The Chortitza oak, a large tree that has stood in Ukraine for over 700 years, continues living on in a new generation on the campus of Mennonite Educational Institute (M.E.I.) in Abbotsford, thanks to a gift from Art and Marlyce Friesen.
In a ceremony on Nov. 6, 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 several years ago 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.
M.E.I. superintendent Ernie Janzen is thrilled to have the “grandchild” oak as a living legacy on the school grounds, symbolizing hope for the future through M.E.I.’s students. “I can see a day, 30 years from now, when students will be reclining in the shade of this tree,” he commented. “It has potential to be a landmark here.”
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.