No. 20, Summer 2002
Cornelius A. and Elizabeth (Dyck) DeFehr: Combining Service and Business
Cornelius A. DeFehr (1881–1979) was a gifted man who served the church in a sacrificial way for much of his life. The legacy of his contributions survives today in many organizations and in several continents and countries around the world.
DeFehr was born in Ukraine at a time when Mennonite settlements were prospering and the Mennonite Brethren Church was still in its infancy. After marrying Elizabeth Dyck (1885–1972) in 1903, the couple moved to Millerovo in the Don district where, together with the Dyck family, they established a machinery factory.
World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the ensuing civil war and famine brought severe hardship. DeFehr became active in the efforts to lessen the difficulties. But hope for a peaceful and prosperous future soon faded, and in 1925 the family migrated and initially settled in southern Manitoba. They had lost all their possessions, but were determined to grasp the opportunities in their new homeland and were thankful that they could now live peacefully in a land of religious freedom.
In 1926 the DeFehr family moved to Winnipeg where they developed an importing business. Initial expansion was rapid, but the depression of the 1930s took its toll. After World War II the business expanded again, and increasingly the sons took responsibility for the business. This enabled C. A. DeFehr to spend much of his time and energy working for the church and various Mennonite agencies. Among the agencies and institutions which DeFehr helped to found were Concordia Hospital, the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, the Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute; he was also a board member of the Mary Martha Home, the Mennonite Collegiate Institute, and Christian Press (all in Manitoba). He was also a founding member of Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) and long active with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). He actively served on numerous Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference boards, including a long term as treasurer (1944–1960) and gave liberally of his time to the North End/Elmwood congregation.
One of DeFehr’s greatest contributions to the larger Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren church came through his work in Paraguay and in other South American countries. He made four trips to Paraguay between 1947 and 1958 on behalf of the Mennonite Central Committee to help refugees from Russia on their arrival, to help find and purchase suitable land, organize the villages, and otherwise to establish an economic base and rebuild their religious and spiritual life. The first two trips were almost a year in length each. Conditions were very primitive, travel was difficult, and DeFehr was already approaching seventy years of age. The refugees were often very discouraged. In many cases families were without a husband and father, so women carried the major burdens of building a home and providing for their children. DeFehr appealed to the Mennonite constituency through MCC again and again to provide more assistance. As time passed and DeFehr returned to the colonies he was able to witness significant progress.
In 1957, when he was almost 76 years of age, DeFehr embarked on another major assignment. This time it was on behalf of the Mennonite Brethren Board of Foreign Missions. Together with John B. Toews, the Executive Secretary of the board, they traveled to various countries in Asia, including Japan, Korea, Formosa, Vietnam and India. Their purpose was to evaluate the work of missions and to make recommendations that would help chart the way for the future. As a businessman with broad experience in various countries, DeFehr brought unique perspectives and made important recommendations. On the return trip DeFehr attended the sixth Mennonite World Conference in Germany. He was encouraged by the positive spirit of the conference and strongly favored working with other Mennonite groups in many areas of activity.
In his many activities, DeFehr was much indebted to his wife and partner, Elizabeth, whom he called “Meine Liese.” She was a woman of keen mind, boundless energy, and devotion to God. Their home became a temporary refuge for many, including some of those who fled Europe after World War II. Elizabeth often made her bed on the kitchen floor in order to make room for guests in their bedroom. She accompanied Cornelius on many trips and was a constant source of encouragement and wise counsel. On one of their trips on an “autovia” (vehicle equipped to ride on railroad tracks) in Paraguay they experienced an accident in a remote region. The vehicle suddenly jolted and overturned. The chauffeur was killed instantly. Elizabeth, who had been sitting in the front seat, was pinned helplessly beneath the vehicle. Cornelius and his partner were able to lift the vehicle sufficiently with a long tree trunk to pull her out. They had brought a telephone set along and managed to connect it to a line nearby and call for help. Elizabeth was eventually taken to a hospital where she stayed for several days. She was able to continued the journey, but suffered the effects of the accident for many years afterward.
Cornelius and Elizabeth DeFehr became wealthy because of the success of the family business. But they were always ready to use their personal and financial resources for service in the Kingdom. DeFehr lamented that as Mennonites were becoming more and more prosperous in Canada, giving did not increase at the same pace and was not commensurate with the growing needs. Giving, he said, was more dependent on right attitudes than on bulging bank accounts. Modesty, service and charity were values treasured most by the DeFehrs.