Mary E. Klassen
Cornelius J. (C.J.) Dyck not only researched and taught Mennonite history, he lived it, and he will be remembered for the wisdom, wit and commitment with which he did all three.
Dyck (92) died Friday, Jan. 10, in Normal, Ill., where he and Wilma, his wife, had been living for several years. For 35 years he worked in administration at Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Chicago, Ill., and taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Elkhart, Ind. In addition, he made significant contributions in the General Conference Mennonite Church, through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) assignments in Europe and South America, in Mennonite World Conference, and as an ordained pastor.
Dyck was born in Russia on August 20, 1921, and immigrated to Laird, Sask., with his family at the age of five. He became a member of the Mennonite Church through baptism in 1939.
At the end of World War II in 1945, he volunteered for service with MCC, serving for six years in England and the Netherlands. In 1946 he was assigned to the British Zone of Germany through MCC and CRALOG (Council of Relief Agencies Licensed to Operate in Germany), working with all in need of food, clothing, and emigration help, but mostly with refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia. Of great satisfaction to him was initiating the daily feeding of about 100,000 children in North Germany with food supplies sent by Mennonites in North America through MCC, aware that when he was born in the famine year of 1921, it had been MCC food sent to Russia that saved his life.
Dyck’s MCC field service then moved to South America during 1949 to 1951. He worked with resettling refugees from Europe and Russia in Paraguay and Uruguay, directing all MCC interests in Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. Among his greatest rewards was finding the location for and initiating the founding of a hospital and treatment center for lepers at Kilometer 81 in Paraguay, together with the Mennonites in that region.
Following MCC service, Dyck returned to North America. In 1952 he married Wilma Regier and in 1953 he graduated from Bethel College, North Newton, Kan. He earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Wichita (Kan.) while also serving as pastor of Zion Mennonite Church in Elbing. From 1955-1959 he studied history and theology at the University of Chicago, earning the Bachelor of Divinity and PhD degrees, while serving as business manager for Mennonite Biblical Seminary (MBS).
As business manager, it became Dyck’s responsibility to oversee the move of MBS from Chicago to its new location in Elkhart, Ind., in 1958, when the association with Goshen Biblical Seminary began. One task which demonstrated his efficient creativity was his solution for moving the library. He crafted crates the same size as the library shelves, filled these with books, loaded them onto the MBS bus (with seats removed) and thus transported the collection to Elkhart with minimal risk of shelving errors.
Dyck was then invited to join the new faculty team as professor of historical theology, a position he held for 30 years until retiring in 1989. As a professor he was loved for the depth of content in his courses and for the way in which he taught. Colleagues remember his warmth and the commitment he demonstrated to the church—both historically and in the present.
Ted Koontz, professor of peace studies and ethics at AMBS, said, “C.J. was passionate about keeping alive and lively the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith tradition. He was a churchman par excellence.”
Jacob Elias, AMBS professor emeritus of New Testament, said, “I had deep respect for the wisdom and wit with which he approached his teaching, scholarship and active involvement in the mission of the church, both Mennonite and beyond,”
Ben Ollenburger, professor of biblical theology, also remembers Dyck’s warm welcome when he joined the faculty, adding, “We taught in different departments and were separated in age by three decades, but C.J. was a beloved colleague, a reservoir of wisdom, and an inexhaustible source of stories and anecdotes, from his own life and from Mennonite history.”
In addition to teaching, Dyck served as director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies, a research and publishing agency of AMBS, beginning in 1958 and continuing for 21 years. This work led to many conferences and facilitating approximately 50 publications, including The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder and Yahweh is a Warrior by Millard Lind.
Dyck’s own publications include An Introduction to Mennonite History, which after two revisions is still being used as a textbook in many Mennonite high schools and colleges into the 21st century. He served as editor of Mennonite Encyclopedia Vol. V, a ten-year project that resulted in a 960-page volume published in 1990. He along with others translated and edited the writings of Dirk Philips, a volume published in the Classics of The Radical Reformation series (Herald Press 1992).
“C.J. had an original vision for a structure that would promote research and publication in Anabaptism and Mennonitism. Under his leadership the Institute of Mennonite Studies flourished and became a model for other schools,” John Rempel, director of the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre, said. Both a student and then a colleague of Dyck’s, Rempel added, “He was at once a critical scholar and a devout Christian, a man who was grounded in the Mennonite Church yet who had an ecumenical horizon.”
Not limiting his focus to history, Dyck was active in the Elkhart community and Hively Avenue Mennonite Church during the time he and his family lived in Elkhart. He is credited with significant work in the start of Church Community Services, an ecumenical organization that continues to serve the community by providing assistance for low-income families. He also was on the founding board of Oaklawn Psychiatric Center in Elkhart.
From 1961 to 1973, Dyck was executive secretary of Mennonite World Conference. His facility with languages—English, German, Dutch, French and Spanish, as well as Low German—and his work in Europe, South America and North America contributed to his leadership of the international organization. Walter Sawatsky, retired professor of church history and mission at AMBS, reflected, “C.J.’s work with Mennonite World Conference may not seem as widely known as that of later leaders, but his actions flowed from the MCC experience and the conviction that Mennonite peoplehood, placed under massive testing in the war years, needed something like a Mennonite World Conference.”
In the early 1960s, Dyck was an observer of Vatican II, the only Mennonite who was present. Carrying journalist credentials through Mennonite Weekly Review, he reported his observations. Janeen Bertsche Johnson, now AMBS campus pastor, researched this involvement and noted, “Mennonite views toward Catholics changed over time, and C.J.’s reports from Vatican II had a major influence on that.”
Dyck also was involved in many Mennonite church and local community committees, including Elkhart Urban League, YMCA, General Conference Mennonite Church Board of Business Administration as well as its Historical Committee and the Executive Committee of MCC. He served on Mennonite historical committees in the US, Canada, Netherlands, Germany; and with the American Society of Church History and Society for Reformation Research.
Dyck retired from seminary teaching in 1989 and was named Professor Emeritus of Anabaptist and Sixteenth-century Studies. A Festschrift, Anabaptism Revisited, edited by Walter Klaassen, was published in Dyck’s honor in 1992; it contains a bibliography of his major writings. The Oaklawn board awarded him a citation in 1970. Bethel College recognized him with the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1976.
Dyck was preceded in death by his parents, John J. and Renate (Mathies) Dyck of Laird, Sask.; his sisters, Eliese Quiring, Anna Neufeldt, Irma Balzer and Helene Funk, as well as brothers, John R. and Peter J. Surviving him are his wife of 61 years, Wilma of Normal; three daughters, Mary of Normal, Jennifer (Suzie Lane) of Dunkirk, New York, and Suzanne (Brad Kliewer) of Minneapolis, Minn.; three granddaughters, Claire Dyck of Normal, Aurora and Avery Kliewer of Minneapolis; and sisters Clara Dyck and Renate (George Kroeker) of Winnipeg, Man., as well as many nieces and nephews.
Dyck’s body has been donated to the Illinois Anatomical Gift Association from which his ashes will be returned to the family for burial at the Mennonite (Ropp) Cemetery. Visitation is scheduled for Friday, January 17, from 5 to 8 pm with a memorial service on Saturday, January 18, at 10:30 am; both events will be held at the Mennonite Church of Normal. The bell on the AMBS campus will toll during Pastors Week on Tuesday, Jan. 28, at 1:30 p.m. to mark 92 years of C.J.’s life.
Memorial gifts may be made to Mennonite Central Committee, Akron, Pa.; Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.; or Mennonite World Conference, Lancaster, PA or Kitchener, Ont.
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