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 sis-
ters. 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 Pen-
ner – 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 collect-
ively 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
“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 lis-
tened and obeyed.”
Once established in Canada, Peter pursued an educa-
tion – 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 de-
gree 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
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