MCC Canada leader dies at 81

J.M. Klassen helped shape MCC Canada for more than two decades

January 6, 2011 | Web First
MCC Canada staff | MCC Canada
J.M. Klassen at the MCC offices in 1983.

Funeral services were held Tuesday, December 28 for J.M. Klassen, whose commitment and firm leadership helped shape MCC Canada for more than two decades. He died here on December 23 at the age of 81.

Born February 12, 1929, as Jacob Klassen in Zagradowka (now Ukraine), his family fled to Canada via Germany in 1930. They eventually settled in southern Manitoba along with tens of thousand of other Mennonite immigrants. Raised on a farm, he grew up to become a teacher, a hospital administrator in Steinbach, an MCC volunteer and, eventually, the executive director of MCC Canada.

JM, as he was simply known, began his years with MCC in 1958 when he was appointed director of MCC’s programs in South Korea. He served there for three years with his wife Katherine and their two young daughters.

In the years following he served in a number of positions with MCC:

* Assistant Director of Foreign Relief Services in Akron, Penn. (two years).

* Executive Secretary of the Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council in Winnipeg (one year). During JM’s brief tenure the CMRIC merged with a number of other Mennonite agencies to become MCC Canada.

* Executive Secretary of MCC Canada in Winnipeg (seven years).

* Member of the MCCC board’s Executive Committee (three years).

* Executive Director of MCC Canada (eight years).

* MCCC Executive Director Emeritus for life (10 years of voluntary part-time service).

MCC Canada came into being in 1964 and  JM was appointed its first Executive Secretary.  The formation of MCC’s provincial chapters followed within a few months.  

MCC in Canada grew in the decades that followed. Responsibility for MCC’s Newfoundland and Labrador programs shifted from MCC’s Akron office  to MCC Canada. An overseas program department was added with responsibilities including the Kanadier Program (now Low German program); refugee and immigration issues; and MCC’s ongoing relationship with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Canadian programs grew to include Native Concerns, Voluntary Service, Peace and Social Concerns, Handicap Concerns, Women’s Concerns, Mental Health. MCC opened its Ottawa office in 1975. Some of these programs have since ended or been reconfigured. Personnel and administrative services were also added to meet the growing needs of  the organization.

In 1979 MCC Canada negotiated a private sponsorship agreement with the Canadian government to sponsor refugees from Southeast Asia. It was the first voluntary agency to do so and other denominations quickly followed suit. More than 30 years later, Canada remains the only country in the world that has a private sponsorship program to assist the government in resettlement of refugees and displaced people. Mennonite churches in Canada, through MCC, have helped more than 50,000 refugees resettle in Canada under this private sponsorship program.

And in 1983,  after intense discussions, MCC Canada became the founder of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank which is now owned by 15 Christian partners.

“JM’s determination, love for the church, vision and skills enabled a fledgling organization to grow and do what few people at the time would have dreamed possible,” says Don Peters, the current executive director of MCC Canada. “MCC in Canada stands on the shoulders of people like J.M. Klassen.”

A funeral services was held at River East Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg. He is buried at Glen Eden Memorial Gardens.

J.M. Klassen at the MCC offices in 1983.

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