Sommerfeld Mennonites

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1959 Article

Sommerfeld Mennonites are a conservative body of Manitoba Mennonites of Russian background who originated as a separate group in 1890 when the Bergthal Mennonite Church divided into a minority progressive wing and a majority conservative wing. The issue was acceptance of the Manitoba government requirement of attendance at standard English schools. The Bergthal group had originally all settled in a number of villages in the East Reserve, east of the Red River (1874 f.), as a single congregation under one elder. However, the half who moved to the West Reserve in the early 1880s were encouraged to elect their own elder, which they did, choosing Johann Funk. Gerhard Wiebe, the original Bergthal elder of the immigration, continued as elder of the East Reserve group. Since Funk took the progressive side in the school issue, and even though his party was in the minority (only 61 families of 300), he and his group considered themselves to be the continuing Bergthal Church, and are so considered and named to this day. The conservative group in the West Reserve, who could not follow the regular elder Funk and elected a new elder for themselves, Abram Doerksen, were considered to have withdrawn and hence no longer entitled to the name Bergthal. They came to be called Sommerfelders because their bishop lived in the village of Sommerfeld, about 6 miles (10 km) southeast of Altona in the West Reserve. Elder Gerhard Wiebe and the entire membership of the Bergthal group in the East Reserve then threw in their lot with Doerksen and the Sommerfeld group in the West Reserve. Though they could have retained the name Bergthal with full right, or taken on the name Sommerfelder, they came to be called the Chortitz Church because Elder Wiebe lived in the village of Chortitz. Actually the two bodies, Sommerfeld and Chortitz, were identical in position, although because of the parity of the elders and the lack of an overall organization such as a conference, they remained organizationally as well as geographically distinct. The large Old Colony group in the West Reserve, largely immigrants from the Chortitza (Old Colony) settlement in Russia, with some from the daughter Fürstenland settlement, took the same position on the school question as the Sommerfeld Mennonites, but remained ecclesiastically distinct. Thus there were three conservative groups of practically identical position bearing—almost accidentally—three different names, Chortitz, Sommerfeld, and Old Colony. The Old Colony group, however, has become and remained distinct, while the Chortitz and Sommerfeld groups have more fellowship and to all practical purposes are one.

The Manitoba conservatives continued to be restless under the threat of the English school system, sincerely believing this would endanger the maintenance of their faith and way of life. Accordingly two large new settlements were established on the frontier in Saskatchewan: (1) Rosthern Reserve in 1893 and (2) Swift Current Reserve in 1900, founded because the Rosthern Reserve was full and overflowing. Actually some went from Rosthern to Swift Current. Most of the settlers in both colonies were Sommerfelders from the West Reserve. In the Rosthern Reserve one Old Colony village was established, while in the Swift Current Reserve a larger percentage was Old Colony. Both colonies were organized as typical Russian colonies with Oberschulze and the village type of settlement. The Swift Current Reserve (south of the city of Swift Current) is an island plateau of rich soil surrounded by an unproductive area; hence it furnished an ideal fulfillment to the Sommerfelder wish for isolation and solidarity, practically uninfluenced by the outside world. The original 30 villages of this settlement were still intact in the 1950s, and the Sommerfelder culture and language of 1900 was maintained almost unchanged. The Rosthern Reserve with its 15 villages was not quite as successful in this, since four towns sprang up in the midst of the reserve, viz., Rosthern, Hague, Osler, and Aberdeen. However, most of the Rosthern villages were still intact in the 1950s, and the greatest proportion of the village people were still Sommerfelders who maintained their culture substantially unchanged, with some 3,000 members. However, the conservative Sommerfelder group that settled here called itself Bergthal and had about 1,000 members. They are not to be confused with the progressive Bergthal group in Manitoba, who were part of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (General Conference Mennonite) in the 1950s.

The next Sommerfelder migration was to Mexico (1922) and Paraguay (1926), the result of the severe pressure, practically persecution, by the Manitoba government in the period of World War I and the strong anti-German feeling of the general populace. Manitoba wanted no cultural pluralism; there was to be only an English culture. The Sommerfelders were right in leaving if their sole goal was to maintain their Low German culture as a supposed necessity to maintaining their faith and way of life. The Old Colony Mennonites of Manitoba led in the move to the South. Most of the new Mexican settlement was Old Colony, with only one Sommerfeld village, whereas in Paraguay all were Sommerfelders. The Sommerfelder Colony in the Chaco of Paraguay was named Menno; hence the name Sommerfelder has disappeared there.

Since only about half of the Sommerfelders went to Mexico or Paraguay, population pressure continued to increase in the four mother Sommerfeld colonies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In 1930-1938 a continuous migration of Sommerfelders took place to new frontiers west and north. In the early 1930s settlements were established in Sunningdale and Carrot River in northern Saskatchewan, at that time in forest areas 25 miles (40 km) beyond the edge of the white settlement. In the late 1930s similar colonies were established at Vanderhoof in central British Columbia, at Peace River in northern Alberta, and at Gladstone in north-central Manitoba. All these new colonies achieved their aim of avoiding any significant influence from the English school system. English schools were indeed imposed by the provincial governments, but many families lived beyond the zone of compulsory attendance, and many built a second home in the bush (forest) where they lived in the deep winter, working at logging. Thus the dominant culture was Sommerfeld-Platt and not English Canadian.

In 1948, following World War II, a second migration southward to Mexico and Paraguay occurred, drawing from all four mother settlements. Two settlements were established in southern Paraguay, between Villarrica and the Brazilian border, bearing the name Bergthal and Sommerfeld. In 1950 the population was 1,200, some 500 of the original 1,700 having returned to Canada. Of the original group 1,500 come from Manitoba (both Sommerfeld and Chortitz Mennonites) and 200 from Saskatchewan.

An attempted settlement in Honduras in 1951 by eight Sommerfelder families from Hague, Saskatchewan failed, since the Honduras government refused entry, and the group returned to Hague.

The statement that the Sommerfelder culture has been maintained practically unchanged in the 1950s requires further examination. It was true that most of the outward forms of social organization (colony, village, church, family) were maintained, as well as the outward forms of religion (simple meetinghouses, absolute authority of the elder and ministers, no ex tempore sermons, but only reading of sermons handed down from the past, old slow tunes in the singing, admission to church membership at adult age by baptism by pouring, usually just before marriage). However, two serious internal consequences were observable: (1) a progressive deterioration in inward spiritual life, and (2) alienation of an increasing percentage of their young people from the church. The complete cut-off from outside cultural influences, except the small amount of English schooling in the elementary schools, had its inevitable consequence in intellectual and cultural stagnation. The lack of a vital understanding of the Gospel and really creative reading and exposition of the Bible, as well as the suffocation of creativity in the ministry which destroys the possibility of revival and results in a complete bondage to dead tradition, resulted in serious spiritual stagnation. The focus of all concern on preservation of the Plattdeutsch and the old outward customs produced regrettable results in many places. This is not true of the Menno Colony in Paraguay, which made substantial progress in spiritual and cultural respects.

Because the Sommerfelders were very loosely organized as a church, it was possible for variations to develop in attitudes toward the church while remaining ethnically bound to the Sommerfelder body. Three such variational types could be observed in the 1950s: (1) the orthodox, (2) the liberal, (3) the diaspora or scattered. The orthodox, the majority body, consisted of those who were baptized and continued a connection with the church. The liberal element, who may or may not once have been baptized and reckoned as members, no longer had any connection with the church. Part of this element continued to live in the villages, sometimes constituting almost the entire population of a village. However, the larger part of the liberal element lived in the towns in the vicinity of the main settlements, such as Gretna, Altona, Winkler, and Morden in Manitoba, Hague, Osler, Aberdeen, Rosthern, and Swift Current in Saskatchewan. Most of this group remained unchurched, in fact were generally cold and apathetic toward all religion. A few joined other Mennonite congregations or evangelical churches.

The scattered families were to be found in the larger cities throughout Canada. Some went to the cities for employment, since the colonies were full and land was hard to get, others to escape the colony life and culture. These generally endeavored to shed their past as rapidly as possible and lost their identity, often anglicizing their names. Some of them reacted to extremes religiously against their earlier background, joining the Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc. In two cities there were Sommerfelder congregations with meetinghouses, one in Swift Current, and one in Winnipeg of the Chortitz group.

The 1958 population of the Sommerfelder group in Canada was at least 25,000, with possibly less than one half baptized members. Since no church records were maintained, reliable statistics were difficult to secure. In 1950 the Manitoba Sommerfelders had 4,120 baptized members (with children 7,944) in 14 congregations, and the Chortitz group had 1,684 baptized (with children 3,516) in 8 congregations, making a total population for Manitoba of 11,460, of whom 5,804 were baptized. In Saskatchewan there were about 5,000 baptized members in two northern colonies, 3,000 in Swift Current and 2,000 in Rosthern. The four frontier settlements had another 1,000. With children there were probably 10,000 population in Saskatchewan and 2,000 on the frontier. Scattered members with families possibly totaled another 2,000. In Mexico the Sommerfelders constituted about 6 per cent of the main Mennonite colony in Chihuahua and might therefore have had a population of 1,000 in the 1950s. The Sommerfeld and Bergthal colonies in Paraguay possibly had a population of 2,000 (892 baptized). Menno Colony in the Chaco had over 4,000 population with 1,359 baptized members; but this group, because of its progressive development in Paraguay, could scarcely be considered Sommerfelder in character in the 1950s. A small conservative group of possibly 100 souls left the Menno Colony in 1955 to settle in Bolivia. Thus the total population of all Sommerfelder settlements, not counting the scattered families, could be held to be 30,000, of whom probably 12,000 were baptized members.

The Sommerfeld group in Manitoba suffered two serious schisms. In 1937 the group known as the Rudnerweide Church (now Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference) broke off in the Western Reserve, which in 1957 had a total of 1,700 baptized members, of whom 1,200 (pop. 3,200) were in the original settlement in Southern Manitoba (with 500 scattered unorganized individuals in other places in West Canada). In 1940 a Rudnerweide congregation was organized in Saskatchewan near Hague, which had 300 baptized members in 1957, mostly from the Sommerfeld Mennonites there. The second schism occurred in April 1958, when a conservative faction, numbering about 100 families of the 3,500 existing membership, led however by 12 of the 16 ministers, withdrew ostensibly because of opposition to introducing electric lights into the meetinghouses. The minority group, which calls itself the Reinländer Mennonite Church, elected its own bishop (Cornelius Nickel), since the regular Sommerfeld bishop Johann Friesen stayed with the main body. -- Harold S. Bender

1990 Update


Sommerfeld Mennonites (and Saskatchewan Bergthal Mennonites) are Mennonites of the Bergthal Colony in Russia who settled in the West Reserve of Manitoba in the 1880s. Originally part of the Bergthal congregation, they took the name Sommerfelder after 1894. In that year Abraham Doerksen of the village of Sommerfeld was ordained elder for the large majority of the West Reserve Bergthaler, who had since 1889 resisted aspects of the leadership of Bergthal elder Johann Funk.

Funk promoted activities in higher education, foreign missions, and pulpit exchange with other churches, which many of his members resisted as an "Americanization" of the church. The outside persons through whom these emphases were introduced came largely from the United States, especially from the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM). The coming of H.H. Ewert from Kansas to serve as principal of the newly organized Mennonite Educational Institute in Gretna, precipitated the separation of the large majority of the church who wished to remain in solidarity with the Bergthal group on the East Reserve (now known as the Chortitzer Mennonite Conference) from Funk's Bergthal Mennonites [Manitoba], who eventually merged with the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (GCM). Accordingly, it was Elder David Stoesz of the Chortitzer who ordained Doerksen as elder of the "Sommerfelder" in 1894.

This separation did not mean the end of cooperation. The Waisenamt was not divided until 1907, when the West Reserve Bergthaler wanted to incorporate it legally and the majority of the Sommerfelder did not. In many villages the two groups continued to cooperate in the operation of elementary schools, both private and public. In 1913 the Sommerfelder took the initiative in organizing a Schulkomission (school commission) whose goals were to improve instruction in the schools, especially in German and religion, and to represent Mennonite educational concerns before the government. H.H. Ewert urged the other Manitoba churches to support this initiative.

Sommerfelder Mennonites were part of the westward migration, beginning in the 1890s, to what later became Saskatchewan. Elders Stoesz and Doerksen served these groups from time to time. In 1902 Doerksen ordained Kornelius Epp and in 1908 Aron Zacharias as elder of the group at Rosthern. He conducted ministerial elections for the group at Herbert in 1907 and four years later ordained his brother, David Doerksen, as elder of that group. The Rosthern group took the name Bergthaler (usually referred to as Saskatchewan Bergthaler to distinguish them from the Manitoba West Reserve Bergthal group that eventually merged with the Conference of Mennonites in Canada [GCM]). The Herbert-Swift Current group remained Sommerfelder.

By the mid-1920s Sommerfelder resistance to secondary education had diminished to the point where almost the entire board of the Mennonite Educational Institute in Altona consisted of Sommerfeld Mennonites. During the school crisis precipitated by Manitoba legislation brought in during World War I (1916), the Sommerfelder cooperated with other Mennonite groups in attempting to negotiate a compromise. Similarly, the Sommerfelder church cooperated with other Mennonite churches in representations to Ottawa in relation to nonresistance issues during both wars, in the raising of relief and Red Cross funds, and in the administration of alternative service activities.

In the context of the migration of Old Colony Mennonites to Mexico after World War I, Elder Abraham Doerksen and some 600 Sommerfelder (8 percent of the Manitoba church) moved to the colony of Santa Clara. Another group of 357 together with 227 Saskatchewan Bergthaler led by Elder Aron Zacharias, joined the East Reserve Chortitzer in founding Menno Colony in Paraguay in 1927. Some 15 Canadian families, mostly Saskatchewan Bergthaler, were involved in the 1963 founding of the Bergthal Colony in Bolivia, together with immigrants from the Canadiense Colony of Paraguay. During the 1970s a congregation was begun in Aylmer, Ont. among Mennonites who had immigrated to the area from Mexico.

Joint conferences of the elders and ministers of various "Sommerfelder" groups (including Manitoba, Herbert, and Vanderhoof [British Columbia] Sommerfelder; Chortitzer Conference; and Saskatchewan Bergthaler from Aberdeen and Carrot River) were held periodically (1934, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1982) to agree on issues common to all and to coordinate church practices.

Urbanization and acculturation affected the Sommerfelder groups more slowly than it did other Mennonite groups in Canada. The language transition from German to English was still in progress in the 1980s. In 1952 the Sommerfelder and Chortitzer began to hold regular church services in Winnipeg, giving rise to a joint congregation. In about 1980 the two groups began to meet separately.

In social services, such as the construction and operating of senior citizens' homes, Mennonite Central Committee overseas relief and service, and other such areas, the Sommerfelder cooperate with other Mennonite groups. In the 1980s ministers were still elected for life and served without remuneration. Each one served the entire church, preaching at the various locations according to a set rotation.

The decade of the 1950s was a difficult one for the Manitoba Sommerfelder Church. Accommodation to Canadian society during the 1940s was resisted by some and welcomed by others. Some of the more conservative people immigrated to Paraguay; many who looked for more rapid changes joined the Manitoba Bergthaler or Rudnerweider (Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference) churches. Failing eyesight brought the retirement of Bishop Peter A. Toews in 1951, but not before three ministers had been defrocked for supporting unacceptable innovations in wedding dress. His successors struggled to find a new equilibrium. This, however, was not achieved before the separation in 1958 of some 800 (of 2,800) members and 12 (of 16) ministers to form the Reinländer Mennoniten Gemeinde of Manitoba.

The 1970s were marked by rapid changes. Sunday school had been introduced in the 1950s. Young people's meetings, the use of some English in church (including the decision to purchase English hymnals), and formal involvement with Mennonite Central Committee, began in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1987 there were signs that even this pace of change was not enough to satisfy all segments of the church.

Membership of the Sommerfelder Church in Manitoba in 1985 was 3,981; 4123 in 1990 and 4339 in 1994. Its elders have included Abraham Doerksen (1894-1922), Heinrich J. Friesen (1922-31), Peter A. Toews (1931-51), Peter M. Friesen, (1951-57), and Johann A. Friesen (1955-    ). Elders serving the Saskatchewan Bergthaler Church (ca. 1,000 members in 1985) have been Kornelius Epp (1902-08), Aron Zacharias (1908-26), Cornelius Hamm (1928-47), Abram J. Buhler (1947-75), and John D. Reddekopp (1975-). Groups separating in 1979 and 1983 sought affiliation with Carrot River-area Bergthaler and Herbert-area Sommerfelder respectively. The Sommerfelder in southern Saskatchewan (ca. 400 members in 1985) were led by David F. Doerksen, from 1911 until his move to Paraguay in 1948; David Wall, Swift Current (1971); and David Wiebe (1971-    ). -- Adolf Ens and Jake Peters

Latin America and South America

The following Sommerfelder/Bergthaler Colonies existed in Latin America and South America as of 1987:

Colony & Country Year of Founding Origin of Colonists Population Membership Elder
Santa Clara, Mexico 1922 Manitoba Sommerfelder 1,700 616 Jacob F. Doerksen
Santa Clara, Paraguay 1972 Mexico 133 50 Abram Friesen
Bergthal, Paraguay 1948 Manitoba Chortitzer 1,478 555 Jacob R. Funk
Reinfeld, Paraguay 1966 Bergthal 119 64 Jacob R. Funk
Sommerfeld, Paraguay 1948 Manitoba Sommerfelder 1,752 678 Jacob Heinrichs
Canadiense, Bolivia 1956 Menno Colony Paraguay* 807 329 Dietrich Dueck
Morgenland, Bolivia 1975 Branch Colony of Canadiense 280 104 Dietrich Dueck
Bergthal, Bolivia 1963 Canadiense Colony 306 127 Johann Guenter
Sommerfeld, Bolivia 1968 Mexico 419 132 Peter Wiebe
Nueva Holanda, Bolivia 1983 Canadiense Colony 394 157 Peter Giesbrecht

*Menno Colony in Paraguay (origin of Canadiense Colony above) was founded in 1927 by Chortitzer and Sommerfelder from Manitoba and Bergthaler from Saskatchewan, has 3,050 members and a population of 6,650. It was affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church.

See also Conservative Mennonites; Old Colony Mennonites.


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Doell, Leonard. The Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Saskatchewan, 1892-1975. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1987.

Driedger, Leo. "Hague-Osler Settlement," Mennonite Life 13 (January 1958), and "Saskatchewan Old Colony Mennonites," Mennonite Life 13 (April 1958).

Francis, E. K. In Search of Utopia. Altona, 1957.

Giesbrecht, Jacob. "In the Nachfolge Tradition: The Sommerfelder Mennonites of Manitoba, Canada." Unpublished paper, Winnipeg, 1983, copy at Mennonite Heritage Centre (Winnipeg).

Mennonite World Handbook, ed. Paul N. Kraybill. Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference [MWC], 1978: 323.

Mennonite World Handbook. Strasbourg, France, and Lombard, IL: MWC, 1984: 135.

Der Mitarbeiter (1905-34).

Reimer, Margaret L. One Quilt, Many Pieces. Waterloo, ON: Mennonite Publishing Service, 1983: 36-40.

Peters, Jake. "An Annotated Bibliography of Materials Relating to the Sommmerfelder Mennonite Church." Unpublished, 1979, Mennonite Heritage Centre.

Peters, Jake. Mennonite Private Schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 1874-1925. Steinbach, MB: Mennonite Village Museum, 1985.

Peters, Jake. The Waisenamt: A History of Mennonite Inheritance Customs. Steinbach, MB: Mennonite Village Museum, 1985.

Schmitt, Abraham Schmitt. "The Sommerfelder Mennonites." Unpublished manuscript, 1953, Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana, USA).

Warkentin, Abe. "Strangers and Pilgrims." Mennonitische Post (1987).

Archival Records

David Stoesz and Abraham Doerksen archival collections, Mennonite Heritage Centre.

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Adolf Ens
Jake Peters
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S., Adolf Ens and Jake Peters. "Sommerfeld Mennonites." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 2 Jul 2022.

APA style

Bender, Harold S., Adolf Ens and Jake Peters. (1990). Sommerfeld Mennonites. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 576-578; v. 5, pp. 841-843. All rights reserved.

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