Henry and Mary Rempel had retired from their middle-income jobs and had reached a stage of life when many people take up golf and travel the world. Instead, they became investors, acquiring a substantial number of properties throughout British Columbia.
They started small, using savings to purchase a couple of rental buildings in Prince George in the mid-1980s, then leveraging those properties and purchasing others, in places like Nanaimo, Parksville, Courtenay, Fort St. John and Chilliwack. Most of their holdings were rental apartments but they also acquired acreage ripe for development.
They took risks, when most financial planners tell you not to. And they worked hard: Mary, a former teacher, oversaw the day-to-day management of the apartments; and Henry, a retired psychologist, focused on the acquisitions.
“Once they got a nest egg rolling, they just used the other properties as collateral, and they were able to lever it and go forward. It was a big risk,” says their lawyer and friend Bill Battison. “These were truly self-made people.”
Their acquisitions made them rich, but they lived as frugally as they always had, in a modest apartment in New Westminster, nothing flashy about them.
When Mary died in 2014, Henry kept the property businesses going. And then, Henry died this past June at age 97.
The hard work in real estate had paid off: he and Mary had amassed a portfolio worth $229.6-million.
The Rempels left it all to the Mennonite Central Committee British Columbia (MCC BC), a donation that the religious charity revealed this past week. The organization will use the Rempels’s real estate portfolio, including smaller gifts of property that began in 2012, to generate income in what the charity compared to an endowment.
Donating the land had been the Rempels’s intention all along. In other words, the couple, who’d never had children, had sacrificed leisure for decades of fundraising. Henry’s only indulgence was the Mercedes-Benz he drove. Otherwise, nobody knew the scope of their wealth.
Their backstories very likely shaped their choices, says Mr. Battison. Both came from refugee families. Henry’s family, devout Mennonites, fled persecution in the former Soviet Union and Mary’s family fled Lithuania during the Second World War.
Mennonites, many of whom are pacifists and had refused conscription, had been persecuted in Europe for centuries, forced to flee from one country to another.
Henry’s family was among thousands of Mennonites who fled Soviet-controlled Ukraine in the 1920s. They received aid from the Mennonite Central Committee, which had formed to help Ukrainian Mennonite refugees travel to North America.
But when Henry’s family passed through Moscow en route to Canada in 1929, his brother Jacob was born in deplorable conditions.
“The Soviets took everything from them,” says Mr. Battison, who made a point of learning Henry’s early stories. “At one point, they weren’t even allowed diapers.”
Jacob acquired a virus that left him with severe brain damage, blind, unable to speak, and in pain. When the family got to Montreal, they made their way to Winnipeg, and then settled in the Fraser Valley community of Yarrow, where about 20,000 Mennonites from Ukraine had arrived.
His father bought a small farm and grew strawberries and vegetables, and had a few cows. A skilled carpenter, he also built houses and barns for locals. His mother had another son in 1934, named Wilhelm, and she cared for Jacob around the clock.
As a child, Henry took odd jobs, such as working in the sugar-beet fields or picking raspberries all day. And he was competitive, hoeing rows of hops faster than the other boys. He put off high-school graduation for several years, to help his parents.
He later obtained a master’s degree in psychology and then took a job at the Woodlands psychiatric hospital in New Westminster, where Jacob had once been treated for a few weeks when mother became ill. He worked there for 17 years.
It seemed to Mr. Battison that Henry’s posting at the hospital was his way of making it up to Jacob, who died at age 20. “His brother’s illness made a huge impact on him,” says Mr. Battison.
Henry and Mary’s retirement goal was simple: build a portfolio that would generate revenue in perpetuity, to help those with hardship. They seldom sold a property, and if they did, it would get reinvested. They’d consolidated all their holdings in B.C., and whoever took them over had to follow the same mandate.
“It had been a point of discussion for quite a number of years,” explains Wayne Bremner, executive director of MCC BC, the same group that helped the Rempel family get to Canada.
The Mennonite Central Committee was founded in 1920 in Chicago, with the mandate to provide disaster relief and peacebuilding around the world, including refugee assistance. The organization helps vulnerable refugees, regardless of religion, nationality or ethnicity.
“In 2010, they called and asked if MCC would be the beneficiary of their estate, with the understanding that we would hold those properties as revenue generating assets – similar to an endowment,” Mr. Bremner says.
“We would have known generally they had rental property and land. We didn’t know the full scope at the time.
“My answer at the moment was, ‘I think we could do that.’ ”
With a Mennonite network at the ready, Mr. Bremner pulled together a committee with legal and financial expertise to form a charity.
Two years later, the couple made their first donation, a pair of apartment buildings with 250 units in Prince George and 32 acres of land in Parksville, a package worth about $17-million, he estimates.
A developer who had also fled southern Russia in his youth offered to volunteer his services and went on to develop the Parksville acreage into a successful single-family-home project.
A year later, the Rempels donated acreage in Chilliwack, worth about $20-million.
MCC BC then formed HyLand Properties, to oversee the holdings. Mr. Bremner believes the couple was testing the waters with those initial donations, making sure that MCC was the right collaborator.
Revenue from the Rempels’s gift will go toward helping millions of people, says Mr. Bremner, including Ukrainians and displaced people in South Sudan, for example. The Rempels had gifted a significant amount of cash early on to helping African communities deprived of clean water.
“Both knew what it was like to be poor and have a hard life and be fleeing,” says Mr. Bremner. “So that’s where they wanted their contributions to go.”