Sawatzky, Aron Gerhard (1871-1935)
Aron Gerhard Sawatzky: musician and hymnist; born on 24 May 1871 in Andreasfeld, South Russia, the eldest of five children (five others died in infancy) of Gerhard J. Sawatzky (28 August 1837, Rosenthal, Chortitza, South Russia - 7 July 1922, Aberdeen, Saskatchewan, Canada) and his second wife, Maria Lepp (15 November 1850 - 31 December 1924, Aberdeen, Saskatchewan). Gerhard had been previously married to Aganetha (Fast) Toews (18 December 1836 – 30 December 1869), and seven children were born to this marriage. On 19 September 1891, Aron married Elisabeth Niessen (3 September 1874, Steinfeld, Molotschna, South Russia – 1 October 1889), daughter of Wilhelm von Niessen (1839–1901) and Anna (Martens) von Niessen (1842–1879) of Kronstadt. The couple had twelve children: Maria, George (died in his teens), Heinrich, Katharina, Aron, Liese (died in her teens), Anna, Franz (died young), Elsie, Hilda, Franz (died in infancy), and Martha. Aron died on 18 November 1935 in Shafter, California, USA.
Aron was baptized in 1883 at the Andreasfeld Mennonite Brethren Church. From his youth, Aron Gerhard Sawatzky enjoyed and played music. He began playing band music at age 14 and at 22, he was elected choir director of his church and managed to have a significant musical and spiritual impact. The choir later participated in a musical evening of singing, the Sängerfest of Rückenau, in 1894. In 1895, the church sent Aron to a choral conductors’ seminar in Zyrardow, where he learned techniques for conducting and for teaching the choir proper diction and phrasing. After the seminar finished, Aron spent a few more days in Lodz for additional training. On his return home, Aron continued to lead his church choir but also participated in song festivals and workshops throughout Russia, as well as writing articles about singing for various Mennonite periodicals.
In 1903, Aron Gerhard Sawatzky and his family left for Canada. After landing in New York, they traveled through the United States to Saskatchewan, where they first lived in Rosthern. Eventually, they settled on a homestead in Aberdeen, where they began to farm and were active in the Aberdeen Mennonite Brethren Church.
Meanwhile, Aron continued in Canada to pursue his musical interests and was soon asked to begin a study of church music; the result was a program including composition, a song festival, and a choir conductors’ seminar. Aron received invitations to hold similar programs in Manitoba, as well as several states including Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Nebraska. When the focus of his life changed after the deaths of four of his children, he also began to preach, a ministry he continued for the rest of his life.
While pioneering and establishing a farm in Aberdeen, Saskatchewan, his most commendable accomplishments were in composing and publishing songs. As early as 1911 and continuing to at least 1922, Sawatzky edited the monthly periodical Sänger-Bote, which was the official publication of the "Christilcher Sängerbund der Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde von Nord Americka." The issues of this periodical often included brief articles on choral music and singing by Sawatzky or songs composed by him or by other amateur composers taught by Sawatzky. When the quarterly periodical Lieder-Quelle für Kirke und Hause was published in 1929-1930, he was both editor and frequent contributor. In 1915 his hymn book with the same title as his periodical, Sänger-Bote, was published and went through at least six editions. It contained in its different editions a collection of between 164 and 242 songs, about half of which were composed by Sawatzky. When the Gesangbuch (Winnipeg, 1952), the official hymn book of the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, was published it included three of Sawatzky’s hymns: "Glaube einfach jeden Tag" no.78; "Wenn wir von dieser Erde" no. 205; and "O Fest, aller heiligen Feste" no. 448. The General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches hymnbook Worship Hymnal (Fresno, 1971) contained "Hail Heavenly Night," a translation of "O Fest, aller heiligen Feste." Throughout his life Sawatzky was also a prolific contributor to Mennonite Brethren periodicals such as Zionsbote, writing usually on church music.
The Sawatzky family moved to California in 1920, eventually settling in Winton after moving around the state several times. Aron was elected leader of the Winton Mennonite Brethren Church in 1928 and was ordained to the ministry in 1930. In response to some troubles in the Winton church in 1933, Aron withdrew his leadership, and the Sawatzkys moved to Shafter. Aron continued to preach and to compose music there. One night, a vision of heaven inspired him to write a hymn later published for his funeral. He had suffered from heart problems for several years when he died suddenly on 18 November 1935 at the age of 64. His funeral included the last song he ever composed, a hymn called Mein Heim, as well as texts from Revelation.
Aron Gerhard Sawatzky had a considerable impact on the musical development of the Mennonite Brethren in Russia, and later both in Canada and the United States. With only one week of formal workshop training, as far as can be ascertained, he used his considerable musical talent and tremendous dedication to help bring a new understanding of music to the churches where he served. In preaching and music, he had a significant ministry wherever he went.
Berg, Wesley. From Russia with Music. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press Limited, 1985: 23, 26, 27, 48, 49, 51-54, 58, 65-66, 95, 108, 111-116, 124.
GRANDMA (The Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry) Database, 5.07 ed. Fresno, CA:, 2009: #49178.
Huebert, Helmut T. Events and People: Events in Russian Mennonite History and the People That Made Them Happen. Winnipeg: Springfield Publishers, 1999.
Sawatzky, Aron G. "Von Meiner Reise nach Polen." Zionsbote (24 April 1895): 2, 5.
Sawatzky, Aron G. "Gesang." Zionsbote (19 March 1902): 5.
Sawatzky, Aron G. "Begrüssung." Sänger-Bote (1 June 1912): 1.
Schroeder, William. Mennonite Historical Atlas; text and some maps by Helmut T. Huebert, 2nd ed., rev. and expanded. Winnipeg: Springfield Publishers, 1996: 121.
Schweiger, Friedrich. "Ein Besuch unter den Sängern in Russland." Zionsbote (26 September 1894): 3, 4
Toews, John A. A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers. Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1975: 242, 249, 251. Available in full electronic text at: https://archive.org/details/AHistoryOfTheMennoniteBrethrenChurch.
Zionsbote (4 December 1935): 6, 11.
|Author(s)||Helmut T. Huebert|
|Victor G. Wiebe|
|Date Published||August 2015|
Cite This Article
Huebert, Helmut T., Susan Huebert and Victor G. Wiebe. "Sawatzky, Aron Gerhard (1871-1935)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. August 2015. Web. 27 Feb 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sawatzky,_Aron_Gerhard_(1871-1935)&oldid=163433.
Huebert, Helmut T., Susan Huebert and Victor G. Wiebe. (August 2015). Sawatzky, Aron Gerhard (1871-1935). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 February 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sawatzky,_Aron_Gerhard_(1871-1935)&oldid=163433.
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