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
“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
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. FT
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.