Central American Refugees and Ontario Mennonites

Long after the Vietnam War ended refugees continued to arrive in Canada. In the late 1970s and 1980s strife erupted in the Central American countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In Nicaragua a leftist regime held power; in Guatemala and El Salvador military powers supported by the United States held sway. In the 1980s almost 24,000 Salvadorans came to Canada, along with 10,000 refugees from Nicaragua and Guatemala. An additional 24,000 immigrants came from these three countries in the 1990s. Part of the sharp increase in Central American refugees coming to Canada resulted from tighter regulations in the United States that came into effect in the 1980s. In the late 1980s Central American newcomers in Canada were concentrated in Montreal and Toronto.

Adolpho & Betty Puricelli

Adolpho and Betty Puricelli in 1986. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Ironically, the formation of the Mennonite New Life Centre in Toronto did not emerge from refugee concerns, but from the desire of the General Conference Mennonite Church to begin a Spanish-language ministry in Toronto. The encouragement from the denomination came to the United Mennonite Conference of Ontario’s delegate body in February 1981, where it received a lukewarm response since details were sparse and potential costs to the Ontario conference were unclear. Finally the United Mennonites’ Mission and Service Committee did its own survey on the possibilities for a Spanish-language ministry in Toronto. They asked Adolfo Puricelli to undertake this research. Puricelli, a native Argentine, had worked for the United Bible Societies. He and his wife Betty were both studying at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) in Elkhart, Indiana. Puricelli discovered a very diverse Toronto Hispanic community, including up to 30,000 illegal immigrants. Because of these status issues, many of these immigrants received inadequate assistance after they arrived in Canada.

In February 1982 the United Mennonites called Adolfo and Betty Puricelli to lead a new social ministry. Because of their own difficulty in obtaining work visas they did not come to Toronto until August 1983. Initially the Puricellis worked from their home, but a move in January 1985 to the basement of an old public library saw the formal beginning of the Mennonite New Life Centre. They provided immigrants with assistance in finding housing, addressing legal concerns, interpretation, and working with the government social system. In 1987 a reception house was established at the St. Clair-O’Conner Centre. After another move in 1988, the New Life Centre moved to shared space with the Toronto United Mennonite Church on Queen Street. Over the years it expanded its services beyond the Central American community, including refugees from the former Yugoslavia and recent Mandarin-speaking immigrants.

The ministry to Hispanic refugees was always intended to include the formation of a congregation, and the Puricellis began with Bible study in homes soon after their arrival. The New Life Faith Community formally organized in November 1987 with 15 members. Initially the group worshiped in an Anglican church; later the congregation shared space with the Toronto United Mennonite Church. Partly because of the transitory nature of refugees—whether because of moves to join family living elsewhere, work opportunities, or deportation—the congregation remained small, standing at 57 members in 2010. Hispanic cultural heritage influenced the nature of the New Life Faith Community’s worship—the eucharist was celebrated monthly and differing types of services were offered Sundays and Wednesday evenings. Healing services were held six times a year.

Similar refugee needs arose in the Kitchener-Waterloo area when Central Americans arrived in the mid-1980s and were assisted by local Mennonite congregations. Celza Bonilla, a refugee from El Salvador, felt called to assist other refugees arriving from Central America. Many of these did not yet have legal status. Olive Branch Mennonite Church, a new congregation with a strong human rights emphasis, established an oversight committee to assist Bonilla in her work. Another refugee, Luis Sandoval, found assistance at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, where Jack and Irene Suderman, former missionaries in South America, had recently begun attending. The Sudermans helped to facilitate worship services for the Hispanic immigrants and developed a refugee support program at the church.

The Hispanic Mennonite refugees who began meeting at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener in 1986 took a different approach from the group in Toronto. While they established a separate worshiping group, they tried to integrate into the existing congregation. Jack and Irene Suderman initially facilitated the Spanish-language worship experience for the refugees, but the integration philosophy continued through the following decades. By 2011 First Mennonite Church (also called Primera Iglesia Menonita) considered its demographic to be 80 percent Anglo and 20 percent Hispanic.

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


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