Robert Witmer, who served in France (1956-1984) with Mennonite Board of Missions, helped to plant the Châtenay-Malabry church in Paris and was instrumental in opening doors for people with disabilities. He died Dec. 2.
Robert "Bob" Witmer helped bring life to the vision of the church as a priesthood of believers whose witness extends beyond the walls of institutional religious establishments. His legacy includes helping Mennonites in France plant the Châtenay-Malabry church and the Mission Mennonite Française (French Mennonite Mission), out of which were founded Les amis de l'Atelier (Friends of the Workshop), and later on the Domaine Emmanuel (now known as AEDE) to serve people with disabilities. Robert, 93, died in his home in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, Dec. 2.
"Robert was a key player in initiating and developing relationships with French Mennonites that are still producing fruit today," said James Krabill, former senior executive at Mennonite Mission Network.
From 1956-1984, Robert and his wife, Lois, served in France with Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM), a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network. At the beginning of their ministry in Paris, the Witmers contributed their gifts to the emerging Châtenay-Malabry church, which is now a multicultural Mennonite congregation whose members have roots in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and North America. They also worked alongside French Mennonites to create AEDE workshops for adults with disabilities, both on the Châtenay-Malabry church property and on a farm in Hautefeuille, east of Paris. Today, AEDE employs 1,550 people and has grown to include 28 properties with wide-ranging services in 19 locations in France.
"Robert, in accordance with his Mennonite beliefs, put his faith into practice," said Bernard Huck, a long-time member of the Châtenay-Malabry congregation and retired professor of theology in France and Chad. "He was a man of vision, a builder, a zealous planner, and a pastor. His family left a blessed memory with the families of our church, for which we are so grateful."
Janie and Neal Blough, who retired in France last year, after more than four decades of ministry through Mission Network, expressed warm appreciation for the Witmer family. The Bloughs arrived in France in 1975.
"The Witmers' experience, friendship and advice were precious in our time of adaptation," Janie and Neal wrote in Mission Network's tribute to Robert.
They reflected on how Robert's spirit of initiative and optimism contributed to the establishment of many projects and institutions, in addition to the Châtenay-Malabry congregation and AEDE:
- Mission Mennonite Française, the French Mennonite mission agency.
- Les Amis de l'atelier (Friends of the Workshop), a ministry to children with disabilities, was begun by Anne Sommermeyer, a Jewish survivor of World War II. She was also a member of the Châtenay-Malabry congregation. Later, this became a large secular organization that works with older adolescent clients with disabilities.
- Foyer Grebel, a welcoming center for African students. This ministry eventually gave birth to a congregation, Communauté Chrétienne du Foyer Grebel, that grew into the current Mennonite church of Villeneuve-le-Comte and the Paris Mennonite Center.
"Either directly or indirectly, these congregations and social institutions are the fruit of Robert's vision, competence, faith and energy," the Bloughs added.
Born May 15, 1929, on a farm between New Dundee and Petersburg, Ontario, to Vernon and Vinetta (Shantz) Witmer, Robert attended Mannheim Mennonite Church. He and his future wife, Lois Martin, were members of the first graduating class at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate in Kitchener. Robert paid his way through high school by milking cows on a local farm, doing custodial work at Rockway and developing a successful door-to-door business selling vacuum cleaners. According to his family, Robert was an entrepreneur at heart, a skill that he put to good use in every aspect of his life.
After Lois and Robert married in 1949, they studied at Eastern Mennonite College (University) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In 1953, they moved to Goshen, Indiana, for seminary studies at what is now known as Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. After completing their formal education, they began their MBM ministry in Paris in 1956.
The chapter of the Witmers' life in France closed in 1984, and they moved to north-western Quebec, where they worked alongside Eglise Evangélique Mennonite de Rouyn-Noranda (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Rouyn-Noranda) for 10 years. In 1995, Lois and Robert retired to a cottage at Fairview Seniors Community in Cambridge, Ontario, and became active members of Preston Mennonite Church.
A private family service was held in Cambridge on Dec. 9. To make a memorial gift to Crow Shield Lodge, whose mission is land-based healing for all nations, contact Preston Mennonite Church.
For a fuller account of Robert's life and ministry in English, see Common Witness: A Story of Ministry Partnership between French and North American Mennonites, 1953-2003, written by David Yoder Neufeld.
Common Witness has also been published in French: Témoignage commun.
Robert was predeceased by his parents, sister Marjorie (Ralph) Shantz, and grandsons Chad Bowman and Charles Alexander "Alex" Witmer. He is survived by his wife, Anna Lois Martin; his sisters, Margaret (Merle) Hoover and Dorothy (Doug) Phillips; his brothers, Ross (Rosario), Fred (Marian) and Glenn; his children, Cathy (Jim) Bowman, Debra (James) Townsend, Phil (Mandy), Gerald (Brenda) and Myriam (Edgard) Vandenbroucque; his grandchildren, Kim (Gary) Martin, Rachel (Khadar) Bowman-Abdi, Annalea (Kenny) Townsend-Furgason (Kenny), Krista Townsend, David Witmer, Chris Witmer, Adam (Sara) Witmer and Sophie Witmer; and his five great-grandchildren, Simon, Avry, Aden, Elias and Joy Rim.