Monday, 31 October 2016


This has been a varied week at the Mennonite Centre and I would like to touch on a number of situations that we encountered.  It is also a wrap up for our trip as we leave for home this coming Friday.

Last Tuesday we were invited to the home of Anatoli and Raisa for afternoon tea.  They are an elderly couple that have warmly welcomed all North American directors to Molochansk.   Anatoli and Raisa are an interesting anomaly.  They know all the programs we have at the Mennonite Centre (free doctors’ visits, eye glasses, seniors’ lunches and individual assistance) but have never come over to use any of them.  When we pass their house on the way to the Mennonite Centre, Anatoli would often present Mary with flowers from his garden and then kiss her hand.  He is a charmer and knows it.

Mary and Anatoli back in Spring of 2014

Anatoli was born in Molochansk in December 1927.  My mother was still living there when he was born and I feel like we are almost related.  I love asking him questions about history.  He is very hard of hearing and one is never sure what question he is answering.  The good part is that every time I ask the same question, he goes off on a different tangent and so I can glean some new information.  I know that his grandfather was a coachman for a wealthy Mennonite family (Franz and Schroeder) in Halbstadt before the revolution.  Anatoli is very proud of this fact.  He was too young to be involved in active combat during the war but remembers the terrible destruction experienced by Halbstadt in 1943 as the German army was being pushed west.  He also remembers the famine that swept the area in 1947 as a result of the disruption caused by the war.  As a young teenager he remembers running through the tunnel connecting the Mennonite Credit Union to the Boys’ School (Central Schule).  He described the tunnel as being 4-5 feet wide with brick walls and an arched brick ceiling.

Alvin, Anatoli, Raisa, and Mary

We had been invited for tea, but Raisa had made a batch of cottage cheese varenecki.  She insisted that we eat all of them before we were allowed to leave.  They were delicious.

Oksana and Mary with Dish of Varenecki

This week we also visited the home of Victor Goncharov in Tokak.  He came to us several weeks ago because he needed assistance paying for hip surgery.  When I first saw him, I judged him to be several years older than I imagine I look.  In fact he is 10 years younger.  Life has been hard.  He used to have his own taxi service but can no longer work because of the pain in his hip.  The doctors have told him that the locally made artificial hips will not fit him and he needs an expensive American made hip.  The total cost of the hip and the surgery is $5000 Cdn ($4000 US). Victor has had a life-long passion for raising fancy pigeons.  At one time he could have sold some of the pigeons and raised the money, but the market in Ukraine has collapsed and he does not have the connections or ability to sell into foreign markets.  His last question for me was, “Is there hope of getting some help from the Mennonite Centre?”  We cannot provide all of the help for his surgery, but if you wish to assist Victor, please go to: and make a donation.

Victor at the Mennonite Centre

Victor's Prized Pigeons

Victor and his Trophies for Pigeons

We have all heard the expression, when in Rome do as the Romans do.  Last Sunday Mary and I decided to apply this locally and said, “When in Ukraine let’s go worship in a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church”.  We did not warn them we were coming and hoped that we would not make some inappropriate mistake that would disrupt their worship service.  We had met their priest, Father Taras, at our event at the Mennonite Centre on October 12.  He had previously given us a tour of their new church the congregation had built in Tokmak and where the Mennonite Centre had provided some assistance in paying for the doors.  Father Taras was delighted to see us and gave a public welcome to the people in the congregation from Canada.  It is interesting to judge a worship service when you cannot understand a single word being said.  There are many ways of judging a service.  One way is to judge it by looking at how engaged the worshippers are in the actual service.  I thought they were all engaged.  There was not a single person looking down at the cell phone to check on messages.  We see this frequently in the local Mennonite church where young people spend a lot of time on their phones as the minister goes on with his hour long sermon. 

Father Taras in Front of Door for Confessional

The service in the Greek Orthodox Church lasted for 90 minutes.  We had to stand most of the time.  This is definitely not something that we are used to.  At the end we were presented with the gift of a small doll made by local children.  These are traditionally presented to soldiers being called up to serve or for visiting dignitaries.  We were given a very warm invitation to come back again.

Special Gift

The Mennonite Centre provides free lunches to the seniors in our town 3 times a week.  This meal is prepared by our staff under the directions of Ira, our cook.  We don’t usually have a program or speaker for the group, so last Friday we were surprised to hear Ira reading something to the assembled seniors.  Oksana, our manager, explained to us that Ira sometimes does this to mark someone’s birthday or some other special event.  She was reading a poem to the assembled.  After she finished reading, she looked at one lady and asked her to prepare a poem to be read at the next gathering.  This lady was surprised by the request and asked why she had to do this.  Ira told her that it would be a good lesson as she could then experience the frustration of reading to the assembled while someone in the group was talking and not paying attention.  Thus endeth another blunt lesson in Ukraine.

Ira and Staff Preparing Seniors Lunch

Mary Serving Seniors Lunch

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, 24 October 2016


This week we had the opportunity of exploring one of the local myths about Molochansk (called Halbstadt in Mennonite times).
Molochansk Sports School formerly the Mennonite Credit Union Building

It all started off innocently enough.  We were off to the Molochansk Sports School to look at some completed projects and to talk to them about their requests for assistance.  We have been a faithful sponsor, enabling many of their athletes to attend major sporting events.  Even though they have a relatively equal number of boys and girls in their program, the requests have often favoured the boys.  We wanted to encourage them to give equal opportunity for girls to attend major sporting competitions.  In the process we got to see the steps we had paid to repair as well as an energetic workout by their gymnastics class.  In this class I recognized the daughter of Tanya, one of our employees.  After many years of working for us, Tanya reluctantly acknowledged that she had a Mennonite grandmother with the surname of Peters. 
Top Steps Showing Repair with Ben and Lil in Background
Gym Class with Tanya's Daughter in Front

The Molochansk Sports School is located in a former Mennonite building – namely the Mennonite Credit Union.  The rumours of tunnels always focus on this building and we took advantage of our visit to ask if we could examine the basement to see if there was any sign of tunnels.  The staff was quite obliging and went to get the keys for the basement doors.  We toured every room in the dark basement and heard many stories from the staff.

The main rumour in town was that there was a tunnel from the Heinrich Willms mansion all the way to the credit union building and then on to his flour mill located in what we now call Alt-Halbstadt (Old –Halbstadt).  This seems like a long distance and needs to be illustrated by a map.
Map of Halbstadt in Mennonite Times
The points of interest on the map are:
1.      The Franz and Schroeder machine factory.  This is now the location of a major furniture factory.
2.      The Heinrich Willms mansion.
3.      The Mennonite Girls’ School – now the site of the Mennonite Centre.
4.      The Mennonite Credit Union building – now the Molochansk Sports School.
5.      The approximate site of the seven story flour mill owned by Heinrich Willms.  It has subsequently been used as a milk canning factory.
6.      The site of a former Mennonite House where we went underground to examine some tunnels.

The map was not drawn to scale and distances can be deceptive.  After our tour I decided to get some “accurate” measurements.  I got out the Mennonite Centre van and drove to a location between the Willms Mansion and the old Franz and Schroeder factory.  I set my trip odometer and started driving in as straight a line as I could on the pot-holed roads.  When I got to the Credit Union, I had driven a distance of .8 kilometers (.5 miles).  I kept going and reached the old flour mill at a total distance of 1.9 kilometers (1.18 miles).  That is a long tunnel.

The story from the staff at the Sports School was that many tunnels converged on the Credit Union Building.  There definitely was one that came from the former Mennonite Boys’ School (Central Schule) across the street.  It was big enough to hold a carriage.  The staff told us of an incident in 1982 or 1983 when some young boys decided to explore these tunnels.  The tunnels had already been filled with sand but the boys found a way of digging through the sand.  One boy got lost and was not found for a number of hours.  After that, the local authorities decided to get rid of the potential problem.  The tunnel entrances in the Sports School were sealed with a brick wall.
Ben Standing in Front of Sealed Wall
Sealed Wall that has been Broken with Sand in Behind
The Sports School staff told us of another tunnel entrance that was built as part of a Mennonite house.  It had its own unique gate and entrance.  It was common for Mennonite homes to mark their entrance into their yard with large pillars or even a brick gate.  A large ornate gate gave some indication of the wealth of the individual residing at that residence.  This residence had an old brick gate just marking the entrance to the tunnel.
Gate Marking Entrance to Tunnel
Everybody seems to know everybody else in Molochansk and our guide ran off to get the lady of the house to come and unlock the gate.  She soon appeared with her key but the old large padlock would not budge.  This was not seen as a problem as they summed a man from another residence who came with a large set of pliers.  He gave the rusty old lock a couple of whacks and soon the key did its job and the gate was open.  We stood there at the top of the stairs wondering who among us would be stupid enough to venture down into this crumbling infrastructure.
View of Tunnel from the Entrance

I guess I assumed that I was the most expendable and was the first to venture down the staircase.  I looked back and could see that others were also tempted.  Everyone else in our group soon followed.  Nobody wanted to miss this unique opportunity. 
View of Entrance from Inside Tunnel
The stairway led to large chambers that were totally underground.  They were completely lined with brick - even the ceiling.  One room had a sort of chimney that the local person referred to as an elevator.  One could use that chimney to directly raise or lower goods into the chambers.  It was a large underground storage facility.  We did not explore every room and I cannot say with certainty that this did not lead to other tunnels but suspect it did not.  What amazed me was the expense the owner had gone to in creating this underground storage space.  The large rooms were dry with no sign of flooding.  It was an amazing discovery.
Small Entrances to Other Underground Rooms
Massive Underground Storage Facility

What was most amazing about our exploration that day was the cooperation of the local people in Molochansk.  When the Mennonite Centre opened 15 years ago, we were met with suspicion and some hostility.  Now we are openly welcomed and people accommodate us as best they can.  The lady who owns the former Mennonite house on the property we were exploring was very open.  She claimed to have documents on the house going back to 1905.  I asked to see these and hoped it would give some clue as to who had lived there.  At one time this request would have been met with the suspicion that we were trying to reclaim the house.  Now she just went and got her papers.  Unfortunately she could not find any papers going to Mennonite times in her file but promised to come see me if she did.
Ben, Lil, and Oksana with Vera (second from right) the Owner of the Underground Storage
On our walk home from this discovery, we met Vitally, our former maintenance man.  We told him of our exciting adventure and he started sharing his own stories of tunnels.  He told us of two former Mennonite homes which had stood right bedside the Mennonite Centre but have now been demolished and replaced by a large apartment building.  These homes had been connected by an underground tunnel.  He also told us of a tunnel connecting the Willms mansion and the former Franz and Schroeder factory.  He claimed to have walked this tunnel himself.

Is there a tunnel running from the Willms mansion all the way to his floor mill 1.9 kilometers away?  I still do not know for sure but am starting to believe it could be possible.  I would love to examine the town with ground penetrating radar (or whatever it should be called) and see what we can find.  I would love to understand why our Mennonite ancestors made this large investment in underground structures.  Was this also done elsewhere in Ukraine?  There are many questions still to be answered. The underground existence of our Mennonite forefathers needs to be brought to light.

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, 17 October 2016


What a week.  After months of planning from Canada and close to 3 weeks of detailed preparations in Molochansk, we were ready for the Ambassador, Senators, Faith and Life choir and guests for our anniversary at the Mennonite Centre.  Over 60 people came from Canada.  Our beautiful Mennonite Centre, clothed in its fall colours was ready to celebrate its 15th birthday.
The week actually had a number of events.  It started off Monday evening with a surprise “after wedding” party for Ben and Lil Stobbe.  They were married in June and this was their first trip together to Molochansk.  We really did surprise them.  The evening started off with a welcoming dance from the children of the Kindergarten next door.  They were dressed like elegant ladies and gentlemen and danced beautifully.  This was followed by a meal prepared by Ira, our cook, and finished with an informal program which included singing by the Rhapsody choir.  This is a small choir from Tokmak.  That evening there were four Rhapsody singers – one male and three female voices.  They sang some fun songs such as the song “Lollipop”, as well as a number of Ukrainian folk songs.  Their clarity, precision, and eloquent expression made each song a delight.

Ben and Lil surrounded by friends at their party

The Faith and Life choir started their tour of the Molotschna settlement on Tuesday.  They started with a brief stop at the Mennonite Centre.  Senator Don Plett and his wife Betty were touring with the choir that day.  They left the bus for a few hours so I could take them to Lindenau, one of Senator Plett’s ancestral villages. We walked through the trees behind the village looking for the cemetery.  We finally located this and after much diligent searching found some old unmarked gravestones outside the fence marking the boundary of the cemetery.  The stone markers were from Mennonite times.  We then drove to the village of Tiege to rejoin the choir who had just completed a concert in the former Mennonite school for children who were challenged with hearing related problems.
Senator Don Plett and his wife Betty at Lindenau cemetery

Wednesday, our big day of the week, started with a problem.  There was no water pressure in our apartment building and I had to go all day in my dress shirt and tie but without having a shower or shave. 
The first people to arrive were four men in a van.  They were from Ukraine’s National Security Service.  We knew that they had been alerted to the event.  We assume it was the Mayor of Molochansk who alerted them and was concerned that nothing should happen to the dignitaries in his town.  Mary saw them drinking from a small container that is usually not used to hold water.  This was quickly hidden when they realized that they had been observed.  Nevertheless, their sober work was successful as nothing untoward happened to the Ambassador or Senators.

Our invited guests started arriving at 11:00 AM.  Our staff had worked hard to get ready.  We had invited 82 people to our banquet.  The staff had wisely set places for 94.  Ninety people showed up and were seated for our noon meal.  The Mennonite Centre is located in a former Mennonite girls’ school.  No room was big enough to seat 90 people and we were actually spread over 3 rooms in the building.  Ben Pauls and Henry Engbrecht, the conductors of the Faith and Life choir, coordinated their conducting and all three rooms simultaneously blessed the meal with the vibrant harmony of the Doxology.  The meal started off with borscht, like our mothers’ used to make.  The serving staff then brought the main course of kutletten (this is a Russian word but was generally used by Mennonites to describe an oblong meatball), mashed potatoes, and coleslaw.
Ambassador Waschuk in centre with Senator Peter Harder on his left

Five local clergy had been invited to this event.  Right after the meal, these five people were seen having an intense friendly discussion outside.  There was an Orthodox priest with his long gown and tall hat, two Ukrainian Catholic priests in their long gowns, a pastor from an evangelical church in Melitopol in his suit and clerical collar, and the pastor of the local Mennonite church in casual street clothes.  The image of these five people talking together was so strong that it drew everyone out of the building to watch and even join the group.   Even the Ambassador joined in the discussions.  With everyone outside, we were able to start our meeting 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
Local Clergy at the Mennonite Centre

Attendees joining the discussion with the clergy

We had always planned for the event to be held outside in front of the Mennonite Centre.  The image of having the Faith and Life choir singing in front of our building was an opportunity I did not want to miss.  The day had started out cool with some sun.  Unfortunately it got colder in the afternoon.  The meeting started with a welcome from the Ambassador, followed by the choir.  Each of the Mennonite groups was given 5-7 minutes to make their presentation.  There must be an inflationary factor to time in Ukraine as most speakers exceeded their allotted time while the attendees sat shivering in their seats.  By half time, we all went inside for coffee and “blinchkies” (Ira’s famous crepes stuffed with cottage cheese filling and topped with a special sauce). Nobody wanted to risk sitting outside again.  We finished the event inside with people listening from all three rooms as the choir sang in the entrance hallway.
Ambassador addressing the meeting with choir in background
Staff assembling the blinchkies
An elderly lady joined our program when we were outside and desperately wanted to talk to me.  She lives across the street in the former Suderman house – which at one time was the local Opel dealership.  She had something she wanted to present to the Ambassador.  It was something that she had made.  Her story was that at one time, some Mennonites had helped her with food and saved her from starvation.  She wanted the Ambassador to hear this but left before we could make the actual presentation.  Her story was so compelling that we had to go visit her after our event and get her picture.  Her name is Anastasia and she is 80 years old.  She lives by herself.  She had a request.  She feels she does not have long to live and wondered if the Mennonite Centre would assist financially in giving her a proper burial.  We assured her that we would do something to help.

Oksana, Alvin, Anastasia, and Mary
Ambassador with gift from Anastasia

Our afternoon program concluded with remarks from Senator Don Plett and Senator Peter Harder.  They both had an opportunity to connect with their own roots and expressed appreciation for the ongoing work of the many Mennonite organizations in Ukraine.  After the program, Senator Plett told me that he and Senator Harder had both agreed to make a statement on Wednesday October 19, 2016 in the Senate chambers noting the contribution of the many Mennonite organizations in Ukraine.  These statements will become part of the permanent record of the Senate.

The meeting with the Ambassador and Senators will have many positive aspects for Mennonite organizations operating in Ukraine.  For example, the ambassador talked to Dr. Art Friesen at length about our initiative for tele-medicine.  He immediately put Art in contact with the Minister of Health in Kyiv and Art spent the afternoon talking to her about the issues.  The Minister of Health in Ukraine is aware of the shortcomings in the delivery of health care and was impressed that the Mennonite Centre had actually bought some equipment and tested this approach.  Everyone else in Ukraine was just talking about it.  There are still many challenges in introducing tele-medicine in Ukraine.  In the past we dealt with the Chief Doctor in Molochansk.  Now we have an opening for ongoing discussions with the minister in Kyiv.

For the evening we had invited the whole town of Molochansk to come celebrate our 15th Anniversary.  We were prepared for 500 people and I worried that because of the cool weather, nobody would show up.  I should not have worried as Ukrainians love a good party.  We had a great turn-out.  The event was held in the town square, in front of the former Mennonite boys’ school.  There were Ukrainian dance groups, our own Faith and Life choir, and other local performers.  The Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, addressed the town in Ukrainian.  This was followed by birthday cake and “goodie bags” for everyone.  The evening concluded with a “fire show” as fireworks are currently illegal.  The sound of explosions causes fears in a society that is living too close to the war zone.
Birthday Cake being distributed
Fire Show
On Thursday, October 13, the Faith and Life choir continued their tour of the Molotschna settlement with an important concert in the former Mennonite church in Schoensee.  This is now a Ukrainian Catholic church and they have done a beautiful job of restoring it.  Their priest, Father Peter, had requested that a Mennonite choir come and sing “Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich”.  In English it is “Holy God We praise Thy Name”.  Ambassador Waschuk and Senators Harder and Plett all came to this important concert.  Father Peter had invited his parishioners and everyone in the village who could get off work was there.  The program started with the Faith and Life choir singing.  After a few songs, Aaron Redekop, travelling with the choir, came forward and made a special presentation to Father Peter.  Aaron’s grandfather had attended that church and this was a special occasion for him.  After the presentation, the choir started singing ‘Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich”.  As they did, Father Peter rose and motioned to a priest beside him to also rise.  We all followed his lead and stood there with tears in our eyes as the sound of this magnificent song filled the building.  This was the first time in almost 100 years that Mennonite choral music had been performed in this place.  One of the choir members later told me that he had trouble singing because of his emotions.  The experience of standing for the song reminded me of the practise of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus.  Hearing this majestic hymn, which is such a favourite among Mennonite audiences, performed while the choir was surrounded by Ukrainian ikons and symbols was a unique experience.  Mary and I will never forget the concert in Schoensee.
Presentation by Aaron Redekop to Father Peter
Senator Don Plett handing out Canadian flags to local parishoners
Schoensee Church with Choir

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, 8 October 2016


The week has gone by very quickly.  A typical day has been to arrive at the office at 9:00 AM.  We spend an hour with Oksana, our manager, planning the activities for the upcoming visit with the Ambassador on October 12.  We decide on a list of everything that needs to be accomplished that day.  Then Mary and I have to sit back and watch Oksana become the proverbial one-armed paper hangar as she works on our to-do list.  She makes and receives endless phone calls, emails, and personal visits.  We hear her speaking in Russian.  Sometimes she will end a phone call, smile and tell us in English “Okay that has been arranged”.  We have no idea what has just been arranged but are glad that progress is being made.  Part of our stress comes from the fact that we cannot get a direct sense of what is happening as all communication around us is happening in Russian.  We do know that Oksana is making progress on many fronts.  This week we got the design of a banner inviting the town of Molochansk to come celebrate our 15th anniversary.

Last Sunday afternoon, Mary and I took a drive south about 30 km to a place where there are some natural springs bubbling up from the hillside.  We find this is a place we can go to relax.  We take along some chairs from our apartment and like to sit there and read and watch the locals as they come through the area.  The local people probably come to look at 2 strange foreigners, sitting on out of the place chairs, reading their books.

Soon after we arrived, a group of 30 children came through, each carrying containers for water.  They had come to fill their bottles with fresh water from the springs.  One of the adults supervising them guessed that we were from the “Mennonitesky Centrum”.  We understood from her that they had come all the way from Tokmak - a good 50 km drive.

Couples frequently come to this location to take their wedding pictures.  A wedding party arrived soon after we did.  The groom and his best man wandered off to drink a beer and have a smoke.  The bride stood in front of the main pool and spent her time talking on her cell phone while her maid of honour glared at me as I tried to sneak a picture.  Not sure why they came as no photographer ever showed up for them.

As you can see in the picture with the children filling water containers, there are a number of religious icons on the grounds.  Some people come to meditate and it is a special place for them.  We observed one young lady spending time in front of each icon.  She then came to the pool you can see in the picture with the bride.  She entered the pool in street clothes, and commenced to fully immerse herself in the water.  Each time she came to the surface she would cross herself with the Orthodox cross – that is top to bottom and right to left.  It was a special moment for her and it would have been totally inappropriate for me to intrude by taking a picture.

We operate weekly medical clinics in the Mennonite Centre.   Doctors come once a week to provide specialist services that are not readily available in our town.  People make appointments with our receptionist for these visits.  The Mennonite Centre pays the cost of this service and anybody is welcome to use them.  The other day an elderly lady came to make an appointment.  Her husband had brought her on a rather special type of vehicle.  I followed her out when she left and got permission to take a picture.  It truly was a “5 star” mode of transportation.  It was a scooter converted into a pickup truck.  I would love to borrow it next time I take Mary out for dinner.

One morning we had a school class come to the Mennonite Centre.  They have been working on a special project of mailing ‘Doves of Peace” to children around the world.  The Mennonite Centre paid for the postage and as a thank you, the whole class came to get their picture taken in front of our building.  The children are holding the doves with messages of peace as well as the addressed envelopes in which they will be mailed.

Friday we drove to Zaporozhye to pick up Ben (our FOMCU board chair) and Lil Stobbe who have come to participate in our October 12 meeting with the Ambassador.  We also heard a concert from the Men’s Faith and Life choir, on tour from Manitoba, as they performed at a music school in Zaporozhye.   There was a good size audience for the afternoon performance.  The audience really liked the songs that had a strong harmony and showed it by their loud applause.  People in the audience started to smile when the choir sang a song in Russian.  Occasionally the smiles grew a bit stronger and people would look questioningly at their neighbours.  I assume this occurred when they heard the pronunciation of a Russian word that was a bit foreign to them.  It was a great concert and the audience gave them an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Next week we have the “big” event at the Mennonite Centre with the visit from Roman Waschuk, the Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, and Senators’ Peter Harder and Don Plett.  Will keep you posted.

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: