in the restored former Mennonite church in Schoensee.  This was done over two days with the pilgrims spending a night in the former Mennonite village of Ohrloff.  They were scheduled to arrive Saturday evening at 6:00 PM and join the locals in a special celebration.

We arrived to find the church grounds busy with preparations.  There was a large tent with mattresses for the pilgrims to spend the night.  A large group of people were busy with food preparations for the feast after the church service.  The evening started off with the locals all gathered in the church.  We then walked out together and marched down the road singing to meet the pilgrims arriving from Melitopol. As the two groups got closer they joined in the same song until they met in a warm embrace of each other.
Food Preparation

Clergy Leading us out to meet the Pilgrims

Pilgrims Arriving at Schoensee

What struck me was the number of young people participating in the event.  There were also many young priests in their clerical gowns.  A number of them could speak English and we had some interesting conversations.  Brother Vlad proudly introduced us to his lovely girlfriend.  Priests in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church are allowed to marry unlike their counterparts in the Roman Catholic Church.  He also explained the significance of the pilgrimage.  It was a re-enactment of Jesus’ walk to the temple with his parents at the age of 12 where he got separated from his parents because he was too busy interacting with religious leaders of the day in the temple.  You can read all about it in Luke 2: 41-52.  Knowing the context of an event really makes one look at the day very differently.

All locals and pilgrims came back to the church.  We were too busy taking pictures and watching that we were late entering the church.  All the seats were taken.  One of the locals must have recognized Mary and made a special effort to find a seat for her.  He directed her to a lovely upholstered seat right at the back of the church.  Mary was quite comfortable there.  The service started with a special blessing from the Bishop.  After he finished he came to the back and Mary suddenly realized from the horrified look of the people around her that she was sitting in the Bishop’s chair.  I guess that is a bit like going to England and accidently sitting in the Queen’s chair at an event.  I regret not getting a picture of the people around Mary as that event unfolded. 
Bishop Addressing Congregation

After a long service (I have never seen a short church service in Ukraine) everyone came out for the feast of soup and sandwiches.  I even ate some food that I could not recognize, which is unusual for me. The evening concluded with a concert featuring the best Christian rock group in Ukraine.  They were loud and they were flashy and the audience seemed to appreciate them.  The lead singer was a young lady.  She spoke with great sincerity and shared her story with the audience.  It included a reference to relatives being banished to Siberia.  It is a story that many Mennonites could truly relate to.
Best Christian Rock Band in Ukraine

Appreciative Audience

On Sunday evening we drove to Zaporozhe in order to spend some time looking at projects in that area.  On Monday morning we toured the occupational therapy ward of the Zaporozhe Oblast hospital (the major hospital for the region).  They are completing a plan for their area and we are anticipating that we will receive some requests for assistance.  Mary, being a nurse, observed things that I would not have noticed.  For example, she found the hallways quite pleasant but the rooms were desperately in need of some paint and general upkeep.  The hospital was very proud of two beds that the Mennonite Centre had paid for.  These special beds were adjustable and had a patient lifting device that Mary informs me is referred to in Canada as a “monkey bar”.  These beds were so special that they could only be used on a doctor’s special orders.  Mary was unimpressed with the special beds.  The adjustments were all manual, the mattress was split to make it accommodate the adjustment, and the mattress was quite thin.  The special bed did look better than the regular beds which had an even thinner mattress and needed plywood under the mattress to keep it from sagging.
Special Bed

Our visit to the ward included a view of their rehab pool.  The glum look on the three men floating rather aimlessly in the water was worth a picture. It was described as a treatment for their backs.
"Enthusiastic"  Patients

We had a pleasant visit to the farm of Kolya and Ira Prudnikoff.  This was a young couple with three children who fled from Crimea right after it was seized by Russia.  They came from Crimea with whatever possessions they could squeeze into their old Lada.  They left a successful honey and nursery garden in Crimea.  With the assistance of the Mennonite Centre, they have set up a similar operation near Zaporozhe. They supplied the honey that was sold as a souvenir to visitors to the Mennonite Centre.  They are also supplying florists in Zaporozhe with cut roses for their stores.  They have worked hard and are determined to pay back to the Mennonite Centre all the money that they have received from us.
Kolya and his Roses

Kolya encouraged me to try eating a honey comb.  He said it was just like chewing gum.  I tried it.  Yes it was just like chewing gum while tasting the sweet honey residue that was still in the combs.

A year ago we had visited a warm friendly lady living in the former Mennonite village of Neuendorf.  Her name is Elena and she lives in a former Mennonite house.  We had promised her that we would come again and have tea at her house.  Not only did we have tea but she also served us a complete meal.  Last year she had told us how Mennonites had saved the life of her grandmother during World War II.  She had the chance to share this story with other Mennonite tourists who visited her house this summer.  I understand that it was a very emotional experience for her to share with total strangers and that it was the highlight of the trip for some visitors.
Elena Mary and Alvin

George Dyck, a FOMCU board member from Canada, is visiting with us for 10 days.  He has participated in all discussions and decisions we have to make over here.  That has been good and his insight has been appreciated.  On Sunday we have been invited to the Tokmak Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to participate in a round table discussion.  We have no idea what to expect but are looking forward to the event.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 4 August 2018


This has been a week of surprises.  Most of them have been good surprises. It felt as if all the people we had helped over the past year had conspired to individually come forward and thank the Mennonite Centre for its support.  The following are some examples of the thanks we received.

The most elaborate thank you came from the new “Inclusive” school program in Molochansk (Halbstadt). Last spring we received an application from this new program which wanted to start a program in the school to deal with children with disabilities or behavioural issues.  This is a significant development in Ukraine as those types of children have generally been hidden in their homes. Bringing them out into the public and even using school classrooms is a first step in integrating these children into society.  This was a new government funded program which means that the government will provide the space, salaries for the staff and cover the cost of utilities.  The fact that the two classrooms assigned for this program were unusable was not the government’s problem.  The new director had to do some fund-raising.  She was turned down everywhere she went and came to us in desperation.  She was requesting $10,000 to upgrade the two rooms.  That is a large amount for our organization and our board approved a grant of $5000, which would enable them to refurbish one room.  The director was elated and they went to work getting a room ready for their program.
Classroom Before Renovations

Classroom After Renovations

Toward the end of July, the director came over to the Mennonite Centre and invited us to come on Wednesday August 1 at 10:00 AM to tour the new facility.  We always like to inspect what we have paid for and agreed to come.  As we were walking over to the school that morning, Oksana, our manager, casually mentioned that there may be a dance group performing.  This was my first clue that this was more than a casual inspection. When we arrived at the school we saw a group assembled with some deputies (senior government officials) from Tokmak as well as the local news media.  That is when I was informed that I would be speaking at the event.  Flexibility is one of the requirements for our work in Ukraine and so I stood there in the audience assembling my thoughts.

The program was great.   They had some young singers as well as the local Ukrainian dance troupe.  I got a great picture of the dancers performing.

Of course there were many long, sometimes boring speeches.  The director of the new initiative spoke of the new programs including speech therapy sessions that could even help some deputies. This was a brave statement as a number of deputies were in the audience. They did laugh at the comment. When it was my turn to talk, I spoke briefly of the people back home who had memories of their ancestors living in the area and who felt a kinship to the people now residing in the former Mennonite areas.  It was this kinship that motivated them to donate money to enable the Mennonite Centre to operate in Molochansk.  I concluded by wishing them success in their new program.

Mary and I were presented with a special plaque thanking the Mennonite Centre for its contribution.  You can practise your Ukrainian by deciphering the words on the plaque. In the centre, it thanks the Mennonite Centre and its donors for their support. This is the first time that I have seen the locals actually acknowledge the existence of our donor base back home.  We are making progress.

The ceremony concluded with an official ribbon cutting.  I saw them setting up the ribbon.  Next thing I knew I was handed some scissors and asked to come forward and cut the ribbon.  I realized that it was a special honour when all the photographers came forward to record the moment. I kept wishing that I was wearing long pants as my crumpled shorts just lacked dignity.  I was given a part of the red ribbon to take home.  For some reason this really meant something to me and I will keep this ribbon as part of my memories of working at the Mennonite Centre.

The most emotional thank you of the week came from a young man by the name of Andre Krashevskiy.  He was an orphan from our local orphanage who we helped with a scholarship. This financed his studies at a trades school where he became a qualified electrician.  He just showed up at the Mennonite Centre and wanted to share his story with us.  He has been very successful in his field and has now been accepted into a university where he is studying to become an electrical engineer.  He has also found his parents and is developing a relationship with them.  He is a delightful young man and we both just had to give him a hug as we know he did not get enough hugs growing up in an orphanage.  His level of maturity in recognizing the importance of stopping by the Mennonite Centre to say thanks was very impressive.
Mary Andre Alvin

The most surprising thank you came from Dema, a young man who attends the local Mennonite Church and participates in their youth group.  This group spends a lot of time at the Mennonite Centre playing volley ball in the back part of our lot. It has become a drop in centre for all young people in town as everyone is welcome to join the group.  When we first arrived, Mary and I had noticed the volley ball net was in terrible shape.  When I mentioned this to Oksana, she explained that it was not our net but rather belonged to the church.  I told her I did not care who owned it but just wanted to get it replaced.  The next day we bought a new net in Tokmak.  It cost $35.00.  Dema wanted us to know that he had been praying for a new net.  Fund raising among the young people had not produced enough money.  Suddenly to see a new net had been an answer to his prayers and he wanted us to know his story.

While we are always glad to hear words of appreciation we did have one encounter that was not as pleasant. Right behind our apartment is a large sports field.  It is used for soccer games as well as joggers who like to run on the oval track.  If they get tired of jogging I have seen people get into their cars and do laps around the field in their vehicle. To save costs of mowing, the field is also used to feed the local goats.  These are brought out by their owners with the goat having a chain around their necks.  These long chains are then tethered to stakes to allow the goat to forage in a defined area.  One evening while walking around the track, we were charged by a goat that had broken loose from its stake.  Mary got the worst of it.  The horns have a rough edge and actually broke the skin at the top of her leg.  The area is also badly bruised.  We were finally rescued with the assistance of another jogger and heard what I assume were profuse apologies from the owner of the goat.  Mary’s injuries are healing well.  As a nurse, she did all the right things in treating the wound.  Following is a picture of the offending goat.  A picture of the injuries is not available.

Tonight we are off to the former Mennonite Church at Schoensee.  This is now a Greek Catholic Church and they are finishing a large pilgrimage from Melitopol to Schoensee today.  We look forward to seeing the pilgrims arrive and will join them in a large celebration event.  I might get to report on this in my next blog.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Monday, 30 July 2018


The Mennonite Centre in Halbstadt has been very busy this past week with tourists from the Mennonite Heritage Cruise.  For three days we received one or two busloads of people who had chosen to explore the Halbstadt area.  This gave them the day in our area as well as a lunch of borscht and blinchkies prepared by Ira our cook.  Because of the contacts that we have built with locals over time, there were some new opportunities to explore. These special arrangements always come with a certain amount of risk.

For years, Mennonite tourists have come and admired the seven story Willms flour mill from outside of their large yard.  This year for the first time ever, tourists got to go onto the grounds of the mill and even explore the interior.  This happened because Oksana, our manager, had a conversation with the town mayor.  He had invited the news media to tour some local attractions in the hope of leveraging this increased attention into improving our roads. This is how Oksana found out that the mayor had some access to the mill.  Because we have helped the mayor recently with some projects, he agreed to use his influence to open the mill to the tourists coming this week.  He was personally there before the first bus arrived to make sure that the watchman unlocked the gate and that another guide had unlocked the mill.  The bus was late in arriving and the mayor left before the first bus arrived but everything went smoothly on the first day. 
The Famous Willms Mill

We all assumed that things would go well on subsequent days.  Of course, this is Ukraine and things can go off track.  On the second day, there was a new watchman who had not been told that we had access to the mill.  The mayor was also not present personally but Oksana called him and soon the gate was open.  However the watchman said he did not have the key for the mill.  The person with the key had been taken to the hospital by ambulance during the night and no one knew where to get the key.  I was with some disappointed guests as we circled the building from the outside.  By the time we got around, the door had been miraculously unlocked and we could go in.  I never did find out where the key came from.  Sometimes in Ukraine it is just better not to know.

The mill is a fascinating and dangerous place to visit.  The person appointed as guide the first day, just pointed at the door and the stairs and then let us proceed on our own.  There is rubble everywhere on the floor and no barriers where the floor ends and you can look down several storeys.  I climbed right to the top floor and walked around the attic.  All the original flour milling equipment is gone.  In its last years of operation, the place had been used as a milk cannery.  It is now an empty derelict building that stands as a silent testimony to the prosperous Mennonite economy that ended here one hundred years ago.
Machinery Inside the Mill

Attic of the Willms Flour Mill

The tunnels built by Mennonites over 100 years ago were also popular with the tourists.  They had the opportunity to explore three different locations.  Again this was only possible because of the willingness of local authorities and property owners to accommodate our request for access.  There were many questions from the tourists as to why the tunnels were built and much speculation as to the motivation.  The exploration by the workers cleaning the tunnel entrances under the former Mennonite Credit Union (now the local sports school) has created increased local interest.  I am receiving requests from people who want to organize a party and crawl through the small opening and explore the areas that are not easily accessible.  Will I participate in that?  Maybe - I am tempted.  I will keep you posted.  I understand that there is an experienced team in Thailand to locate and extract us if something goes wrong.

The following pictures of tunnels are from an area that is not easily accessible.  It shows several tunnel areas as well as an underground well right in the tunnel shaft.  Presumably the well was dug to give access to water to people in the tunnel.

Well located inside Tunnel

Now that the tours are over, the Mennonite Centre has to return the keys which got us the access to the underground structures.  This was the agreement we had with the owners.  We have also removed the special lighting that we installed.  If we had left the lighting in the tunnel under the old Central School, it is the belief of our staff that it would soon corrode from the moist air or be stolen by staff from the town that also had access to the area. 

I was aware that there were members of the Fehderau family on the Mennonite Heritage Cruise.  I had written last year about the book written by their father who grew up in Halbstadt and came to Canada as part of the 1920’s migration.  I knew where their ancestral house was.  We discussed with Oksana about negotiating with the current owners to get access for the Fehderau clan to the house where their father (and grandfather) had lived.  Oksana did not know the people who lived there but I encouraged her to make a cold call and test the reception.  We walked there in the afternoon and could not get passed the gate.  One of our staff saw us and directed us to approach the building from the back.  There we bumped into a lady that Oksana knew from her fitness class.  This lady said that her mother lived in the Fehderau house but was away at the moment.  The lady had the key and promised to give the Fehderau family access.  We thought everything was arranged. The day before the tours started to arrive, the lady with the key had other obligations on one of the days of the tours.  We crossed our fingers hoping that it would work out.  It did work out.  I was in Berdjansk on the Sea of Azov with another tour group when Mary texted me that the Fehderau family was at the Mennonite Centre and had obtained access to the house.  Her text said that the family was overwhelmed to be inside their ancestral home. This made it a very personal trip for them and it was rewarding for us to have assisted in this. Special arrangements for tour groups are always a risk but very rewarding when they work out.

We are back to our normal routine at the Mennonite Centre. This morning we were met at the office door by a tearful lady from Melitopol requesting assistance for purchasing her chemo drugs. Yes we are back at work.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Monday, 23 July 2018


Mary and I are back in Ukraine for our seventh tour. This is our first time to be here in mid-summer.  We were warned that it could be very hot.  It is hot but not as bad as we had expected. We are slowly getting adjusted to the time zone.

We arrived Friday July 13 after an uneventful flight from Winnipeg.  We were forced to fly via Chicago as the cost of the air fares was considerably lower.  It is always interesting as to what one notices and remembers from a flight.  I remember our pilots for the United Airlines flight boarding ahead of us in Winnipeg.  I pointed them out to Mary and commented that they did not inspire confidence.  They were rather unkempt and slovenly dressed.  However they were quite competent as pilots as we had a good take-off in Winnipeg and a smooth landing in Chicago.  On the other hand, the pilot of our Austrian Airlines flight banged the plane down very hard on our landing in Vienna.  It was a real lid closer.  I got this expression from a former neighbour who flew large aircraft for the military.  He told me that you can always tell if an aircraft has had a heavy landing as all the toilet lids will be closed. The last leg of our flight into Dnipro was uneventful or else I was too tired to notice anything.

About 26 hours after leaving Winnipeg, we were in our apartment in Molochansk (formerly called Halbstadt). We had a quick bowl of beautiful cabbage borscht prepared by Ira, our cook at the Mennonite Centre and then were off to bed. I fell asleep immediately and Mary being a caring and professional nurse had to wake me to give me my sleeping pill. We had planned on taking a melatonin tablet, which I call my sleeping pill, as we had heard that it helps your body adapt to the change in time zones.  We slept for more than 12 hours that first night. After 4 subsequent nights of tossing, I am not so sure that the pills really help.

What strikes us as we walk through town is the abundance of fruit.  The cherry season is finished but apricot season is in full swing. You can spot the apricot trees by the carpet of apricots lying around them on the ground.  The apricots are being canned, dried and made into jam but they cannot keep up with the production of fruit from the trees.  This is the first time in 5 years that there has been a good apricot crop and people are storing them up in anticipation of some lean years ahead.
Apricots on Trees

Carpet of Apricots

There is a mulberry bush growing on the Mennonite Centre property.  According to my information, mulberries were introduced to the region by Mennonites in the early part of the 19th century as there was a large cottage industry for the production of silk. The mulberry leaf is the only food on which a silk worm can survive. The mulberry fruit is dark blue in colour and stains your fingers when you pick it.  I like the unique taste.  We hope some of our mulberries are still available when the expected tourists start to arrive on July 25. 
Mulberry Bush at the Mennonite Centre

A significant focus of our first 2 weeks has been in preparing for the arrival of the Mennonite Heritage Cruise passengers.  There are 200 passengers on the ship and most of them will be coming to the Mennonite Centre for a lunch and to explore Halbstadt.  We have been getting the tunnels ready for them.  This required extensive clean-up of rubble and the installation of some lighting.  One of the tunnel entrances is under the Central Schule (former boys’ school).  The town’s people have noticed the increased activity at the place and observed our coming and going.  The rumour in town is that the Mennonite Centre is taking over that building. It is probably wishful thinking on their part as they would see it as a way of getting the building fully restored.

While cleaning out the access to tunnels under the former Mennonite Credit Union, two of the workmen decided to do some exploring themselves.  They crawled through a place where the tunnel entrance had been sealed by Soviet authorities in the 1980’s.  The tunnel had also been filled with sand at that point. They crawled through a small opening and over the sand. They were gone for close to 30 minutes and emerged with pictures and stories of tunnels going in three directions.  The tunnels were quite wide and they had to walk a bit stooped but managed to get around quite well.  They even came across an underground well in the tunnel.  I am sure they will share their stories with other people in town and I will get to hear more tunnel stories from the town folk.

This last Friday, we received an invitation to visit the priest at the local Russian Orthodox Church.  We had always heard that he was hostile toward the Mennonite Centre.  We were very warmly received by an elderly man in a robe who liked to joke.  He even had some basic English to help our communications.  He had a small request to help the church buy some tile for a new chapel.  He gave us a full tour of the place with a detailed description of each icon.  He then led us up into their new bell tower.  His instructions for the steep ascent were quite simple – men had to go first.  This was not based on any chauvinistic rules but was simply to insure that the men did not see anything “inappropriate” on the steep ascent.  At the top I was allowed to ring every bell and make as much noise as I wanted.  There was a beautiful view from the bell tower of the seven story Willms flour mill located in Alt-Halbstadt.
View of Priest with Willms mill in background

The priest informed us that the church had honoured a special anniversary this week.  It was on July 17, 1918 that the Tzar and his family were executed. In honour of this event a special icon was brought in from Moscow.  When the official carrying the icon was stopped at the Ukrainian border and asked what he had to declare, he told them that he was bringing in the Tzar.  He was allowed to proceed.  There is a plaque honouring Nicholas II in their chapel.
Plaque at Orthodox Church

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Friday, 3 November 2017


Our last week is rushing to its final conclusion.  We had deliberately left this week open as we knew external events would intervene in any of our plans.

Last Sunday we arrived by train in Zaporozhe from Kyiv.  The train trip was uneventful except for a strange time when the train just stood for a whole hour.  Later we found out that it was the weekend for Ukraine to switch back to standard time and an extra hour was introduced into the schedule.  To ensure the train stayed on time, it just stopped and waited till the extra hour had passed.  I could not get a satisfactory answer as to what the train did in spring when the schedule lost an hour.

Monday morning we were met with an avalanche of requests for assistance.  The one that sticks in my mind is that of an elderly husband looking for assistance for his wife.  She has had six surgeries on her spine, with a progressive story of horror attached to each surgery.  She was now in extreme pain and needed her spine fused.  They had borrowed money for each surgery but now were so deeply in debt they barely had food to eat.  The request was for $750.00.  We agreed to accept their request and submit it to the board for approval.  I often ask myself as to why I feel compassion for certain requests.  In this case I know why.  Here was this poorly dressed man, who one could see just loved his wife and would do anything for her, asking for help in a very dignified way.  It was very touching.  Even though he did not request it, we asked the staff to give him a food parcel as he left.  I regret not getting his picture.

Tuesday was seniors’ lunch day at the Mennonite Centre.  Many seniors come early just to sit in a place where there is some warmth and visit with their friends.  As with any program there always are issues to be resolved.  The occasional guest has had issues with poor personal hygiene.  The odour can overpower the dining room and all attendees are made uncomfortable.  We have started accommodating these guests outside.  I am always impressed with the loving way our staff treat these “special” individuals.

Tanya Serving a Special Guest

On our way home on Tuesday evening we met our favourite neighbours in Molochansk.  They are Anatoli and Raisa.  We refer to him as the turkey man, as he used to keep these birds in his yard.  He is hard of hearing and has poor eyesight but once he realized who we were, we had to come in for a visit.  His wife had just been released from hospital where she was for 3 months with kidney stones.  This couple has never come to the Mennonite Centre for any assistance but has received all Mennonites from Canada with open arms.  Anatoli is proud of the fact that his grandfather was a coachman for a business in Molochansk (Franz and Schroeder). He feels a definite kinship with all Mennonites.

Anatoli age 90

Anatoli is very enamoured with Mary and always remembers her name but butchers up mine quite badly.  He praised Mary to high heaven and chastised me for my poor Russian.  He told me that I had been here often enough that I should be quite fluent in it.  He gave me an “F” in Russian language speaking skills.  He compared me to Frank Dyck that had come from Canada and spoke Russian quite well.  While I have never met Frank Dyck I do know of him.  He had come to Ukraine with a different organization and had been instrumental in founding the current Molochansk Mennonite Church.  He also was born in Ukraine and had a distinct advantage in learning the Russian language as a youngster.

Wednesday morning we drove out to Melitopol to see Father Peter, our favourite Greek Catholic priest.  We first met him when he was renovating the former Mennonite Church at Schoensee to start his own congregation in that village.  That congregation is now established and Father Peter is focused on an outreach in the City of Melitopol.  Among his many programs in Melitopol, he operates a daily soup kitchen for the homeless.  In summer her feeds about 30 people a day with this growing to over 100 a day in winter.  The Mennonite Centre supports his work in Melitopol with a monthly contribution of $350.00.

Passing Food Through The Open Window

Father Peter was in a very relaxed, jovial mood and we talked about many things.  He gave us a delicious meal of a chicken that he claimed had still been running around that morning.  When we pointed out that the plate held 5 drum sticks, he claimed that it must have been a miracle with the chicken producing an endless supply of drumsticks. We reminisced about our event with the Ambassador last fall.  He told us that Schoensee was becoming a destination for pilgrimages in eastern Ukraine.  Last year about 100 people participated in a joint pilgrimage from Melitopol to Schoensee.  Father Peter sees this as a start.  A similar pilgrimage in western Ukraine attracted 85,000 people last year.  All the Mennonites walking the Camino in Spain may wish to consider another option.  A prayerful walk through our ancestral villages would be very meaningful.

Our Meal of Miraculous Chicken

Renovated Schoensee Church

We talked to Father Peter about our trip to the western part of Ukraine the previous week.  We thought we detected something different in the people.  Father Peter strongly agreed. The people in western Ukraine did not experience communism for as long as they did in the east.  The concept of family was not destroyed in the west as it was in our area.  The people in the east who survived the Holodomor of 1932-33, lived with a sickly fear.  For example, they were known to hoard food in case of another famine.  Father Peter felt that the Protestant churches were better at relating to people and this gave them an opening to getting established in eastern Ukraine.

Thursday morning I finally had a chance to meet my much anticipated “Tunnel Lady”.  She happens to be the local undertaker.  We enjoyed the irony of meeting right after Halloween in her place of business to talk about subterranean passages.  The concept of under-promising and over-delivering is not understood in Ukraine.  She had not walked the tunnel as promised.  It seems that every person in Molochansk has a second cousin once removed, who once had a friend, now deceased, who actually walked the tunnels all the way from the Willms mansion to the Willms flour mill.  The tunnel lady’s father had drawn a map of the tunnels but this map is now lost and her father has died.  She remembers that it definitely showed the tunnel from the Willms mansion coming passed the Mennonite Centre and on toward the former Mennonite Credit Union.  There apparently were tunnels in many parts of Molochansk and she may show up later today to give us a surface tour of where she remembers seeing tunnels.

Site of Latest Meeting on Tunnels

Thursday at 11:00 AM we had to be back in Melitopol for a “Prayer Breakfast” organized by the local clergy in honour of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  This anniversary is a much bigger deal in Europe than it is in Canada.  All Protestant churches as well as Father Peter of the Greek Catholic church were invited.  Even the mayor of Melitopol was in attendance.  I was given almost 24 hour notice that they were expecting me to make a presentation on the work of the Mennonite Centre.  When I got there I realized that I was the main speaker.  Glad I put on my tie.

Prayer Breakfast Meeting

In the book “A Mennonite Estate Family in Southern Ukraine”, Nicola Fehderau spent his last day in Halbstadt (now called Molochansk) walking around the town and commenting on many aspects.  I had hoped to do the same but life has intervened. I might cover that topic in future trips.  I thought I would show one final picture. 

Former Clay Pits in Molochansk

This is a picture of the old clay pit in Halbstadt.  Clay was extracted here during Mennonite times to make bricks and roof tiles.  It is also the location identified by Nicola Fehderau where Soviet authorities buried the bodies of the Mennonites they executed during the time of the Revolution. 

This is good-bye until the next time that Mary and I have the fortune to come to the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine.  Talk to you then.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: