Beginnings: In May 1944, representatives of fourteen Mennonite churches in BC were invited to a meeting to discuss starting a Mennonite high school. Support for this concept grew very slowly. Only seven churches were represented at the first meeting, and one of these was strongly opposed to the idea. However, at a second meeting on June 5, 1944, representatives from nine churches voiced their support. At this meeting, Mr. C. Toews, Mr. G. Sukkau and Mr. A. Bauman were elected to go to Victoria to present the plan to the provincial government.
The committee met with Dr. Willis, BC’s Deputy Minister of Education, who pointed out the advantages of integration into the Canadian school system for students of Mennonite origin. Eventually, however, he stated that the government had no objection to the establishment of an independent school, if three conditions were met: there would be no financial support from the government, qualified teachers must be hired, and the English language must be used. In addition, grade 12 students would be required to write departmental examinations.
However, further obstacles surfaced. Due to wartime restrictions, no building permits could be obtained to erect a new building. On July 3rd, 1944, representatives from ten churches met to discuss this. It was decided to enlarge South Abbotsford Bible School, allowing grades 9 and 10 to be offered in the fall. Mr. Isaak J. Dyck of Winkler, Manitoba was hired to teach at a salary of $1,500 per year. Mr. F.C. Thiessen taught as well, and served as principal for the first year.
A 26’x46′ addition was hurriedly built onto the Bible School at a cost of $1,500. Churches which had pledged support were levied a $1 per member fee, thereby raising $2,300 to cover the costs of building and outfitting the school with desks, blackboards, and library and lab equipment. Student tuitions were set at $80.
Interest in MEI that first year exceeded expectations, with sixty students wishing to enroll. Since some grade 11 students also wished to attend, a third teacher, Mr. H. Nikkel, was hired. However, the war intruded again, and several of the young men who had begun attending received their conscription notices and were forced to leave.
In order to help the fledgling school get on its feet, all three teachers accepted salaries at 50-70% of those paid in the local school district. The 44 remaining students generated only $3,520 of the $4,200 required for their salaries that year. Despite such a meager beginning, the project continued to move forward.
It was assumed right from the beginning that the Bible School Annex was a temporary solution, and discussions about whether the school should be located in Abbotsford or Yarrow continued. Eventually, two acres were purchased and blueprints were drawn for a six-room school.
Meanwhile, it was decided that for 1946-47, South Abbotsford Bible School would move to property which had been purchased north of Clearbrook, the present Columbia Bible College site, allowing the high school to expand into the entire Bible School building until the new facility was ready for occupancy
The building period appears to have been very difficult. Some materials, such as kiln-dried lumber, could not be obtained due to war shortages, volunteer labour (which was needed to keep the costs down) was not always readily available, and money from churches to support the project was slow coming in. Several large bank loans were necessary and anxiety about the school’s future ran high. However, despite setbacks and difficulties, the building was occupied in December, 1946, and grew steadily over most of the next 34 years, both in physical size and in student enrollment.
Setbacks: During the late 1960s, student enrollment dropped, largely because of reorganization in the public system which moved grade 7 to the elementary level and grade 13 to the college level. The Mennonite community also shifted towards greater support of public education. MEI’s building was old and in need of repair, and the facilities it offered did not meet rising standards. Career-oriented course offerings in the surrounding public school district had expanded, but financial restrictions kept MEI’s course offerings very narrow and academic. Turmoil in the youth culture prevailed across the continent. All these reasons sparked serious debate about whether MEI should continue or whether the public system would better meet the needs of modern students.
Vision: In April 1973 several concerned businessmen of the community formed a new society called “Friends of the MEI”, with the goal of providing financial assistance to the school in order to expand its program offerings and to renovate or relocate the school building. For the first several years of operation, the “Friends” contributed exclusively to the school’s operational budget. But discussions about moving the school to a new campus burgeoned, and in 1976 the Society resolved to begin actively searching for a possible new site. It was the vision and drive of the Friends of the MEI that provided the impetus for relocation to the present site at the corner of Clearbrook and Downes Road. In keeping with the “tradition” of continual expansion the new school building has already seen two additions: one at the east end in 1988, and another at the west end in 1992.
MEI expanded its program offerings beyond the secondary grades in 1993, with the introduction of Kindergarten and grade one. A complete elementary school opened its doors in 1997 on the Abbotsford Campus – K to 7. By 2003, this school had 608 students enrolled.
MEI Chilliwack, established in July, 2001, helped the Society address one of their goals for the next ten years – to build a satellite campus in that area. The Chilliwack campus was founded in 1990 and operated under the authority of Valley Christian School. In 2001, the Parent Society of VCS released the school so that it could become part of the MEI Society.
In 2003, construction on the Middle School began. In the fall of 2004, the doors to this latest addition were opened, reducing the number of students in the Elementary School to 450, grades K – 5.
The new Middle School has 370 students enrolled, with space available for approximately another 100 students. This addition also meant that the portables could finally be removed. With the grade 8 classes moving into the Middle School, the Secondary School’s enrollment has been lowered to a more manageable 635 students.
Tradition: The vision for MEI resulted from a desire to preserve the Mennonite faith, the Mennonite culture, and the German language. A strong basic principle of its educational philosophy has always been that the school, the home, and the church work together in harmony. Assimilation of successive generations of Mennonites into Canadian culture has certainly brought change. The German language has virtually disappeared, except as a second language study option. Mennonite culture and practices are also different from previous generations. While for some MEI students, the Mennonite “ethnic” traditions remain strong, the demography of our student body has changed significantly, particularly over the past few decades. In contrast to MEI’s original classes, which were composed entirely of students from supporting Mennonite churches, half of our students now come from our supporting churches. A significant percentage of MEI’s students come from non-Mennonite churches and some come from a non-churched background. This is beneficial in terms of reducing the historical tendency of the Mennonite population to hold itself apart from the society in which it lives, but it also dictates that the atmosphere of the school will be less “Mennonite.
Assimilation of successive generations of Mennonites into Canadian culture has certainly brought change. The German language has virtually disappeared, except as a second language study option. Mennonite culture and practices are also different from previous generations. While for some MEI students, the Mennonite “ethnic” traditions remain strong, the demography of our student body has changed dramatically, particularly over the past few decades. In contrast to MEI’s original classes, which were composed entirely of students from supporting Mennonite churches, this year (2004-05) only 51% of MEI students come from our 15 supporting churches. A significant percentage of MEI’s students come from non-Mennonite churches and some come from a non-churched background. This is beneficial in terms of reducing the historical tendency of the Mennonite population to hold itself apart from the society in which it lives, but it also dictates that the atmosphere of the school will be less “Mennonite.”
While MEI’s founding fathers might be quite surprised to see what has happened to the German language and the German-Russian cultural heritage they sought to preserve, the good news is that in the area of faith the school has remained true to its mission. MEI staff members endeavor to work closely in conjunction with the home, and to augment the teachings of the church in promoting devotion to God as a life style. Academic disciplines are presented from a Biblical perspective.
Faith: The MEI Board and Staff actively seek to provide a supportive Christian atmosphere where teachers care about individual students and model lives of integrity and devotion, encourage positive student interactions and leadership, provide wholesome student activities, and support community service and short term missions projects. Family and community members supply abundant prayer, moral, and financial support. And the Lord, whose faithfulness continues through all generations, is proving Himself faithful in carrying this good work forward. May we remain His faithful instruments.