Oak Tree’s Seeds Keep Mennonite History Alive

Sanders, Carol. "Oak Tree's Seeds Keep Mennonite History Alive." Winnipeg Free Press, 23 June 2006, sec. A9.

This giant oak was a meeting place for Mennonites when they left Poland for a better life in Chortitza, Ukraine.
A living piece of Mennonite history has taken root in Winnipeg.

Seeds, that were taken from a giant 800-year-old oak tree in Chortitza (pronounced kor-teet’-zah), Ukraine, which died nearly a decade ago, are alive and well at the Canadian Mennonite University.

“The tree was a symbol of life-of being able to grow and maintain itself in spite of many hardships,” said Winnipeg’s John Friesen.

He and his wife, Marian, are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary by planting a sapling from one of the acorns squirreled away by planting a sapling from one of the oak in Chortitza, which was settled by Mennonites in 1789.

“This tree was there long before our fore bearers got there,” said Friesen, who collected some acorns during a trip to Chortitza to trace his roots nearly 30 years ago,

“When I first saw it in 1978, I didn’t think it would ever die,” said Friesen, a retired pastor who serves as a lay minister at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.

“It was very much alive. It must’ve been 40 feet high and 30 feet (in circumference),” he said.

It was huge, even when the massive tree was 200 years younger and served as a landmark.

The enormous oak was a meeting place for Friesen’s ancestors in 1792 when they left Poland for Chortitza, looking for more land and a place they could practice their faith in peace.

Back home in Canada, Friesen tried planting the acorns several times over the years and had no luck.

When he went to serve as a pastor in St. Catharine’s, Ont., Friesen connected with area peach farmer Abe Epp, who’d also made the pilgrimage to Chortitza and was able to produce some seedlings from the historic tree.

Epp gave a few saplings to Friesen. Instead of planting a Chortitza oak in their yard and keeping it to themselves, Friesen and his wife decided to donate a tree to the Canadian Mennonite University.

The 1.5-metre oak sapling is planted on CMU’s south campus, near the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Friesen estimates 100,000 Mennonite Canadians today could trace their roots to the village where the sapling’s parent lived.

“We wanted to put it someplace where people like students who are interested in one aspect of their backgrounds could see it,” said Friesen.

There are two other trees from the Chortitza Oak in Manitoba, both located at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach.

John and Marian Frisen with tree at Canadian Mennonite University.

Reprinted with permission of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller