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The Life of Peter Penner (1929-2011)
Alberta pastor, teacher, farmer and counsellor escaped Stalin in Ukraine and Hitler in Germany.

Imagine being a pacifist Mennonite forced into the Hitler Youth in Germany, immigrating to years of poverty hoeing sugar beets in Alberta – would you have been able to persist in God’s strength to become a pastor and teacher? Peter Penner did, and that’s only part of his story.

Peter Penner

Peter Penner was born Aug. 11, 1929, in Konteniusfeld, Ukraine. He was the third child, and first son, for Ukrainian Mennonite farmers Peter and Susanna Penner. He died at the age of 82 on Sept. 30, 2011, of cancer in Grande Prairie, Alta.

Peter had fond memories of being with his own father who supervised the cattle operation on a collective farm in Europe. He learned from an early age hard work was essential to the family livelihood.

However when Peter was nine, the excruciating hardship of Stalin’s Russia broke into his world. Peter’s family had heard of the dreaded “black raven,” the car driven by the Soviet Secret Police. It had taken men from the village over the two previous years – never to be heard from again.

One night it stopped at the Penner house just before midnight. The elder Peter Penner was arrested and taken away, charged with being an enemy of the state. The alleged crime: having listened to a religious radio broadcast from a foreign country.

Peter Penner, Sr., was never seen again. And life for Peter Penner, Jr., was forever changed. He was thrust into employment and leadership roles well beyond his years. By the age of 12, he was working full days on the farm as a teamster – harrowing, haying or harvesting with a team of horses. He often spoke of being consulted on family and farm decisions while he was a young teenager.

TO GERMANY IN 1943

As the Second World War progressed, Germany gained control of Peter’s village in Ukraine, and the German-speaking villagers were given much freedom. However, the tides changed in 1943. As part of a German military retreat, Peter and his family were part of 7,000 German-speaking people –mostly Mennonites from a variety of villages including Konteniusfeld – who escaped religious persecution in Ukraine by fleeing to Poland and then Germany where they established refugee status.

At the age of 14, Peter was conscripted to the paramilitary organization of the Nazi party known as Hitler-Jugend – or Hitler Youth. There, the injustice of losing his father was compounded by the greater and ongoing cruelty he both witnessed and suffered in the Youth Camp. At night Peter and his friend from the same village “would hold hands in the dark and pray the prayers his mother had taught him to pray,” according to Peter’s son James Penner.

The injustice Peter felt under both Stalin and Hitler shaped his character. “It was from this place of deep pain that he tried to hear everyone and be gentle with everyone – especially children,” explains Vic Penner, another son of Peter’s. “Dad believed everyone’s voice needed to be heard because he knew what it was like to not be heard.”

As a pacifist Mennonite, Peter was adamant to avoid military combat. He never forgot how God granted him a miraculous intervention to help him live this out. Peter had approached a top official to request a discharge to farm labour for both himself and a friend because they each had developed a hernia. At precisely that moment, Peter recalled, an older man came into the room and said to the same official: “You just sent my daughter’s husband, a general, to the front lines. Do you not have two boys who can help her run the farm?”

Peter was released to work on the farm. And, in 1948, he was re-united with his mother, brother and all his sisters. The entire family then emigrated to Canada through the assistance of the Mennonite Central Committee and extended family members already in Canada.

Peter often referred to both his discharge from Hitler Youth and his being re-united with his family members as miracles that clearly showed God’s provision. Having experienced “goodness and mercy,” he vowed to serve God wholeheartedly for the rest of his life.

TO ALBERTA IN 1948

From Pier 21 in Halifax, the Penners moved to Coaldale, Alta., where a Mennonite community took them in. Peter and his family found employment hoeing sugar beets for a local farmer.

But after three years of hoeing by his mom, an aunt, five sisters and himself, their debt from coming to Canada was not paid off. Peter recalls praying, and actually complaining to God about the fact (in a recorded interview by grandson Ian Penner from a few months ago).

“God the Spirit brought an idea to my mind. Mrs. Voth’s ten-acre plot of land was for sale across the street from the church. It would make a perfect location for a home for Mom – plus I could subdivide it to build another home to pay off the family’s debt,” he said.

He approached Mrs. Voth as a 22-year-old negotiator. Her reply: “But you are just a minor, a boy. Why should I sell to you?”

Peter asked her, “Do you pray?”

Her reply: “Of course.”

So Peter said, “When you pray tonight could you add another clause? Could you ask God about that Peter Penner – about whether he is good for his word and whether he pays his debts or not?”

Mrs. Voth agreed to sell the land for $3,600, but collectively the Penner family had only $600. Peter suggested he and his mother visit their sugar beet farm employer, Mr. Toews, and ask him for a loan.

“Why would he give us the money?” his mother asked.

Peter replied, “Because in the book of James it says ‘God cares for the widows and orphans.’ You are a widow and I am half an orphan.”

Mr. Toews loaned Peter the $3,000. The land was purchased, and Peter built two houses. One was sold, and the other was for his mother. Their debts were more than paid.

Peter and his wife

“For Dad,” says Peter’s son James Penner, “being a Christian was practical and experiential. God the Holy Spirit helped him choose the best option. He simply listened and obeyed.”

Once established in Canada, Peter pursued an education – jumping from Grade 4 in Ukraine to Grade 11 in Alberta. He learned English, finished high school and eventually completed both a Bachelor of Education degree and theological studies.

Peter counted Canada “the porch of heaven.” Peter’s son James Penner said his dad used the phrase often throughout his life – “that was how much the freedom, peace and prosperity in Canada meant to him. He was forever grateful.”

Peter’s first teaching position was at the Rock Lake Hutterite Colony in southern Alberta. Shortly after, he met Margaret Warkentin at the Lindbrook Mennonite Brethren Church, and they were married on Nov. 11, 1956. His proposal speech: “Did you know that if two rivulets flow together, they could make a larger stream?” Margaret’s reply, “Yes, I’m willing to flow together.”

THREE FULL-TIME JOBS

In 1960 Peter accepted a call to pastor the Mennonite Brethren Church in Crooked Creek, Alta., in the Peace River region 400 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. (It later moved to DeBolt and became known as the Gospel Light Church.) As the church had few funds, Peter simultaneously accepted a teaching position at the nearby Ridgevalley School.

Soon, he purchased a farm in the Goodwin area (west of DeBolt), and for the next three decades he worked at what would now be considered three full-time jobs: a teacher and school administrator, a pastor of a mid-sized evangelical church, and a farmer.

His son Phil Penner said: “It was only after I visited Ukraine last year that I came to realize Dad’s work ethic was born of necessity. I came to an understanding of why he had worked so hard and looked out for so many people.”

Peter and Margaret (also a career school teacher) became an integral part of the greater-DeBolt community, and raised five children: Vic, James, Dave, Klara, and Phil – four of whom remain in the Grande Prairie area.

For most of his teaching career Peter taught Grade 3 – though he also served as the principal of the Edson Trail School in DeBolt for a few years. When former students saw Peter or family members at community events after Peter’s retirement, they would mention how safe they felt at school when Mr. Penner was there, recalls son James Penner.

“Dad simply would not tolerate bullying. Aside from that, he knew how to create a caring community in a classroom or even an entire school – one that included bullies and those who might be picked on.”

Toward the end of his teaching career, Peter enacted an entrepreneurial and visionary educational project. He was teaching remedial mathematics and life skills to a group of high school boys, and it occurred to him that his students needed a practical project.

After convincing the school board to secure land in the hamlet of Crooked Creek, he blended curriculum and construction details in the building of an entire house. Every detail, from the digging of the basement to the creation of the cabinets, was handled by his students.

One of the high school students who participated in the project was Steve Sommerville – who had learning disabilities and grew up in a single parent home. Steve excelled for the first time in his school career as he worked on the house project. Moreover, he felt cared for and loved. The odd meal at the Penner home eventually became every meal, and Steve became a full-fledged member of the family.

Shortly after Peter retired from his roles of pastor, teacher and farmer, he suffered from a mental illness – eventually diagnosed as a chemical-induced, bi-polar disorder which created a manic-depressive personality.

A WOUNDED HEALER

After a brief hospitalization and subsequent treatment over several years, Peter managed to rise above the illness. While it remained a struggle for the rest of his life – what he called a “deep ache” – it was also his connection to hurting people.

Peter’s son Vic Penner said, “He became a wounded healer for people he counselled, mentored or befriended. It was his cross to bear – a thorn in his flesh. In the movie Fugitive Pieces, the closing remarks are, ‘Now I see that I must give what I most need.’ This was my dad’s story.

“Dad was known for his encouraging words. He delighted in visiting with people. People report being supported, encouraged and blessed by him. It was from his own deep pain that he offered the words people needed.

“He would say, ‘Without God’s grace, I am nothing. Every good thing you have received from me is a gift from God through me.’ He would tell us, ‘Look to the One who gave me every good thing I have – the One who is the author of any good you see in me.’

“His life simply cannot be understood apart from his faith in and trust in God,” concludes Vic Penner.

Peter made it well known that among his favourite Scripture passages was from Psalm 25: “To you, oh Lord, I lift up my soul. In you I trust, oh my God.”

A note found pinned by Peter’s bed – written in his own handwriting – reads: “My heart melts at the love of Jesus. He is mine and I am His. I am never so much mine as when I am His or so much lost to myself until lost in Him.”

Peter never really retired. After he stepped down as a pastor and teacher, he worked with a national counselling organization in Grande Prairie, Alta., known as Burden Bearers of Canada – a position he held from 1987 to 1997. During a few of those years he simultaneously served as the pastor of the Wembley Baptist Church located 20 kilometres west of Grande Prairie.

He was a long-time board member of the Peace River Bible Institute located in nearby Sexsmith, Alta., a lifetime member of the Grande Prairie chapter of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, and an ardent supporter of Sturgeon Lake Bible Camp.

For the past three years, Peter and Margaret again enjoyed the support of the greater Mennonite community – this time in Crooked Creek where they lived and were cared for in the Ridgevalley Home which is operated by the community’s Church of God in Christ Mennonite.

A memorial service was held to celebrate the life of Peter Penner at the Alliance Church in Grande Prairie on Oct. 7, 2011, where nearly 700 former students, church members and rural neighbours gathered with his large extended family. He was buried at the Cornwall Cemetery – the site of the original Crooked Creek Mennonite Brethren Church at which Peter had first pastored.

Peter leaves Margaret, his wife of 55 years, five children, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He also leaves a brother, three sisters, an extended family of nieces and nephews, and a massive informal church family found in many Mennonite and other evangelical churches.

Richard Erlendson teaches journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, and for 30 years has been a neighbour and friend of the extended Penner families.

Originally published in Faith Today, March 2012.

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