A Life's Story
September 02, 2023
Positive but determined
Community organizer left the world a better place
By: Janine Legal
Community organizer Martha Wiebe was 78 years old when her husband, Jake, passed way. She loved their island on the Winnipeg River between Kenora and Minaki, so she relearned how to operate a boat, enabling her to come and go as she pleased. Towards the end of her life, it was on that solar-powered property that she spent most of her summers.
“She’d stay there from June until late September, often alone,” said her daughter, Corinne Hildebrandt. “She would text me every morning and every evening to say she was fine. She just loved being out on the water. She loved collecting wood, making a fire and cooking on a woodstove for herself and others. She would sit on the pier by the water. She drove the boat until she was probably 88,” Hildebrandt said.
Wiebe left an indelible legacy for her friends and family. Her life wasn’t an easy one but her strengths served as catalysts for her many community contributions.
“My mom was not perfect. She struggled with her own difficulties,” said Hildebrandt. “My father worked 24/7 when we were young. She struggled with parenting, experiencing depression and anxiety. The one thing we admired most is that she went to personal counseling and tried multiple mediation sessions and family counselling to resolve family issues after our father died.”
Wiebe passed away in March at the age of 91.
Born in Reesor, Ont., Wiebe cherished the Mennonite history lessons and the stories of her parents’ lives in Ukraine.
“My grandparents went from wealth in Russia to poverty in Canada, but my mom loved every moment of her time in this small community,” Hildebrandt noticed.
When she was 12, her sister and father were sent to a sanatorium for tuberculosis, where they remained for many years, and her brother was away, serving as a medic in the Second World War. The rest of the family moved to Niagara with few belongings, including the seeds and plants brought from Russia.
At 14, Wiebe left school to work in a factory. Two years later she went to work as a health care aide, then got her GED so she could become a nurse. She trained in Winnipeg and worked at what is now Riverview Health Centre. After a few years, she left nursing, married and started a family. She had four children, seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
When her children were young, Wiebe decided that they all had to learn how to swim. Wiebe applied the same determination to aquatics that she’d applied to nursing.
“We joined swimming programs at the Y,” Hildebrandt said. “She volunteered teaching preschool programs and adapted aquatics. She also started working for the City of Winnipeg, teaching swimming and developing the city’s adapted swim program.”
But she didn’t stop there. As a deacon of the First Mennonite Church, Wiebe noticed that many seniors didn’t have adequate nutritious meals so she and her friend Mary Klassen started serving meals from the church basement.
“At first it was quite stressful because we were both new at this but we were determined,” said Klassen. “We started on a casual basis and it became quite popular. One of the fellows in our church suggested we should apply for a grant and make it a regular thing,” Klassen said.
With funding from the NDP government, they developed Winnipeg’s first meal program, the Home Help Project.
Wiebe managed meal programs at Sunset House, Arlington Haus, Autumn House and Red River Manor in Selkirk.
“Martha was a very positive person, determined,” said Klassen. “We could do anything. During a blizzard I said, ‘Martha, we can’t go do the cooking today.’ ‘We have to go,’ she said, ‘those people have to eat.’”
That day, they took the bus and stomped through snow drifts to get there.
David Driedger, First Mennonite Church’s leading minister, recalled a story told to him by a parishioner after Wiebe’s funeral. She said that one Saturday morning, she and Wiebe came to the church to cook.
“When they got there, they were startled by a man who approached them in the basement,” Driedger said. “Martha asked what he was doing. The man replied, ‘I slept here last night.’ To which Martha said, ‘Well I guess you’ll need breakfast.’
“A beautiful little story. But what impacted me most was what the woman shared next. Martha told her not to tell others at church. She sensed the church would not understand, and perhaps even shut down, what the two of them were doing.
“I loved that Martha did this as an act of faith in the church knowing that the church as an institution has such a hard time doing what our faith calls us to.”
For Wiebe, community involvement never stopped. She cooked for people at the Red River Manor. She worked at the MCC Relief Sale and organized food for 3,000 people. She helped coordinate the World Women’s Curling Championships and the World Mennonite Conference when they came to Manitoba.
On the home front, Wiebe was known for hosting perogy parties with her grandchildren and their friends.
In 2005, Wiebe’s lifelong dream to visit her parent’s estates in Ukraine came true. Accompanied by her granddaughter, they discovered her father’s estate was turned into a community club for youth and her mother’s estate now houses many families.
In 2016, when family members prepared to attend Steinbach’s first Pride parade, Wiebe insisted she be there too, to offer support and to be inclusive.
For a few years she co-owned a Stonewall restaurant and service station with her son Reg, who passed away suddenly in 2017.
“Life was hard for my mom right until the end,” said Hildebrandt. “Her life was also very blessed with so many great adventures, time spent with family and friends and her pure joy when she was spending time on her island.
“Her greatest wish for her family, especially her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, was to instill in all of us the ability to love life, to be as independent as she was, to be resilient, to never be afraid of being solitary, to love the great outdoors and fresh air and to appreciate the stillness of the water and the call of the loon.”