John Bear – 19th Century Mennonite Builder and Religious Innovator


John Bear’s tombstone. Photo by Allan Dettweiler.

John Bear was an early settler in Waterloo County, Ontario, being born there in 1804. He was a farmer and a carpenter, and was a significant contractor as a young adult. Later, his sons, John and Benjamin, gained local historical fame for building the West Montrose Covered Bridge.

John was attracted by the new pietistic theology that came to Ontario in the 1830s, and ultimately embraced it fully, becoming an early leader in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ movement.

The GAMEO article on John Bear, recently slightly updated, can be seen with bibliography at,_John_(1804-1894)

John Bear: minister and building contractor; born 15 May 1804 near Preston, Upper Canada to Martin Bear (1774-ca. 1845) and Catharine (Gingrich) Bear (ca. 1783-ca. 1849). He was the oldest child in a family of six sons and seven daughters. On 11 February 1827 he married Anna Pannabecker (23 April 1812-16 February 1875); they had 10 sons and three daughters. John died 24 December 1894. He is buried in the Wanner Mennonite Church cemetery.

By vocation John Bear became a carpenter and builder. One of his projects was the Union Mennonite/Tunker school and meetinghouse of 1829 that predated the Wanner building of 1837. This building was used as a school until 1848. He did much of his construction work between 1823-1835. He also farmed between Preston and Hespeler (both now part of the city of Cambridge).

John Bear was baptized as a member of the Mennonite Church in 1833; on 2 December 1838 he was ordained as a minister by Benjamin Eby particularly for service in the Wanner/Hagey area of the conference. He was widely read, but had only the basic primary education of the day. He was a second generation minister in the conference; his father had been one of the first persons ordained as a minister in the Waterloo region.

When Daniel Hoch challenged Mennonite traditions in the late 1840s, and called for prayer meetings and personal conversion experiences, Bear briefly joined Hoch’s movement, but confessed his divisive behavior and rejoined the conference in 1851. His theological leanings towards a pietistic faith remained, as indicated in a letter to European Mennonites in 1858 in which he lamented that too many Canadian Mennonites were “satisfied with baptism without a change of heart.”

When doctrinal conflicts again arose in the Ontario Conference beginning in 1869, John Bear was asked to lead an party of three ministers to investigate revival activities in Solomon Eby’s congregation at Port Elgin, Ontario. Bear’s group brought back a positive report in early 1870, but a division ultimately could not be averted. Bear then joined the new “Reforming Mennonites“; a group that ultimately became part of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ denomination (later known as the Evangelical Missionary Church). He served as a minister in that denomination until his death. He was ordained as an elder in that denomination on 4 March 1888 by Menno Bowman.

Bear’s departure from the Ontario Mennonite conference was very significant because of his longstanding leadership role in the conference. As leader of the investigation committee to Port Elgin he carried the respect of his fellow ministers, and his loss to the conference was keenly felt.

— Sam Steiner

Ross T. Bender-Amish Mennonite Educator

Ross T. Bender was an Amish Mennonite farm boy from Tavistock, Ontario who went on to become dean at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana and president of Mennonite World Conference.

He felt a inner call to pastoral ministry as a young person, but this was frowned upon by a church that still believed calls to ministry should only come through use of the lot.

Ross Bender came to have a profound impact on the theological training of a generation of Mennonite Church pastors, both in the United States and Canada.

This article was written for GAMEO in 2011. The full article, with bibliography, can be seen at,_Ross_Thomas_(1929-2011).


Ruth and Ross Bender. Herald Press photo courtesy of Mennonite Church USA Archives (Goshen)

Ross Thomas Bender: educator, pastor and seminary dean, was born 25 June 1929 to Christian K. Bender (2 August 1888-20 December 1960) and Katie S. Bender (5 July 1891-8 June 1950) on a farm near Tavistock, Ontario. He was the youngest child in a family of four sons and one daughter. On 22 December 1950 he married Ruth Eileen Steinmann (8 July 1931-13 December 1997); they had two sons and three daughters. Ross Bender died 21 April 2011 in Goshen, Indiana.

Ross grew up in the Cassel Amish Mennonite Church, a branch of the East Zorra Amish Mennonite Church that was established in a former Evangelical Church. He was baptized at Cassel on 10 October 1943 by Bishop Daniel Iutzi. His father, Christian, a leader in the congregation’s Sunday school, valued education and took two years of high school through continuation school at a time when this was very rare among Amish Mennonites, and continued to read widely throughout his life. Ross’s oldest brother, Walter, almost completed high school as an adult, and encouraged his family to give Ross the same opportunity. Ross, who was not inclined towards farming, completed high school and took summer school classes to qualify for elementary school teaching. Over a six year period he taught in three elementary schools in Oxford County, Ontario and took course towards his BA at Toronto Teacher’s College (formerly Toronto Normal School) and the University of Western Ontario. He completed his BA at Goshen College in 1954. Ross had a good singing voice, and was part of a Bender Quartet during these years.

With the encouragement of leaders like Nelson Litwiller, Ross and Ruth Bender decided to pursue seminary studies at Goshen Biblical Seminary, with the vision of mission work in South America. This did not develop, and so in early 1955 Ross accepted a position at Rockway Mennonite School in Kitchener, Ontario to serve as Dean of Students with part-time teaching and student recruitment responsibilities. The position attracted the Benders as Ross hoped to serve on the pastoral team at the Tavistock Mennonite Church which was seeking additional pastoral leadership, and where they had attended after their marriage. Bender completed his requirements for a BD degree in December 1955 and for the MRE degree in March 1956. Bender and a older farmer were nominated at Tavistock for ordination in 1956. When the supervising bishops ruled the other candidate not suitable there was dissension within the congregation and the ordination process was terminated. One issue was the uneasiness of some persons in the congregation about seminary-trained pastors. Unexpectedly the Principal at Rockway resigned in mid-April 1956 and the school’s board asked Ross to take the position of Principal. He accepted and served in that role until 1960. In 1958 Bender was invited to join the Goshen Biblical Seminary faculty after some pastoral experience and additional academic studies. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario requested that he be ordained by his home conference to facilitate his leadership role at Rockway School. The Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference executive agreed to this unusual procedure in early 1958, and he was ordained at the Steinmann Mennonite Church by Bishop Ephraim Gingerich on 28 May 1958 for “ministry-at-large.” The Erb Street Mennonite Church invited him to serve as an Assistant Pastor, which involved occasional preaching and working with the youth; he served in this role until 1960.

With the promise of a seminary position, Ross Bender went to Yale University for graduate studies in 1960. He completed an MA and PhD at Yale in 1962; his dissertation was on “The role of the contemporary family in Christian nurture: a theological perspective.” He began to teach at Goshen Biblical Seminary in 1962. In 1964 Goshen Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Biblical Seminary, already in a cooperative relationship known as Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, each named him as Dean. In this role he led the “Dean’s Seminar” from 1967-1969. This study project developed a model for theological education in the Free Church tradition, and redesigned seminary training for Mennonite pastors. The fruits of this work shaped the seminaries’ teaching program for a generation. His work at combining the curricula of the two seminaries was key to encouraging the move of the Goshen seminary to the Elkhart campus, as well as the increasingly close relationship of the seminaries. Bender served as Dean of the seminaries until 1979. He also served as Professor of Christian Education until his retirement in 1996, and as director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies beginning in 1991. In 1996 he was named Dean Emeritus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

Ross T. Bender also undertook major assignments for his denomination. From 1961-1971 he served on the Mennonite Commission for Christian Education, serving as its chair beginning in 1963. After the Mennonite Church restructured in 1971, during a two year leave he served (1972-1974) as the first executive secretary for the new Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries. He was moderator of the Mennonite Church from 1981-1983, and served on its executive board from 1979-1985. He also served as President of Mennonite World Conference from 1984-1990. Through this latter association he participated in a wide variety of ecumenical relationships, including a trip to Russia for the millennium of Christianity in 1988, and co-chairing theological conversations between Mennonite World Conference and the Baptist World Alliance from 1989-1992. During a six year leave from the seminary he also served as pastor of the Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Colorado (1984-1989).

In all the positions that Ross T. Bender held he was valued for his sensitive leadership and creative thinking. He was also known for his gentle sense of humor, often used in a self-deprecating way. During the last two decades of his life, Ross was less able to participate in church and seminary activities because of the effects of Parkinson’s disease. His interest in the seminary and the church did not waver to the end. Ross and Ruth Bender are buried at the Violett Cemetery in Goshen, Indiana.

— Sam Steiner

Ada Moyer Barker, Early Missionary from Ontario

This week’s GAMEO article tells the story of a Ontario Mennonite missionary to Turkey at the very end of the 19th century. She grew up in the Vineland, Ontario area, and is descended from the earliest settlers. Her great-grandparents, Dilman and Barbara Moyer had arrived in 1799. Her parents, Allen and Dinah Moyer, were among the charter members (in 1881) of what became the Vineland Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church.

I’ve been saddened that most of the early women leaders in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ movement (now Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) have been virtually forgotten.

This article was written by Clare Fuller, a historian for the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada. See the article, with bibliography, at,_Ada_Moyer_(1875-1982)

Ada (Moyer) Barker was a city mission preacher and missionary of the Canada/Ontario Conference of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church.

Ada Moyer was born 8 August 1875 at Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada to Allen Gehman Moyer (28 April 1848-4 October 1893) and his first wife, Dinah Rittenhouse (23 May 1848-19 May 1883). Ada was the third child (of five), the oldest daughter of at least three girls. She was married in Smyrna, Turkey, to Thomas Ford Barker on 2 June 1901. Ada and Ford had four daughters and one son. One child with deafness was admitted to a school run by Alexander Graham Bell in Maryland, USA.

Ada Moyer’s husband, T. Ford Barker, from New Brunswick, Canada, was born 14 November 1874 at Gibson, York County. His farming family descended from Loyalists. He was the fifth child of at least six (four boys and two girls). His parents were Thomas F. Barker (3 September 1828-26 December 1896) and his first wife Hannah Miles (1838-21 November 1874). The family were Church of England members. Ford was converted at 18 through the Salvation Army in St John, New Brunswick, and became an officer for six years against family opposition before launching out for six months of evangelism on his own. He joined the Mennonite Brethren in Christ at Bright, Ontario, and did two years of evangelistic work before sailing for Turkey in 1901.

On the other hand, Ada Moyer was converted at nine years of age at The Twenty, Ontario, the MBiC charge that became the Vineland MBiC church. She became a member at 16. Feeling God was calling her to missionary work, Ada took assignments with the city mission program of the Canada Conference 1897-1899: at Vineland, the East End Mission (Toronto), and then as a tabernacle (tent) evangelist. Her sister Laura also joined the city mission work in 1898.

Ada Moyer went to Turkey in 1899 to help with orphans surviving the massacres of Armenians of 1894-1895. She joined others in orphanages inherited from the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. Her work was soon to be organized as the United Orphanage and Missions Board. This independent mission had mainly Mennonite Brethren in Christ personnel. Funding came from Mennonite people in Europe and North America. Ada and a partner, Fredericka Honk, were assigned to the main orphanage at Hadjin and began language learning. Ada’s evangelistic work in other towns and villages were greatly assisted by able Armenian converts such as Esther Haigazion and many young men. In time the mission added career training and arranging marriages to the orphanage work.

Missionaries in Turkey

Summer 1913. Ada Moyer Barker is third from the left in the back row. Her daughter, Evangeline and husband, T. Ford, are beside her. Her children, Ruth and Theo, are the babies in the front row. Photo from website of Ruth Russel on “Hadjin-Missionaries.” See


After two years in the field, Ford Barker was made the superintendent in Turkey, serving until 1914. The family had one extended furlough to Canada in 1908 due to illness. Just after a brutal siege of the Armenian town described by fellow missionary Rose Lambert, they buried one child in Turkey in 1909 shortly after returning. Famine conditions followed, with hundreds starving in the region while Ada and her fellow missionaries did what they could with few resources.

A second orphanage was opened at Everek, Turkey in 1912, and the Barkers transferred to the new city. Unfortunately, just when their mission seemed poised for expansion, the Ottoman Empire declared war on Britain and her allies in October 1914. As most of the missionaries were Canadians (British subjects), they fled, narrowly avoiding detention at the ports.

Back in Canada, Ada and Ford Barker took pastoral appointments with the Ontario Mennonite Brethren in Christ Conference at Collingwood and Clarksburg (1915-1917) and Squire (Kilsyth) (1917-1918). Ford was not well enough for the Barkers to join the Armenian mission in Turkey which re-opened briefly at the end of the war before further massacres of Armenians made refugees of the remnants. Ford and Ada were encouraged to work among Armenians and newcomers in Toronto and Hamilton when they were well enough (1917-1925). In 1925 they announced they were moving to Cleveland, Ohio, to continue the ministry. Ford maintained his credentials with the Ontario Conference, first, to “labor as the Lord may direct,” but retired fully in 1930 with serious health problems. From 1936 to his death on 22 May 1944, the Barkers lived in Fort Bradenton,Florida.

Ada Barker then lived close to her surviving children in Maryland. Her last years were spent at a Presbyterian Home for the elderly in Fairfax, Virginia, where she died in July 1982 at the age of 106. She too is buried at the Manasota Memorial Park, Bradenton, Florida.


— Clare Fuller

George R. Brunk II in Ontario


Brunk Brothers revival in Waterloo, Ontario, 1952. Garfield Schmidt photo; provided by Mennonite Archives of Ontario

George R. Brunk II, a conservative Mennonite leader from Virginia, visited Ontario with his tent revival crusades on numerous occasions, beginning in 1952. Many Mennonite seniors from the Region of Waterloo may have memories of some of these meetings.

In 1959 Brunk assisted in creating a division in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario when he encouraged a minority group of pastors and bishops in forming the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario. There is more detail in my book, In Search of Promised Lands.

On a happier note, George R. Brunk’s youngest son, Conrad, established the Peace Studies program at Conrad Grebel College in the late 1970s.

See the article on George Rowland Brunk, with bibliography, at,_George_Rowland_(1911-2002)


George R. Brunk II family outside their trailer at the Brunk Brothers Revival Campaign in Waterloo, Ontario, July 1952. Back (L-R): George R. Brunk II, Margaret Brunk; Middle: George R. III, Paul, Gerald; Front: Conrad, Barbara. David Hunsberger photo, Mennonite Archives of Ontario

George Rowland Brunk (George R. Brunk II): evangelist, seminary teacher, pastor and administrator, was born 18 November 1911 in Denbigh, Virginia, USA to George Reuben Brunk (31 December 1871-30 April 1938) and Catherine “Katie” E. Wenger Brunk (25 March 1875-7 October 1957). He was the sixth child, and third son, in a family of nine children. On 30 September 1933 he married Margaret Grace Suter (12 March 1911-5 January 1999); they had four sons and one daughter—Gerald, George R. III, Paul, Conrad and Barbara. After Margaret’s death, on 12 May 2001 George married Rhoda Weber Neer (20 January 1929- ). George R. Brunk II died 21 April 2002 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. George and Margaret are buried at the Weavers Mennonite Church Cemetery near Harrisonburg.


George R. Brunk II graduated from the Denbigh High School, and worked on the family fruit farm. On 22 July 1934 George R. Brunk II was ordained by lot to the ministry of the Warwick River Mennonite Church. As Mennonite ministers were not paid, he supported himself with a peach and apple farm. Brunk found preaching to be difficult until he had an experience of the filling of the Holy Spirit in 1939. In 1942 he founded the Warwick River Christian School.

After becoming a minister, George R. Brunk began to pursue higher education. He earned a ThB from Eastern Mennonite College, a BA from the College of William and Mary, and a BD, ThM and ThD (1967) from the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. His ThD dissertation was on “Some changing concepts in twentieth century evangelism and missiology.”

Brunk taught at Eastern Mennonite College from 1949-1978, as well as Eastern Mennonite Seminary, where he served as Dean from 1967-1976.

Beginning in 1951, George R. Brunk II became involved in tent revival crusades, initially in conjunction with his brother, Lawrence. Known as the Brunk Brothers Revival Campaign, he led evangelistic crusades in many of the major Mennonite centers in North America for 30 years. He is said to have participated in over 100 crusades, 25 of them in Canada. The first crusade in 1951 was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and lasted seven weeks. The crusades were a dramatic change from traditional Mennonite experience, and George’s oratorical skills, showmanship and plain-speaking preaching style influenced many to make life-changing decisions.

The role of Margaret Brunk was crucial, especially during the tent-revival years, as she managed the home life and raising of children as George was gone for extended trips, or while the whole family was part of tent crusade trips during the summers. She was a humble, self-effacing woman who was steadfast in support of her family.

George R. Brunk II’s theological perspective was reflected in the Sword and Trumpet, a periodical founded by his father. He was associate editor of the periodical from 1943-1989; he then became editor, serving until 2001.

In 1984 as George became increasingly concerned about doctrinal issues within the Mennonite Church (MC), including theological liberalism he believed to be taught in Mennonite post-secondary schools, as well as evolving understandings of biblical nonresistance, and women in leadership, George R. Brunk II, together with J. Otis Yoder and Sanford Shetler founded the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites.

Brunk withdrew from the Mennonite Church (MC) and the Virginia Mennonite Conference in 1988 when that conference allowed the ordination of women. In 1990 he formed the independent Calvary Mennonite Fellowship in Harrisonburg, which he pastored until 1998. In his last years he was recognized as a minister in the Biblical Mennonite Alliance.

George R. Brunk II has an enormous impact on the Mennonite Church, especially during the most active years of his tent revival ministry. His later years were more controversial when he publicly charged specific Mennonite colleges and seminaries and specific individuals with faulty theological teaching. Although he was blunt in his criticism, he was loyal to his family, including his sister, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, who became an ordained minister.

Joe Lapp, a president of Eastern Mennonite University said of Brunk on his 90th birthday, “There have been occasions when his sense of clarity on some things challenged me. Yet, Brother George’s sincere desire for the church to be faithful to the living Word and the word written, caused me to listen and to take note of his concerns.”

— Sam Steiner, August 2016

Ontario Mennonites in GAMEO

I’ve taken quite a hiatus from posting on this blog — since spring, in fact. Much of my time has been involved with the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO).

For the next number of posts I thought I would include recently uploaded articles that are linked to Ontario Mennonites. Some of these will have been written by myself; I’ll also include articles by other authors.

Today I’ll start with Gerry Vandeworp, long associated with the House of Friendship in Kitchener, Ontario. The article was written by Ferne Burkhardt. The article, with bibliography, can be found at Vandeworp, Gerrit “Gerry” Jan (1936-2014)


Gerry Vandeworp. Family Photo

Gerrit “Gerry” Jan Vandeworp was an outsider who became known and loved among Mennonites as a pastor and within the community as an advocate and friend of poor and marginalized people. Gerry, one of eight children, was born on 15 May 1936 to Evert (20 December 1908–12 May 1959) and Antje (Roessink) Vandeworp (25 February 1915–10 July 1995) in Heino, Overijsel, The Netherlands. He came to Canadawith his Dutch Reformed immigrant family on the Vollendam in April 1951, settling in Exeter, Ontario. He married Sandra Finkbeiner of Exeter, daughter of Alvin (1909-1967) and Marguerite Amy Finkbeiner (1916-2009) on 12 July 1963. They had a son, two daughters (one died in infancy) and four grandchildren. Gerry Vandeworp died at Queensway Nursing Home on 17 April 2014 in Hensall, Ontario. His funeral was held on 22 April 2014 at the Haskett Funeral Home in Exeter. He is buried in the Crediton Cemetery in southern Huron County, Ontario.

In The Netherlands as was the custom in his church, Gerry was baptized as an infant. After studying New Testament Scriptures as an older teenager, Gerry chose to be re-baptized, a dramatic experience which he said had a great impact on his spiritual journey and truly made him an “Anabaptist.”

Gerry sensed a call to ministry and after coming to Canada studied at Briercrest Bible Institute in Caronport, Saskatchewan, graduating in April 1961. For two summers he helped at a rescue mission in London, Ontario and then at Daily Vacation Bible School at Exeter Mennonite Church where Stan Sauder was pastor. Stan was also a member of the Kitchener House of Friendship board, and suggested that the board consider Gerry for the position. Despite having limited education and no social work training or experience, Gerry received a call from Bishop C.F. Derstine of First Mennonite, chair of the House of Friendship Board, who interviewed and hired him on the same day. “It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think,” said Gerry. He moved from Exeter and began as executive director on 1 October 1961, keeping the job until 1978. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario recognized his work at House of Friendship as ministry and ordained him at First Mennonite Church on 2 December 1973.

Within the first decade as executive director of House of Friendship, Gerry moved the agency, which was strongly supported by Mennonites but also other denominations and city officials, from a mission of primarily evangelizing alcoholic vagrants who came to the hostel for food and a bed, to a broader social vision. He worked hard at advocating for the poor and building relationships, winning respect and trust from clients, neighbors, staff and a growing support base. Under his leadership, House of Friendship added several buildings to accommodate its expanding services, including delivery of food hampers to hungry families. The budget multiplied by more than 100 percent. No doubt his greatest achievement at House of Friendship was launching a recovery home for alcoholic men and a three-quarter house for its graduates to prepare them to re-enter the community.

While in Kitchener, Gerry also was a Federated Appeal Board member, served on the Social Planning Council, the Kitchener-Waterloo Council of Churches, Regional Development Council, Alcohol Recovery Homes Association of Ontario (president in 1977) and the Rotary Club.

After 17 years as executive director of House of Friendship, Gerry recognized the need for a new direction and new leadership. Having laid aside his sense of call to pastoral ministry for two decades, he picked up that mantel, serving as pastor at Bethel Mennonite Church, Elora, Ontario (1978–1983) and Stoner Heights Mennonite Church,Louisville, Ohio (1985–2000). He returned to Ontario where he served interim pastorates in London, Nairn and Preston (2000–2002) before retiring to Exeter, Ontario.

Alongside pastoral ministry, Gerry conducted worship services in nursing homes, served on the Northern District Mennonite Ministerial, the Inter-Mennonite Board of Congregational Resources, Project Teach and as a camp ambassador, all in Ontario. In the Ohio Mennonite Conference, he served as an overseer, on the Leadership Commission and as the first Mennonite/Brethren fund raiser for Habitat for Humanity in Canton, Ohio.

Another of Gerry’s remarkable gifts to the community was donating more than 50 pints of blood through the Red Cross over many years, a direct response to seeing his two-year-old brother die of leukemia. This quiet, unrecognized action was a contrast to his very public work on many fronts, far beyond anything he imagined as a 20-something Vacation Bible School helper, a legacy which continues to live on.

Ferne Burkhardt, posted June 2016

I welcome your comments.

1816 – The Year with no Summer

At a recent meeting of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario’s board, Laureen Harder-Gissing, the archivist at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, reminded us that 2016 was the 200th anniversary of the “Year with no Summer.” It was a good reminder.

Mount Tambora

Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora at the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, formed during the colossal 1815 eruption. Photo by Jialiang Gao ( (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia tells us that the unusual weather patterns in 1816 resulted from “severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.” The article goes on to say that “evidence suggests that the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.”

The Mennonite settlement in what became the Region of Waterloo was still very small.  “Block 2,” which had been purchased by Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania, Mennonites from land developer Richard Beasley, became identified as Waterloo Township in 1816, in honor of the British victory over Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo in June, 1815. By some estimates there were less than 60 people living in the township at the time.

Ezra E. Eby

Ezra E. Eby (1850-1901). Source: Waterloo Region Generations

On the bottom of page 45 of Ezra Eby’s Biographical History of Waterloo Township there begins a detailed account of the township in 1816:

The summer of 1816 was what is called the “Cold Summer.” There was frost every month and in June and July there were seven heavy frosts. On the 1st of June it was frozen so hard that men and wagons could cross the mud-puddles on the newly formed ice without breaking through. On the 21st of June quite a lot of snow fell. All kinds of provisions were exceedingly scarce. Wheat was from two to three dollars per bushel. The only hay that the farmers could secure was made from the wild coarse grass which they cut on the banks of the river, in marshes or beaver meadows. Food for both man and beast was at starvation prices. The hardships these early settlers had to endure during this cold and inclement year, are almost indescribable.

In this year Joseph Bowman and family of twelve children, Dilman Ziegler and family, Samuel Eby and family, Joseph Clemmer and wife, who settled to the west of J.Y. Shantz’s sawmill dam, John Brubacher and his mother, and Henry Weber came from Pennsylvania to Canada. The Bowmans had 2 four-horse teams and 1 two-horse team. The Zieglers had 1 four-horse team. Joseph Shantz and his mother, old Barbara Shantz, returned to Canada with this company. They were to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, on a visit. In all there were thirty-three individuals in the company, and the number of horses brought with them was twenty-eight.

1816 was also the year that Abraham Erb, founder of the city of Waterloo, built a grist mill to accompany his saw mill.

The corduroy  road that has been discovered under King Street in Waterloo during the construction of the Light Rail Transit system in Kitchener-Waterloo, likely was built prior to this time. But it reminds us we’re not that far removed from the settlers who transformed this land purchased from the Crown supposedly on behalf of the Six Nations.

To learn more about early life in Waterloo Region, read In Search of Promised Lands.

The Old Colony Mennonite School System in Ontario

My blogs will begin to appear somewhat less frequently than in the past, as I try to give more time to some other projects.

This past week I read an interesting article by Rosabel Fast in the 2015 issue of Preservings: a Journal of the D.F. Plett Research Foundation. It was entitled “All in God’s time: the Establishment of Old Colony Private Schools in Southern Ontario.” It includes some updated information on Old Colony Mennonite Schools in Ontario that I thought worthy of note.

An earlier blog discussed the growth of the Old Colony or Low German Mennonite community in Ontario.

New Reinland Fellowship Mennonite Church

An early Old Colony church near Aylmer, Ontario. When the Old Colony church split, the New Reinland Fellowship kept this building. It has since been replaced with a new building. Photo by Abe Harms.

Although Low German Mennonites began to arrive in Ontario in 1952, they did not begin their own schools until 1989. Prior to that time a few attended Old Order Amish or Old Order Mennonite private schools, but most attended the public school system at least sporadically. Their experience was mixed — some public schools tried very hard to make a safe place for the Low Germans,  who often suffered discrimination and ridicule from fellow students. But some students came to dread school because they were picked on, and were expected to take part in activities like gym classes that were uncomfortable and unfamiliar to them.

Even with the more positive experiences, however, parents were concerned about having their children turned into English speaking, secular thinking Canadians.  An Inter-Mennonite Parents Association, that included Low German Mennonites, did some effective work with the public system.

In one case, in the Dresden area, a Peter Dyck family began home schooling in 1988 using materials produced by Pathway Publishers, an Old Order Amish publisher in Aylmer. As more families from Mexico moved to the area they joined the Dyck children in the upstairs of their home.  This formed the core of a school that was eventually established in 1990.

Earlier efforts to start an Old Colony private school failed, but efforts late in the 1980s succeeded. Minister Peter Dyck of Wheatley was involved in meeting with Education Department officials who were already familiar with, and respected, existing Old Order Mennonite and Amish private schools. Dyck and others visited some of these schools in Waterloo Region, and believed they could operate something similar.

Several Low German leaders from Manitoba encouraged the Ontario Old Colony Mennonites to use the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) program. ACE had a strong fundamentalist edge to it, however, and did not teach about some of the boundaries of separation from secular society that were important to the Old Colony.

Consequently, the Ontario Old Colony Mennonites elected to use the Christian Light Education (CLE) curriculum produced by conservative Mennonites in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Part of the planning included taking a short course with a CLE director named Peter Peters in Michigan.

Schools in Wheatley and Aylmer opened in 1989, followed by two more in Dresden and Glen Myer in 1990.  Particularly in the Wheatley school, the assistance of Peter Sawatsky, a retired teacher from the public system, was particularly helpful. By 2015 the Wheatley school had grown and was being held in a former public school purchased in 2000.

The Dresden school purchased an old Jehovah’s Witness church building for its school.  Henry Dueck, who had pastored in Paraguay, Leamington (the Leamington United Mennonite Church), and Mexico, taught at the Dresden school for three years as it was becoming established. He was a mentor for the early Low German leaders in the school.

Old Colony Christian Academy at Cottam.

Old Colony Christian Academy at Cottam. Source: Wikimapia

In 2015 there were 11 Old Colony Mennonite private schools in Ontario. The largest, at Wheatley, had 275 students. Three other schools also had over 200 students. They all used CLE curriculum. Rev. Abram Dyck and Rev. Jacob Neudorf provided administrative to the “East Side” and “West Side” school districts. These districts correspond to the two Ältester or bishop districts of the Old Colony Mennonite Church of Ontario. The larger schools offer a full high school program.

Old Colony Christian Acadmey Kingsville

Old Colony Christian Academy, Kingsville. Photo by Sam Steiner

The “East side” included Aylmer, Walsingham, Glen Myer, Tilsonburg, Brussels and Virgil. The “West side” included Wheatley, Kingsville, Cottam, Dresden and Charing Cross.

To learn more about Old Colony Mennonites in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands.




Peter Wall and Mennonites on the Niagara Peninsula

Last week I made a presentation to the Toronto Mennonite Heritage Club. After that meeting I had a fascinating conversation with Nicholas Dick about Peter Wall, a Mennonite entrepreneur in the Virgil area of the Niagara Peninsula. Nicholas had done an extensive interview with Peter Wall’s son, Alex. I also had recently received a nine-page typescript from Randy Klaassen on Peter Wall, written by the late Russian history scholar, Bob Augustine. It seemed time to write a bit about this Peter Wall.

Peter Wall (February 19, 1894–March 26, 1968) was the oldest son of Jacob P. Wall and Maria Albrecht Wall. Jacob and a brother had actually come to the United States as single young men to homestead in Nebraska in 1889, but they returned to Russia in 1890 because of lingering troubles between the U.S. Army and Native Americans. Jacob Wall then became a very wealthy estate owner near the Molotschna settlement, owning ten thousand acres adjacent to the even larger Wintergreen estate. He owned glass, flour, and paper mills, and he was an investor in and president of the Tokmak Railroad in 1910.

Peter Wall in Russia in 1914. Mennonite Heritage Centre photo

Peter Wall in Russia in 1914. Mennonite Heritage Centre photo

Son Peter, a member of the Kirchliche church (in Ontario they became United Mennonites), but not a pacifist, served six and a half years in the Russian Army through World War I and served in the White Army during the Russian Revolution where he reached the rank of colonel. Several times Wall family members were imprisoned, and twice Peter was almost executed. The Jacob Wall family lost its property in the chaos of the revolution and its aftermath. Jacob P. Wall died in March 1922. Peter and his brother, John, escaped Russia under false identity. The family, including Jacob’s widow, Maria, came to Ontario in 1924 but within five months moved to Ste. Anne, Manitoba, where Maria died in 1925.

In Canada Peter suffered from tuberculosis and while living in Manitoba was almost deported because of his illness. After their mother’s death and three crop failures, Peter and his brothers moved to Ontario in December 1927. After working for several years, the four brothers were able to purchase a foreclosed farm in Vineland in 1930 for a down payment of one dollar. The brothers farmed peaches, cherries and grapes, which initiated Peter to the possibilities in local agriculture. Peter gradually became involved in land development and helped many Mennonite families to get started in fruit farming. He began by helping a few farmers get land in the Vineland area.

Peter worked closely with the Toronto-based real estate firm Home Smith Company, purchasing foreclosed agricultural properties suitable for growing fruit and subdividing them into smaller 10-15 acre plots. He started his development in 1933 when he bought a 110 acre wheat farm on the outskirts of Virgil. He sold not only to Mennonites, but also to other immigrants settling in the area. By 1937 fifty families had purchased land in the Virgil area, many from Peter Wall, and begun to plant fruit orchards and vegetable crops.

A Mennonite Brethren minister, John F. Dick, arrived in the Virgil area in 1936. Another Mennonite Brethren minister and a United Mennonite minister came in 1937; this allowed the formation of two congregations that became influential in their respective conferences. By 1938 at least 350 Mennonites lived in the Virgil area, most of them fruit farmers. By 1937 the Mennonite farmers had formed the Niagara Township Fruit Cooperative to handle their produce, and at the end of the decade Peter Wall began the Niagara Canning Company owned by local shareholders, most of whom were also members of the cooperative.

The United Mennonites began construction of a building in 1937 and formally organized as a congregation in early 1938 under the leadership of Peter Kroeker, who had recently moved to the area from Hespeler. The Niagara Canning Company operated only eight years before going bankrupt in 1948 when markets in Great Britain for Canadian canned fruit suddenly collapsed. The bankruptcy had the effect of estranging the Wall family from the Mennonite community, although Peter Wall remained a member of the Niagara United Mennonite Church until his death. Peter Wall himself lost $70,000 in the canning factory failure. In 1949 Peter Wall and his sons formed a real estate company in St. Catharines.

Niagara Canning Company Limited

The staff and employees of the Niagara Canning Company Limited, 1945. Courtesy of the Niagara Historical Society & Museum

The most detailed account of Peter Wall is found in Bob Augustine, “The story of Peter Wall.” It is hoped this will sometime be published with other Augustine writings.

The Urbanization of Ontario Mennonites

Although some Mennonites had moved to cities like Toronto prior to World War II, either to study at places like Toronto Bible College, or to work at one of the city missions, this was not common. Generally Mennonites still viewed cities as somewhat “foreign” and dangerous. But after the war things changed.

The urbanization of Mennonites in Canada from the 1940s to 1970 was dramatic. This was especially pronounced in western Canada in places like Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Vancouver, but the trend was also occurring in Ontario.

Urbanization during this time was by no means confined to Mennonites. By 1961 three-fourths of Ontario’s population lived in centers of 1,000 or more, and only 9 percent lived on farms. Sociologist Leo Driedger has described the 1970s as the “watershed” when Mennonites shifted from being primarily rural to a majority living and working in an urban context. He described the 1940s and 1950s as a time of “incubation” for the pronounced urban shift that began in the 1960s and went into the 1970s.

The move to the cities, especially in western Canada, was stimulated by the Depression, which drove rural job seekers to urban centers. The postwar Mennonite immigrants settled largely in urban centers. Driedger also suggested that World War II’s turmoil and the displacement of many Mennonite young men either in alternative or military service made a return to their previous farm community less attractive.

Urbanization did not mean Ontario Mennonite conferences quickly provided churches for their members in major centers. In Ontario, at least initially, many Mennonites moving to the cities for work or study attended and often joined other denominations. With the exception of Kitchener-Waterloo, prior to the 1940s the primary reason Ontario Mennonite conferences established churches in larger cities was for mission outreach to the unchurched, often immigrants and the poor.

In the 1890s the Mennonite Brethren in Christ started two mission churches in Toronto and in the smaller cities of Woodstock, St. Thomas, Owen Sound, and St. Catharines. They also started a church in Stratford in 1906. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario followed with a mission in Toronto in the first decade of the twentieth century. The large urban areas of Hamilton, Ottawa, Windsor, London, and Kingston had minimal Mennonite populations and no Mennonite churches or mission outposts before 1940.

The twin towns of Kitchener-Waterloo differed from other Ontario urban centers because of their peculiar history, rooted in Mennonite-owned farmland. These towns, which later became cities, continued for decades to be surrounded by a significant Mennonite rural population who visited the cities for business, hospital care, and jobs. Mennonite churches, including First Mennonite Church and the Waterloo Mennonite Church (now Erb St. Mennonite), were originally located outside the early towns. The former became swallowed up by the expanding city, while the Waterloo church moved two kilometers (one mile) to the edge of town in 1902.

When the 1920s immigrants arrived in Waterloo County, they also chose, within a short time, to meet in either Waterloo or Kitchener because the transportation options in these central locations were advantageous.

By the 1940s both the United Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren recognized that many of their members were moving into St. Catharines, a small city of over 30,000, both from surrounding rural areas and from Canada’s west, to live and to work in industries like the General Motors automobile plant. During the war, with gas rationing, some Mennonite city-dwellers had trouble traveling to their rural churches. Wilhelm Schellenberg first gathered United Mennonites in the city for a worship service in July 1942. Regular Sunday worship began the following year in a rented hall. In September 1945 they completed a church building on Carlton Street and the following month established an independent congregation.

Similarly, Gerhard Epp moved to St. Catharines from Manitoba and began a Bible study for Mennonite Brethren families. In October 1943 the group rented a hall for weekly evening fellowship. In September 1945 it established a congregation in a larger hall at 36 James Street, independent from the Mennonite Brethren  congregations in Vineland and Virgil.

Scott Street MB Church

Scott Street Mennonite Brethren Church, St. Catharines. Ontario’s Places of Worship photo

Both of these churches, ultimately to become St. Catharines United Mennonite and Scott Street Mennonite Brethren, respectively, debated which language to use for worship in the urban context. In some ways the Mennonite growth in St. Catharines paralleled the Kitchener-Waterloo pattern: a nearby urban center with jobs attracted those Mennonites who could not take advantage of rural job alternatives.

Scattered 1920s immigrants lived in Toronto during the 1930s. They occasionally held worship services in homes with the assistance of visiting ministers from the Niagara Peninsula or Waterloo County. But they were too thinly spread to form a congregation, and it would be the next decade before meaningful steps were taken to serve them.

The 1940s and 1950s provided two additional impulses for planting Mennonite churches in large urban areas. The first was to provide support for Mennonite students attending universities and for professionals working in the large centers. The second was a vision for mission churches deliberately linked to rescue mission work and complementary social service programs. Bishop Jacob H. Janzen, employed for years by General Conference Mennonite Church Home Missions, was charged with visiting scattered United Mennonites. In 1941 the General Conference discussed a possible mission in Toronto.

Partly as a result, Mennonite evangelist John J. Esau, then based in Bluffton, Ohio, visited Ontario in 1942, and was the first Mennonite minister to attract to a meeting a broad spectrum of United Mennonites living in the Toronto area. From this beginning Jacob H. Janzen arranged for regular Sunday English-language services. For a year these services were held in homes with visiting ministers from outside the city. With overcrowding, services shifted to a Lutheran church. In September 1943 Arnold Fast of South Dakota became the first resident minister.

Toronto United Mennonite Church

Toronto United Mennonite Church, 1956. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

In 1945 a residence was purchased at 140 Victor Avenue, and in 1948 the Toronto United Mennonite Mission formally organized with eleven members. Despite its name, the mission served mainly those of United Mennonite background living in the city. In 1956 various United Mennonite leaders helped the local chapter of the Association of Mennonite University Students facilitate the creation of a Menno House in Toronto where young Mennonite men attending university could live together in a community environment. This endeavor continued until at least 1962

Jean and Winfred Soong

Jean Soong, Winfred Soong, and Raymond Ho of the Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church. Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg

The move into other cities took longer, but in the 1950s congregations were established in Hamilton, London and Ottawa. But the real flourishing took place in the 1970s and 1980s when Mennonite churches using languages other than English began to proliferate in all large Ontario urban centers.

To learn more about Mennonites and Ontario cities read In Search of Promised Lands.

Ontario Mennonites and Toronto Bible College

Toronto Bible College

Toronto Bible College when located on College Street in 1920. Toronto Public Library photo.

The Toronto Bible Training School was founded in 1894, modeled on Dwight L. Moody’s Bible school in Chicago that was started in 1889. This school, after Moody’s death, was known as Moody Bible Institute. The first North American Bible school was the Missionary Training Institute established in New York City in 1882 by A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.

Assimilated Ontario Mennonites began attending each of these schools early in their existence, as more Mennonites engaged the “great awakening” of the evangelical movement and began to aggressively introduce evangelical theology to local Mennonite congregations.

Toronto Bible College (TBS), as the Bible Training School became known in 1912, had a profound impact on Ontario Mennonites, beginning already in the 1890s. It was a non-denominational school that promoted the following vision:

The great design of the School is the training of consecrated men and women as Sunday School Workers, as pastor’s Assistants, and as City, Home, and Foreign Missionaries. It is intended for those who believe they have been called of God to Christian service, and who, from age or other reasons, cannot pursue a full collegiate and theological course of study. Special provision is also made for Sunday School Teachers and others who desire a better knowledge of God’s Word.

Toronto Bible College did not require a high school diploma of its students, making it even more attractive to Mennonites, since most Mennonites did not attend high school in the early 20th century. The then principal of Toronto Bible College, William Stewart, encouraged the new Mennonite Brethren in Christ mission in Toronto in 1897, saying, “We need your testimony in Toronto.”

This may have encouraged Mennonite mission workers to explore the new school. In any event, some Mennonite Brethren in Christ members began to attend TBS as early as 1899. One of these was Ada Moyer, of the Vineland area. She worked as a “ministering sister” in Toronto in 1897 and helped start the Grace Chapel in Toronto in 1899.

M. Elizabeth Brown

M. Elizabeth Brown, TBS grad and Toronto Mennonite Mission worker, 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Mennonite Conference of Ontario laypersons probably began attending Toronto Bible College in 1908. John S. Musselman of Pennsylvania, who had come to work at the conference’s new Toronto Mennonite Mission, was a student at the college beginning that fall.

In 1909–10 Mennonites made up over 10 percent of the daytime student body. The new students included Bernice Devitt and M. Elizabeth Brown, who were also working at the Toronto mission. Both Devitt and Brown received their diplomas in 1911. Mennonites (including both Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Conference of Ontario) hovered around 10 percent of the full-time student body until 1919–20.

Vera Hallman and Selena Gamber

Vera Hallman (standing) and Selena Gamber, TBS graduates and missionaries to Argentina, 1920s. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

In the postwar environment, Toronto Bible College enrollment surged, though the number of Mennonites remained constant. Nonetheless, Mennonites still made an impact in the 1920s. Vera Hallman’s departure for Argentina was pictured in TBC’s publication, Recorder, in 1923, and Edna Bowman Weber’s graduation address on “Redeeming Love” was published in the Recorder in 1925.

A fascinating sidelight is the role that Mennonites played in Toronto Bible College’s early music program. No music courses were offered until 1911, when John I. Byler, superintendent of the Toronto Mennonite Mission, began to offer an optional course in “Vocal Music” (probably a sight-reading course). By 1913–14 he was offering two courses: “Music Sight-Reading” and “Conduct of the Gospel Song.” When Byler left the mission, the music courses were then offered by S. M. Kanagy (beginning in fall 1914), who later became superintendent of the Toronto Mennonite Mission. Kanagy continued in this role until he left to teach at Hesston College in 1920. Toronto Bible College’s music program then passed into non-Mennonite hands.

Today, after several mergers, the Toronto Bible School is known as Tyndale University College and Seminary, and is no longer located in downtown Toronto, but is at 3377 Bayview Avenue in Toronto.

The Mennonite Conference of Ontario started its own Bible school in 1907. The Ontario Mennonite Bible School (OMBS) too was modeled on the Moody Bible Institute and Toronto Bible College model, since its founder and principal was S. F. Coffman, who had studied several years at Moody Bible Institute.

OMBS became quite popular in Ontario Mennonite circles, and did much to introduce fundamentalist theology to Ontario Mennonites, since all the faculty members were strongly inclined to that theology. Of course it also taught Mennonite distinctives, like uniform dress, nonresistance, and non-swearing of oaths, which helped to preserve those values in the church.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) did not start their own Bible college until 1940. This meant most of its theological training prior to World War II came from outside the denomination, and contributed to the loss of Mennonite “values”  in that denomination.

To learn more about Mennonites and Bible schools, read In Search of Promised Lands.