New Languages join the Ontario Mennonites

In 1979 Ontario Mennonites worshiped in a language other than German or English for the first time. New ethnic congregations began to multiply from the various ministries and associations the most assimilated Mennonites had formed over the years. In the next two decades, at least nine congregations worshiping in seven languages were planted in the urban centers where a variety of cultural and language groups lived.

Jean and Winfred Soong

Jean Soong, Winfred Soong, and Raymond Ho. Photo courtesy Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg

Thomas Yu began a mission work in the Toronto Chinese community in the early part of 1979, through a joint initiative of the binational General Conference Mennonite Church and the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. Yu became discouraged by a limited response, however, and asked to be relieved of the assignment. Vancouver Mennonite pastor Stephen Lee then suggested that Winfred Soong step in to the assignment. In 1973 Winfred and Jean Soong had immigrated to Toronto, where they became active members in a Chinese Baptist congregation. In 1979 Winfred accepted leadership of the new Mennonite venture. The small congregation first met in the small Danforth Mennonite Church, with services in Cantonese. When attendance grew to eighty to ninety in 1987, the congregation relocated to a nearby Presbyterian church, and in 2000 they bought the church. By that time they had also begun English and Mandarin language services and had planted a new Chinese congregation in the Markham area that shared space with the Hagerman Mennonite Church beginning in 1990.

The Mennonite Brethren also established a Chinese congregation in Toronto in March 1984. David Leung, a student from Hong Kong, established a Chinese Christian reading room. When Leung’s visa expired, Enoch Chor, a pastor from Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) background, took up the work. The group, which first met on Gerrard Street near Yonge, later met at the Dundas Public School. The small group formally organized as a congregation in 1990, but disbanded in 1992 after then pastor James Young moved to the United States. The remaining members began to attend a CMA church.

Tong Chitchalerntham

Tong Chitchalerntham, 1986. Photo courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Lao-speaking individuals were the second new language group to organize a Mennonite congregation. Southin and Khamphong Luangrath and their family were the first refugees sponsored by the St. Catharines United Mennonite Church; other refugees were sponsored by Niagara-area Mennonite Brethren congregations and other Protestant churches. The Luangrath family was not Christian when they arrived, but they participated in Wednesday evening English-language Bible studies led by Henry P. Epp. Another Laotian family, already Christian, came six months later, and soon a small group met for occasional Bible study at the St. Catharines United Mennonite Church. Up to twenty persons were participating by April 1980. In August 1980 the St. Catharines United Mennonite and Vineland United Mennonite Churches assisted a Lao Christian pastor, Tong Chitchalerntham, to move to the community and start a congregation. On August 19 the Lao Christian Fellowship formally organized. They soon published a songbook in Lao and developed a vigorous church program. Chitchalerntham also occasionally ministered to small Christian Laotian groups in Hamilton, Cambridge, and Kitchener. He left the congregation in the late 1980s to plant more Lao Christian churches throughout North America. Boris Sithideth became pastor in 1991 and served until he and his wife, Bonnie, were commissioned in 1994 to begin a work that became the Toronto United Lao Mennonite Church. The St. Catharines congregation purchased its own building in 1996.

Something similar took place at the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, north of Kitchener-Waterloo. From 1980 to 1988 the congregation sponsored eight Laotian refugee families. Some, out of gratitude, began to attend church services. A small bilingual Bible study class began in 1982. Eventually the group contacted St. Catharines pastor Tong Chitchalerntham, who in 1985 began to visit St. Jacobs every other month. Ong ath Phounsavath of Hamilton, a Christian pastor, served as a part-time pastor beginning in 1987. By 1992 attendance was seventy-five most Sundays. In 1994 the group formed the Grace Lao Mennonite congregation, separate from the St. Jacobs congregation, and in 1998 it purchased a church building in Kitchener.

We will look at other new languages in later postings.

To learn more about new languages and cultures among Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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