At the time of World War II, Ontario Mennonites were at somewhat different places in their approach to post-secondary education. Those who had immigrated from the Soviet Union (the Mennonite Brethren and United Mennonites) were part of larger Canadian denominational discussions that sought Canadian-based “higher Bible School[s]” that would provide university-level education. Previously, Canadian Mennonites of this background who desired post-secondary education in a denominational setting attended Mennonite colleges in Kansas—Bethel College in North Newton and Tabor College in Hillsboro. Since existing Mennonite Bible schools in Canada were taught only at the high school level, something new was required. Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) and Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC) began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1944 and 1947, respectively. These were the first Mennonite post-secondary schools in Canada.
However, Mennonites of Pennsylvania German and Amish Mennonite background who desired post-secondary education in a Mennonite context routinely went to Mennonite colleges in the United States into the 1960s–primarily Goshen College in Indiana and Eastern Mennonite College in Virginia, or were satisfied with non-Mennonite schools like Waterloo College (later Waterloo Lutheran University) or the Ontario Agricultural College (Guelph).
The University of Waterloo, soon after its founding in July 1957, invited a number of Christian denominations to establish affiliated residential schools. This proposed affiliation prompted Ontario Mennonite leaders to assess whether the number of Mennonite students attending secular universities in Ontario or Mennonite colleges in the United States warranted a local Mennonite-affiliated college. The specific vision for Conrad Grebel College emerged in 1959 from conversations within the Kitchener-Waterloo Inter-Mennonite Ministers’ Fellowship. A committee composed of Harvey Taves, Henry H. Epp, and Ross Bender prepared a report on “Mennonites and Higher Education at University of Waterloo”; this report shaped the emerging vision.
That vision anticipated a residential college with a minimal teaching program except for religious knowledge courses or specific courses contracted with the university. Norman High, soon to be the first Dean of Arts of the University of Waterloo, chaired the college’s first provisional board. Members came from five denominations: Mennonite Conference of Ontario, Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference, United Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ—plus the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church. In mid-1962 the Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ withdrew from the process at the time when serious fund-raising for the project began. One concern for these groups may have been their status as the smallest denominational groups within the proposed partnership. The Mennonite Brethren withdrawal, however, was heavily influenced by Frank C. Peters, who had served as pastor of the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church from 1949–54 and was now teaching at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg (where he was also the first academic dean). Peters negotiated an affiliation agreement between MBBC and Waterloo Lutheran University (later Wilfrid Laurier University [WLU]) in 1961. He believed this arrangement would be jeopardized by the Conrad Grebel College project, and persuaded Ontario Mennonite Brethren accordingly.
Conrad Grebel College received its provincial charter in 1961 and named its first board of governors. J. Winfield Fretz, a sociology professor at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, became the first president in July 1963, and the residence building for 106 students opened in fall 1964. The only other faculty member in 1964 was Walter Klaassen in religious studies; Helen Martens joined the faculty to teach music in 1965. By 1970 the faculty had expanded to six members.
This jointly owned project profoundly shaped the three conferences (and one congregation) that remained in the partnership. These partners eventually all became part of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, the result of merging their groups.
To learn more about Conrad Grebel University College read In Search of Promised Lands.
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