Pictured from November 2012: With the oak sapling in the background, Art Friesen addresses the group gathered to recognize the gift of the tree grown from the famous Chortitza oak to M.E.I.
In a ceremony on Nov. 6, 2012 a sapling grown from the famous oak was dedicated on the grounds of the M.E.I. Secondary School. The Friesens had purchased a shoot from the oak in 2009 at a Mennonite Central Committee auction. They decided it would be appropriate to plant it at M.E.I., with many students there having ancestors who would have gathered under the original oak in Ukraine.
The immense tree has been a landmark in Chortitza for hundreds of years and was thought to be sacred to Zaporozhian Cossacks. Mennonites who settled in the area beginning in the 1790s were among those who met there, watched children play under its branches and celebrated weddings in its shade. In recent years the tree has nearly completely died; only one branch continues to produce leaves. Acorns from the tree were brought back to Canada by visitors to the area and several other descendants of the oak are growing in B.C.’s Fraser Valley.
The Friesens have a long association with MCC and Ukraine. They helped found and are on the board of the Mennonite Centre of Ukraine, a former Mennonite girls’ school in Moloschansk that today provides spiritual, medical and physical aid to disadvantaged people living in the area.
Dr. Art Friesen hopes that the tree will help connect the past in Ukraine and the future in Canada. “We trust and pray it will help us remember a bit of our history,” he said.
MEI Head of Schools, Vijay Manuel adds, “The MEI of the 21st Century is a healthy school community with a variety of ancestries and cultural traditions. We continue to thank God, however, for the Mennonite Churches who had a vision for a school that would teach its students about God and anchor them in Biblical truths and values. As the sapling planted in 2012 continues to grow, so does our passion to equip our children for a life of service to God within our community.”
MEI Class of 1969 at their 50 year reunion in 2019, pictured in front of the thriving oak tree.