After five years of uncovering the mystery of Canada Life's annual Christmas display of the Three Wise Men on their camels, we may have finally found the missing piece of the puzzle!

In 2017, the team at CHVN was chatting about classic Winnipeg Christmas traditions and the Three Wise Men display at Great West Life immediately came to mind. However, when they reached out to Great West Life (now Canada Life) for more information about the display, we were disappointed to find that no one at the company knew the story anymore.

But through sharing the story and some digging, we were able to track down the artist responsible for the display. Suzanne Gauthier was the artist and talked with us in 2019 about how the display came to be.

Still, there was more to the story we didn't know, including who the craftsman was that helped. As it turns out, the wise men and camels actually came to life with the help of a cabinet maker and artisan by the name of Peter Rempel. His daughter-in-law, Betty, recently reached out to CHVN and she sat down along with her husband, Vic, to share not only about his work on the iconic display but about his courageous life and faith.

You can watch the full interview with Vic and Betty here, and keep reading below to see this amazing story.

He fled the Soviets and followed the love of his life

Peter Rempel grew up under Soviet rule in Ukraine. Like many Mennonites and other Ukrainians, they faced oppression and violence at the hands of the Soviets. In fact, Peter was the youngest of 25 children in a large blended family. Peter's father was married twice previously and was widowed both times, losing his wives in the violence of the uprisings. He was born on May 28, 1923 in Hochfeld, Yazykovo Colony, Ukraine to Dietrich and Maria Rempel.

He was "born into a world of unrest," the family says and describes a life of tragedy during the Russian revolution and Stalin's reign. Many family members lost their lives as a result of epidemics, being murdered, or sent into exile.

Before Peter arrived in Winnipeg he first left his home of Ukraine, following after a young woman, also named Maria, who he met at a wedding in Germany and quickly fell in love with. She and her family left for Paraguay in the spring, and he followed in October. By December they were married, all in under a year of meeting.

Betty says that Peter soon realized that Canada would be able to provide a better life for his young family, so in 1956 they headed for Winnipeg with the help of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

"When he immigrated to Canada, and coming from Russia through that period of time, those were fairly tough times," his son Vic says. "When he finally immigrated to Canada, he said he arrived in Canada with three things and that was: three kids; the clothes on their backs; and a debt of about $2,000.00."

According to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, $2,000 in 1956 is equivalent to $22,000 today. A debt load that high provided a challenge for a young refugee family, but they worked hard and clung to their faith.

an older man with grey hair and glassesPeter later in life. (Supplied)

A tough life and a strong faith

"It was a tough life," Vic says, "as many immigrants experienced during those periods. And it was his faith that really kept him grounded through all these difficult times. He made a wonderful life for his family, here in Canada." 

Betty and Vic both say he was a man with "sound principles, integrity, and an extremely generous individual. And he was always there to help."

In fact, despite being broke, Peter still found ways to provide for others. He sent money back to Russia to help family members still living there, and he gave to causes here in Manitoba as well. "He didn't have a lot of money, but he would scrounge up money and send care packages, and medicines just to help them out because he knew how bad things were and how needy they were and his generosity just shone through, and he was never vocal about it," Vic says. 

Vic didn't know just how generous his father was until he started doing Peter's taxes later in life. "And then I looked at his charitable donations and they were just amazing. So his tithing was certainly, you know, the expectation that the Bible speaks about and then even more."

Betty says that Peter's faith was strong in his final days, and it came from a place of confidence after serious study of the Scriptures. "It wasn't always like that because part of his life story is that he didn't really get a lot of biblical teaching because they couldn't have church or Sunday school or anything in Ukraine when he was growing up."

Betty says that Peter's mother did her best to teach him the Bible, and he was baptized in Germany before he left for Paraguay, however, he was plagued with doubts about his faith. She says he asked questions like "Am I really saved?" and "Does God really believe my confession?"

"And so he studied and he read the Bible and he prayed about it," she says. "And then he came to believe, yes, God's got me because I've given my life to him." He lived out the rest of his years confident in his faith and salvation through Jesus, Betty says.

And, it was that faith that gave the project of the Wise Men even more special meaning to him.

3 large camels and men atop each of them sit on display above a buildingThe Magi and their camels have been on display above the Great West Life Assurance Company every winter, ahead of Christmas, since 1973.

How the cabinet maker got involved

Rempel worked in Winnipeg as a woodworker, well-known for his special designs in custom cabinets. He also worked full-time for Reimer Display from 1968 through 1978. It was Reimer Display who Great West hired to build their new Christmas display. 

Suzanne Gauthier was the artist and designer behind the display, and Vic says his father took on more of a helper role for the young artist rather than being the leader. It was a role, Vic says, his father really enjoyed.

"I remember him actually speaking highly of (Suzanne). She was just at the time a young graduate student, and you know, sometimes older people kind of look down on younger people. They don't necessarily expect them to do a lot, but he spoke very fondly of her work and her creativity, so he appreciated that." 

Vic actually has memories of the pieces coming together, because he also worked at Reimer Display, helping clean the shop one day a week.

an older picture of a custom made cabinet. Some of the custom cabinetry that Peter had made throughout his career. (Supplied)

Gauthier started with a plywood silhouette of the camel. Next was styrofoam shaped and glued to either side of the plywood. Then she had Peter cantilever the legs, so they weren't coming straight down from the body. They also cut out different necks and positioned the legs differently so the camels wouldn't all appear the same.

Vic's father was known for being a creative problem solver and was often called on to find solutions when issues arose during the fabrication process.

Forty-nine years later and Gauthier and Rempel's work continues to show the Wise Men following the star, across the street from the province's legislative building. Betty says it's a great reminder for all.

"They followed the star. I mean that's what we need to do. We need to also follow the star, who is our Saviour. Because in the end, then we'll all be ..." she said choking back tears, "that's what your faith is. It's your life and your heart, and we'll all be reunited one day."

Peter died on March 12, 2017, at the age of 93. To read more about his incredible life see the family's telling of his life story, below. 


Life Story for Peter Rempel

(May 28, 1923 – March 12, 2017)

Peter was born on May 28, 1923 in Hochfeld, Yazykovo Colony, Ukraine to Dietrich and Maria Rempel, nee Pauls (Unger). This was the third marriage for Dietrich Rempel, and Peter was the youngest of 25 children in the blended family and the only child of this union. He grew up with 2 older brothers, since the rest of the children were already adults and/or married when he was born.

The family owned a large home in the village of Hochfeld and ran a large mixed farm. They had an orchard of fruit trees and when the fruit was ripening, Peter had memories of setting up crates in the orchard with his brothers and sleeping there with his dog during the night to prevent fruit from being stolen. His father had a large woodworking shop connected to the house in which he made furniture for family and friends in winter. Peter throughout his life was always active in his workshop making furniture, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, remodelling homes, etc. There was always a project on the go.

Peter was born into a world of unrest, upheaval and tragedy in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, and under the reign of Stalin. Family members lost their lives as a result of epidemics, being murdered or sent into exile. Periodic purges left the family little food and Peter and his brothers had to scour the countryside for weeds and grass to feed their only cow, so she could produce more milk. In 1932 the family survived the famine on sugar beets in their cellar. After being forced out of their house, his family had to make their home in various places.

Peter started his schooling in Hochfeld and then graduated from the Nikolaipol Middle School. He enjoyed studying history, physics, algebra and math, but found spelling and grammar difficult. In the summer time he walked the seven kilometers to the school and in the winter he stayed in the student residence. Peter’s formal education ended when his father died in 1938, and at the age of 15 he began work on the collective farm.

In August 1941, Peter and other family members were commanded by the Soviet Secret Police to evacuate Eichenfeld where they were living at the time, but they were able to evade the migrating masses and eventually return to their village which was now under German occupation. Peter’s childhood home was returned to the family and normal family life resumed for a short while. In 1942 Peter was recruited to work as a policeman in Chortitza at the Wallman Castle. In October 1943 Peter was inducted in the German army in advance of their retreat out of Russia. Their trek led them through Odessa, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland and ended for him when he was injured in Stettin.

Peter arranged for new identity papers to avoid repatriation to Russia. After his release from the German army in 1945, he worked as a farm labourer in Germany. A sister in Canada filed papers to bring him to Canada, but he was refused because of his service in the German army. Peter travelled to the MCC refugee camp at Gronau to pursue emigration possibilities.

During his childhood and youth Peter had very little exposure to religious instruction apart from what he received at home. He attended catechism and was baptized by Rev. Heinrich Winter in Vordereichholz in December 1947. During that summer, Peter had met Maria Hildebrandt at a wedding. They continued their courtship and decided in early 1948 to marry. Maria’s family immigrated to Paraguay in May and Peter followed her in October 1948. They were married on December 12, 1948 in Reinland in a building housing refugee families.

When settlement in Waldhof was unsuccessful, they moved to Filadelfia where Peter eventually built a home for the growing family which welcomed 3 children: Maria in 1949, Elfriede in 1951 and Victor in 1953. Peter worked at a variety of building projects at the church, hospital, and school. He always had the next job lined up. Life improved for the family.

In July, 1956 the family immigrated to Canada and arrived in Winnipeg by train. Peter immediately began work to provide for his family.
Peter and Maria began attending the Winnipeg Mission Church, renamed the Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church, on Sargent and Furby Street in 1957. They became members in March 1958. In September 1959, they became custodians of that church and then the new one at Sargent and Garfield. Peter looked after the heating system, opened and closed the building for a busy schedule of church activities, monitored the sound system, set up of tables and chairs, as well as helped Maria clean the building during the evening and on Saturdays.

In 1961 they purchased their first home at 941 Garfield Street. Over the years, Peter made improvements to the interior and exterior of the house.

Peter was a Sunday school teacher for several years, but the preparation along with care-taking and a regular job just proved too much work. He resumed teaching after the care-taking ended, but ended this too when the Sunday school gradually switched from German to English. Peter was a member of the church council for seven years and served the church in a variety of capacities. For many years, Peter ushered at Sunday services and other church events.

Peter and Maria were part of a care group at Sargent that met for 34 years, sharing joys and sorrows and supporting each other. For years they were part of the bi-weekly German Bible study. Peter was always willing to provide rides for other seniors needing transportation to church events.

Upon arriving in Winnipeg, Peter began work at Quality Woodwork. His work was valued by the owner and the shop manager. Peter devised time saving methods required to complete his orders. In 1968 he began working at Reimer Display. Constructing the display for Paramount Windows at the Home Expressions Show and helping construct the “Three Wise Men” for the Great West Life Insurance Company Christmas display were some of the projects Peter worked on. Not only did he do his job, but he also took on some of the responsibilities of a foreman. This was followed by employment at Embassy Furniture in 1978. They were eager to retain him because of the skills he demonstrated. Peter continued there until he retired in December 1987, having worked 31 years as a cabinetmaker.

It was important for Peter to re-establish connections with family that had been severed during the aftermath of WW II. During the time when he was still able, he corresponded, telephoned, visited and financially supported relatives living in Russia and those who had immigrated to Germany. He carefully saved the correspondence, giving a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors. Keeping connections with relatives in Manitoba and elsewhere in Canada through visits, letters and telephone calls was important for Peter and Maria.

Travelling and vacationing was something Peter and Maria could consider after a decade in Canada. They purchased their first car in 1965 and became Canadian citizens in 1967. They bought a camper in 1975 and enjoyed camping for a number of years at Rushing River, a favourite destination. The 1982 reunion with Peter’s brother and wife from Russia after 39 years, inspired their 3 trips to Germany to visit relatives.

Peter and Maria built a new home at 58 Stoneham Crescent in 1980. Peter constructed the kitchen and bathroom cabinets and over a period of one year he finished the interior of the house. Several years later he added a deck which was then enclosed with a removable roof, and screen walls and windows. Peter also developed an interest in birds and set up several feeders year-round with a variety of seeds, as well as suet. He devised various ways of preventing squirrels from reaching the feeders. They received much pleasure from listening to and observing the birds at their feeders.
Peter’s and Maria’s three children were a central focus in their lives as the children grew and later included spouses and grandchildren. They guided and supported them and rejoiced in their successes in studying and work. They attended graduations of their children and grandchildren, as well as many special events in their lives. It was comforting to know that they would have it easier than their parents, who arrived in a new country unable to speak the language. Family get-togethers continued be a central part of Peter’s and Maria’s lives.

Peter and Maria were able to celebrate their marriage anniversaries with friends at 25 years, 50 years, 60 years and 65 years. Peter marveled at God’s goodness in granting him a long life. Last December 12th marked their 68th wedding anniversary.

In 2005 Peter and Maria moved into KingsfordHaus and developed a rhythm of life in this new home setting. They continued to enjoy family gatherings and rejoiced in the marriages of their grandchildren and birth of great grandchildren.

Life had changed with their increasing age, and greater limitations to their mobility and abilities. In May 2016, Peter became a resident of the Bethania Personal Care Home. Family regularly visited him at Bethania, spending meal times together and sharing in services and special events. On February 22, 2017 he had an early morning fall, which was diagnosed as a hip fracture. The next afternoon he underwent a partial hip replacement. The fracture and consequent surgery proved to be a serious setback for him, making a recovery impossible. Peter passed away peacefully on Sunday evening, March 12, 2017 at Bethania Personal Care Home after a long life of 93 years, 9 months and 12 days.

Peter was predeceased by his parents Dietrich and Maria (Pauls) Rempel, 24 brothers and sisters, his grandson Timothy Penner, and son-in-law Martin Penner.
He leaves to mourn his loving wife of over 68 years, Maria, his daughter Maria Penner, his daughter Elfriede Rempel and his son Victor and Betty Rempel. Peter will be lovingly remembered by his grandchildren Cheryl and Richard Bigelow, Stefan Penner, Daniel and Carlee Rempel, Stefanie and Robert Esposito and his great grandchildren Aiden Bigelow, Roran Rempel, and Giuliana Esposito, as well as extended family and friends.

The following poem found among dad’s papers reflects thoughts he would share if he were still among us:

When you bring my body into the assembly of the gathered,
Let your mouth be filled with praise, your hearts be filled with gratitude!
Praise God’s shepherding faithfulness, his forbearance, his patience,
His mercy and compassion, his forgiveness of my daily debt.

If you speak of me than let your words be few.
What I have been in life, God and I alone know
Mankind attends to what they see, God alone recognizes the heart.
In mine he saw the pain and guilt of sinful pleasure.

One thing alone there remains to be said: that I was weak and defiled,
But now I’m clean – through Him, who washed and covered me!
Do not mourn, do not lament, join me in heartfelt thanksgiving.
Soon, very soon we will be joyfully reunited, fully restored.

All misery will fade away, all struggle and suffering a distant memory,
No more deep longing, waiting only upon the Morning Star.
Forever and eternally united with the Lord of Lords,
Hallelujah . . . peace, mercy, light and love in eternity.