Necessary Idealism: A History of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate

Mural inside Westgate’s front entrance. Photo copyright Janis Thiessen.

Manitoba Mennonites’ ethno-religious identity was transformed in the last half of the 20th century. As a school situated in the heart of the city, Westgate Mennonite Collegiate‘s history offers a unique means of exploring generational and class differences within the Mennonite community. Westgate has been a significant site of contested power and social integration: authorities (government officials, church leaders, and school administrators) struggled with others (parents, students, faculty and staff, church members, neighbourhood residents, and non-Mennonites) to (re)define Mennonitism for the post-Second World War generations.

Westgate, founded in 1958 as Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI), celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2008. A few years prior to this milestone, a committee of alumni, faculty, and Board members was formed to plan celebrations. This committee first mooted the idea of a history book in 2007, and I was invited to be its author. I suggested that a serious academic book be produced (not merely a coffee-table pictorial or celebratory monograph) that examined the entirety of the school’s history, “warts and all.” Thankfully, the Board and administration at the time shared my interest in such a project. A grant was obtained from the Spletzer Family Foundation and the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, which allowed me to organize an oral history project that would serve as an archival collection of the school’s history as well as additional source material for the book.

The book’s title, Necessary Idealism, is taken from the initial conversations of those individuals who ultimately founded the school. Nine men and one woman met in February 1957 to discuss forming another Mennonite high school in Winnipeg. Doing so, they concluded, would require not only significant funds but also “the necessary idealism.” This idealism was tested throughout the school’s history, both by those within and without, and the school changed somewhat in response. Despite those changes, the core nature of the school persisted: Westgate was an alternative, not only to the secular world, but to the limits of the Mennonite one.

Necessary Idealism, a peer-reviewed book to be published by CMU Press, will combine examination of the privately-held archival records of the school with oral histories of those connected to the school, and will be available in the 2018-2019 academic year.