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The MEl Controversy

The Mennonite Educational Institute, founded in 1889, had by 1900 developed into an effective teacher training center. Its principal, H. H. Ewert, and its location, Gretna, however, were not without their detractors. Ewert and the Bergthaler Lehrdienst had, in their opposition to a movement of evangelical fundamentalism in the area, caused some laymen in Rhineland to oppose the Bergthaler power structure and by corollary the Gretna school. 30 Others in the community carried a long standing personal dislike ofH. H. Ewert, considering him arrogant and dictatorial. Some of Ewert's opponents in the area had secured his dismissal as school inspector by helping defeat the Provincial Liberal Government in 1903.31 With the appointment of Johann M. Friesen of Altona as School Inspector, a new power alignment began to emerge and Bishop Johann Funk of Bergthaler Church changed sides, breaking with Ewert and the Gretna Board.

This simmering theological and personal conflict turned into a bitter inter-town rivalry in 1903, when it became evident that the old MEl building would have to be replaced. As plans were formulated for a new building program, the supporters from the towns of Altona and Winkler argued that the school should be relocated. The strongest group favouring relocation was the Altona group led by Bishop Johann Funk, Peter B. Wiebe, Cornelius Bergman, and H. D. Dueck. Funk argued that the school had failed to gain public acceptance in Gretna and should now be tried in Altona.

The issue came to a head at the 1905 MEl annual meeting in Altona, where the future school location was on the agenda. Held on May 22 in the Altona Pulblic School, this meeting was characterized by one maneuver after the other to steer the vote in the desired direction. Since the school constitution granted one vote for every ten dollars donated by a school society member, there was a great deal of room for maneuvering.

The first motion dealing with school location proposed that one vote be given for every five dollar donation, instead of the previous ten dollar limit. This was followed by a motion proposed by H. H. Ewert and John Baergen to extend voting privileges to those that had signed promissory notes for the building or endowment fund. This seemed to favour the Gretna group as it apparently gave a large block of votes to Erdman Penner, a Gretna Merchant. The Gretna faction, led by Baergen and Erdman Wiebe, then proposed a motion barring from voting all those who had made donations between May 1 and May 22. This move effectively eliminated up to thirty Altona votes.