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Profiles of Mennonite Faith

No. 17, Fall 2001

David Dyck: Tireless Church Builder

David Dyck, early leader of the Winkler (Manitoba) Mennonite Brethren Church and the first moderator of the Northern (Canadian) District, was a tireless itinerant minister and church builder. As was so often the case among Mennonite Brethren of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Dyck and his family moved repeatedly, in search of fertile farmland and economic opportunity. And yet material gain was never Dyck’s sole motivation. Wherever he moved he exhibited a deep concern for the Mennonite Brethren Church and its many congregations scattered across the North American plains.

Photograph courtesy of Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Fresno, CA

Born in Russia, in the Mennonite Old Colony, on 25 January 1846, Dyck as a teenager reached for God but was seemingly unable to find Him. It took an outbreak of cholera among Russian villagers to bring him to see that he could trust God to save him. In 1873 he and his wife Helena were baptized and became active members of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

In 1876, the Dycks moved to America. After a winter in Marion County, Kansas, they moved east to Woodson County with twenty families. There David was elected a minister and in 1881 ordained by Elder Abraham Schellenberg. The church prospered and all but one of the adult children of the families were converted.

Desiring further education, Dyck decided in 1883 to go to the Baptist Seminary in Rochester, New York. But after just six weeks at school he was called home when a daughter was bitten by a rabid dog. Happily she survived, but his studies never were resumed.

Dyck’s family was growing and the Woodson settlement floundering, so in 1884 they accepted an invitation to Lehigh, Kansas. There ten families had formed a Mennonite Brethren group under the leadership of Cornelius P. Wedel. In that same year a church was built and Dyck was ordained an elder by Schellenberg. The Lehigh church has the distinction of being the first Mennonite Brethren church in North America to be located in a town – the first of three congregations that Dyck helped establish in towns.

For Dyck, the Lehigh years were his happiest. The spirit in the church was good; there were conversions and growth. Communion between members was spiritually stimulating. As a practical necessity, however, land for his children was always on Dyck’s mind.

So it was in 1892 that the Dycks moved to eastern Colorado. They joined the Kirk Mennonite Brethren Church and Dyck became its leader. Again they built a meeting place and experienced vigorous growth, notably after an evangelistic visit by Peter Wedel. But poor crops put pressure on the group.

In 1895 the church at Winkler, Manitoba, issued an urgent invitation to Dyck, which he accepted. David and Helena loaded nine children onto wagons and drove from Colorado to Winkler, arriving there on 17 July 1895, after a two-month journey.

The church was still out in the country at Burwalde in 1895. Membership stood at eighty-four. Three years later, it was moved into Winkler. To prepare for a convention that would take place later that year, a roomier building was erected. When the Dycks moved to Saskatchewan eleven years after their arrival, membership stood at 225.

It was during the Winkler years that Dyck really began his itinerant ministry. He traveled widely in southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, into the Dakotas and elsewhere. He reported often in the Zionsbote, the conference paper of the time. He gladly accepted the rigors of difficult travel and strange beds to share the gospel among people he loved. Most such ministry was done in homes.

In addition, he was active as a conference leader. From 1903 to 1906 he belonged to the first formal Board of Foreign Missions. He participated in the formation of three district Mennonite Brethren conferences – Southern, Central and Northern. In 1909 Dyck began a thirteen-year stint as Northern (Canadian) District moderator. In 1906, after eleven years in Winkler, the need for land encouraged a move to Borden, Saskatchewan. While not the leader of this congregation, Dyck donated the two acres on which the Borden church and cemetery stood. These were busy years for Dyck, his itinerant ministry and conference work often taking him away.

In 1910, when Dyck was 64, they moved yet again. This time it was to a farm at Brotherfield, four miles west of Waldheim, Saskatchewan. Dyck became leader there and the church began growing, which led the congregation to greatly expand its building in 1911. With time Brotherfield became the hub for six churches in a district north of Saskatoon.

David and Helena celebrated fifty years of marriage at Brotherfield in 1917 before a packed sanctuary. But their ministry had not yet ended. The following year, they helped start a church in Waldheim. By 1920 they had built a meeting place with Dyck as leader; by 1924 they had one hundred members. Again Dyck appears to have been the catalyst in attracting people.

On 6 January 1933 David Dyck died in Waldheim at age eighty-seven. His tireless church building – both the living body and the meeting places – testified that people could come to new life in Christ and be built into lively, witnessing communities. He helped set Mennonite Brethren in Canada onto a path of vigorous and healthy growth.