The origins of Mennonites lie in the Protestant Reformation in Central Europe. Latin, hand-copied Bibles were owned only by the powerful Catholic Church. With the invention of the printing press in 1440, many things started changing. Common people began to read and reasoned on their own, questioning the authority of the church. Groups more radical than Martin Luther sprang up including the Anabaptists who advocated a return to early apostolic forms of Christianity and instituted adult baptism, a ceremony that implied a conscious commitment to Christ through the exercise of free will. A Dutch Catholic priest named Menno Simons (1491-1561) converted to these new ideas and became the leader of the Dutch and Swiss Anabaptists or Mennonites. He called for: 1) adult baptism upon confession of faith; 2) separation of church and state; 3) rejection of militarism. Persecution broke out and many became martyrs.
Heavy persecution in Holland forced the Mennonites to feel the the Vistula Delta and Danzig areas of Polish Russia, where they were welcomed and allowed to follow the tenets of their faith. Here they developed an ethnic identity. Low German became the everyday working language, and High German replaced Dutch in the churches. The swampy marshes were turned into fertile farmland, and flourishing communities evolved. Housebarns were built in Strassendoerfer (street villages). Schools, churches, homes for the aged, Waisenamt (care of widows and orphans), and Brandordnung (fire insurance) were organized.
By 1786, after 200 years of prosperity, land was getting scarce and the Mennonites were denied the right to purchase any new land. Responding to the invitation of Catherine the Great, many families moved to resettle on the vast steppes of southern Russia, having received the assurance that they would receive free land and exemption from military service.
Within a few years there were 400 families living in 18 villages in the Chortitza Colony. When land became scarce again in 1836, a new colony ‘Bergthal’ was established. This is the colony where most of our ancestors came from. In the early 1870s school reforms, landlessness, and the threat of military conscription led the Mennonites to respond to the Canadian government’s invitation to settle in the new province of Manitoba. In 1874 the first of many families landed at the Rat River and stayed in the Schantz shelters near Niverville until village sites had been selected in the East Reserve.
The first settlers moved from villages east of the Red River to the west, looking for fertile farmland. Migration to the new village of Neubergthal was based on family relations, which can be seen in the surnames and marriage patterns of the first inhabitants.
Neubergthal was settled in 1876 by a group of Mennonite families who had, only a few years prior, emigrated from Russia. In contrast to the East Reserve settlements, the agricultural potential of the land on the West Reserve was apparent, despite the difficulties of settling on open, tall grass prairie, the scarcity of wood, and its distance from a water source. With steadfast persistence, the village was settled in a way that reflected the pioneers’ collective experience and worldview—a merging of Dutch, German, and Russian architectural styles, and a combination of private and communal spaces for farming and dwelling.
Source: Neubergthal: A Mennonite Street Village: A Sense of Deep Roots (2013).