Bergthal Mennonite 

In 1900 a group of thirty families of Prussian Mennonite descent came to the Didsbury area which was then part of the Northwest Territories to file land claims on land east of the town of Didsbury. Most of these families came from a settlement in Manitoba known as Bergthal. By 1907 about forty families had settled in the area. The importance they placed on faith and fellowship was demonstrated by the almost immediate attention that was given to the establishment of a church. The Bergthal church was started in 1901 with the establishment of a building in 1903. The initial founders were Abram A. Dyck, Jacob Hamm and Gerhard Neufeld.

The original church building was 24’x36’ in size and was built at a location five miles east and one mile south of the present location, on land donated by the Frank Rempel family. Of the three men who organized the church Gerhard Neufeld served as deacon from 1910 until his death in 1950. Planting a new church is not easy and the Bergthal Church was no exception. The group that had settled east of Didsbury did not have an ordained minister among them, therefore others were invited to help. J.B. Detweiler from the Mennonite Church in Christ in Didsbury (now Missionary Church) was asked to minister to the group once a month. Shortly thereafter the Rev. Isaac Giesbrecht of Sommerfeld persuasion moved into the area and took leadership of the church services.

The group consisted not only of Mennonites of Sommerfeld persuasion but also General Conference background. In 1910 the group was visited by Elder Franz Sawatzky from Herbert, SK. Upon his advice the church became formerly affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church. The small group still did not have a minister and thus cooperated and associated with other groups. Pastors from the Linden Holdeman Church, the Sunnyslope Summerfelder Church and from the Brethren in Christ Church in Didsbury served the congregation on special occasions. The services were conducted in German, and if conducted by the Sommerfelder the sermon was read. The singing was led by a Vorsaenger, and was unaccompanied, but harmony was acceptable. By 1918, many of the Sommerfelder had left, and it was decided to move the church further west as that was where the Neufeld families lived that comprised most of the congregation. This was no easy feat, alongside with moving the church building they also had to move the graves of the dead that had been buried on the Rempel land. The coffins were reburied the next day on the land donated by the A.C. Neufelds. This is still the current cemetery used by the Bergthal Church. During this time the families met for Sunday School, German School and Christian Endeavor. (Jugend Verein)

In 1923 several Russian Mennonite families came to the Didsbury area, the Mennonites living in the area were very generous and opened their homes and hearts to the newcomers who had arrived penniless after escaping the horrors of the Russian Revolution. These newcomers tended to be better educated than the Kanadier Mennonites. Despite differences in thought and practice the two culturally different groups soon began to intermarry. The language spoken by the Mennonite people in Bergthal was Plautdietssch, or Low church they spoke High German. The young people had become literate in the English language and with time had difficulty reading the German script as well as expressing themselves in German. In the late 1920’s Elder C. D. Harder, a Russlaender came to the Didsbury area. He was a well-educated, very organized person and was hired to preach but he only preached in the German language. His lack of speaking the English language was a detriment to his ministry, especially to the young people, and after two years he moved on to Rosemary, AB to start a new Mennonite Church in that community.

In 1932 the now assimilated church chose to call two men into the ministry, C. G. Neufeld, and his younger brother Jack Neufeld, both were ordained to the ministry in 1935, with C.G. being chosen to lead. Both were Kanadier, but C. G. chose to attend the Herbert Bible School in SK, it was here he mastered the German language, so he was very capable of preaching in German to his Russlaender congregants. His brother Jack ministered in English. In 1942, C.G. was ordained as elder, and he served as minister and elder until 1967 when he retired. The establishment of the Menno Bible Institute in 1936, next to the Bergthal Church brought another minister to the area. Rev. William Pauls became the principal at the school, and he now took his turn preaching in the German language at Bergthal. In 1948 a new church building was erected, just adjacent to the western boundary of the old location. Another building project happened in 1965 when a large education wing with a modern kitchen and washroom facilities was added. 

In 1957, Dr. Jake Harder was elected to serve as the first lay chairman to carry out the church membership meetings. Jake had grown up in the area and was the grandson of Elder C. D. Harder. With the retirement of Elder C. G. Neufeld, the congregation made the decision to hire its first paid pastor. Werner Froese, a recent graduate of CMBC was hired in 1967. The transition from the lay ministry to professional paid pastor was not an easy one, but with care and sensitivity he succeeded. Werner Froese stayed on as pastor for ten years whereupon he was called to another church. Werner’s tenure was followed by Erwin Siemens, David Letkemann, Norman Bergen, Bruce Wiebe, Menno Epp (interim) Elwin Garland, Mike Nimz, two transitional pastors, Jim Shantz and Ken Bechtel, followed by the current pastor Anna Lisa Salo. Pastor Anna Lisa has been with us since 2014.

Music has always played an important role at Bergthal. The first church organ was purchased in 1920, singing in four-part harmony was always encouraged. For years choir practice was a constant, with Henry Hamm Jr. serving as choir director for thirty-five years. Children’s Choir was also an important aspect of the church. Katie Harder directed the children’s choir for twenty plus years taking them to provincial songfest as well as to the Kiwanis Music Festival in Olds, AB. The children’s Choir participated once a month in the Sunday morning worship service.  Ron Brown, who followed Henry Hamm was also a much-loved choir director. Under his leadership the  music repertoire greatly increased, and the choir provided music two or three Sundays a month. For a long time Bergthal had two women’s organizations, the Bergthal Sewing Circle and the Women in Mission. The women’s group started as service groups, but they also provided a much-needed social outlet for its members. The church has always been an ardent supporter of MCC. The ladies still quilt over a hundred quilts every winter, members from the church, both male and female regularly volunteer at the Calgary Thrift Store. The church has always participated and supported the annual MCC Sale, volunteering with MDS has also played a significant role in the church.  Christian Education was a large component of the Bergthal Church, - Sunday School, clubs, DVBS, etc. In 1903 membership stood at 62, peaked in 1958 to 215. In the 1980’s and 1990’s it was generally around 180. After the year 2000 the membership dramatically declined.  Now that our attendance and membership has decreased, we no longer have a Sunday School program, choir has ceased, but we still gather faithfully to worship every Sunday under the leadership of our enthusiastic and much appreciated pastor, Anna Lisa Salo. The history of the Bergthal Mennonite Church goes on. In 2003 Berthal celebrated it’s 100-year anniversary, making it the oldest General Conference church in Alberta. In retrospect we see where we have walked, made mistakes, and we see progress. Thank you, God, for leading us and guiding us this far. To God be the glory.

  • Submitted by Katie Harder