Series 2 - South Africa

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South Africa


  • 1970-1979 (Creation)

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7 cm of textual records

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Name of creator


Biographical history

Helen Martens was born February 21, 1928, in the village of Tiege, Sagradovka Colony in Russia as the fourth child to parents Jacob Johann Martens (1899-1987) and Anna Dyck (1898-1989). They left the Soviet Union in 1929 and travelled through Europe until they were finally able to board a ship, arriving in Quebec City in June 1930. They continued on to Manitoba where they lived several years with various families on farms in Oak Bluff, Sanford, and Springstein, until they finally settled on their own farm in Sanford.
Helen attended local schools before enrolling at the Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna for grade eleven and twelve of high school. Throughout this time, Helen was dedicated to music, though she was mostly self-taught, and often accompanied the congregation of the church where her father was the song leader. She received formal piano training once she was in Gretna. When she graduated in 1946, Helen taught briefly at a rural school north of Winnipeg before moving to the city and attending Wesley College (now the University of Winnipeg), as well as continuing to formally study piano. In 1949, she enrolled in Bethel College in Kansas, then switched a year later to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. In 1952, she achieved her Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music in England, and two years after that she completed her Bachelor of Arts degree. From 1954 to 1956, she pursued a Master of Arts degree at the University of Minnesota while teaching at Hugh J. Macdonald High School in Winnipeg. After receiving her degree, Helen taught piano at Bluffton College in Ohio from 1959 to 1962, then began her graduate studies at Columbia University in New York. After finishing her course work in 1965, Helen joined Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario, where she taught multiple courses on music, piano lessons, and directed the college choir. When she wasn’t teaching, she continued work on her doctoral dissertation, which she focused on the Hutterite singing tradition and their melodies; when completed in 1968, she became the first Mennonite woman to earn a PhD in music. A year earlier, in 1967, she founded the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir, which brought children between the ages of 7 and 16 from various churches to sing sacred music. The choir performed in many places in Ontario, went on international tours to the United States and Europe, and even won a national radio contest in 1974.
After six years of teaching at Conrad Grebel College, Helen took a year-long sabbatical at the end of 1973 to Europe and Africa, during which she taught a semester of music courses at the University of South Africa at Pretoria. In 1980, Helen went on sabbatical once again to England, where she first read letters written by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn. She continued her research on him for many years, making multiple trips to Europe until she had eventually translated a total of over 9000 letters by and about Mendelssohn over a period of more than 20 years.
When Helen retired in 1993, she moved from Ontario back to Winnipeg to be close to her family, living in Lindenwood Terrace. That same year, due to her previous study of the Hutterites, she was asked to serve as a cultural consultant to Leonard Nimoy when he directed the film Holy Matrimony (1994), as well as assist with the soundtrack. Eventually, she revised her dissertation on Hutterite singing and it was published in book form in 2002, titled simply Hutterite Songs. Helen published two more books over the course of her retirement, both on the life of Felix Mendelssohn; the first was Felix Mendelssohn: Out of the Depths of his Heart, which was published in 2009, and the second was Passion vs Duty: Felix Mendelssohn, Cecile, Jenny Lind and E.J. in 2012. She kept a website and blog during this time that detailed her journey of researching Mendelssohn and her subsequent writing experience; both have since been deleted from the internet, but a portion still exists on the Wayback Machine: Helen’s health eventually led her to move into Pembina Place, where she died peacefully in 2020 at the age of 92.

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This series contains materials Martens acquired regarding South Africa, where she taught at the University of South Africa during a year-long sabbatical. The letters are mostly from colleagues, ex-students, or other people she met during her time there. The records consist of newspaper clippings, letters, and essays, articles, or other short publications.

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