Ella Mann Coffman, Leader in the Background

Ella Mann, by the end of her life, was best known in Mennonite circles through her high profile husband, a leader in the Ontario and Canadian Mennonite community. But her ministry, like that of many pastors’ spouses in the first half of the 20th century, was essential for the flourishing of the church.

Ella Mann was born on New Years Day in 1873, the oldest child of a poor family in Elkhart, Indiana. She went to elementary school for four years, but then was sent out to work. Her lack of formal education probably contributed to her retiring personality that shunned  public roles.

She did attend the same Mennonite church in Elkhart as Samuel Frederick Coffman (everyone called him Fred), son of the well-known Mennonite evangelist, John S. Coffman. They became friends, and corresponded when their lives took them to different locations.

For a time Ella worked in Harvey County, Kansas, and later in Chicago where she served as a housekeeper in well-to-do homes, and did her part to help out the fledgling Mennonite mission located there. Meanwhile, her friend, Fred, graduated from high school, and attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, while also working at the mission.

Ella Mann and Samuel Coffman, 1901

Ella Mann and Fred Coffman on their wedding day, 1901. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Ella and Fred were married in 1901 when she was 28 years of age, and Fred was 29. He was already an ordained minister, and their marriage took place on his way back from a trip to Alberta where he helped to organize new Mennonite congregations in settlements composed of former Ontario Mennonites. One of his last acts before marriage was to give away his savings of $100 to the Evangelizing Committee that had sent him on earlier mission efforts. Ella was stunned by this decision, but accepted it.

“S. F.” Coffman (as he was known in church circles) became a prominent leader in the Mennonite world, which took him on many trips away from the small Vineland Mennonite community where he was the pastor and bishop. Ella managed the family home, their five children,  and her husband’s schedule, on limited financial resources.  Mennonite ministers were unpaid for their service, and were expected to partially support themselves.

While Fred fixed clocks, ran a small print shop, did editorial work for the Mennonite Publishing House and practiced phrenology, Ella ran a large truck patch from which they sold fruit and vegetables. and managed the family finances. She once bought a car in S.F.’s absence, because the family needed one, and it was available at a good price.

Ella and S. F. Coffman family, 1920

Ella and Fred Coffman with their five surviving children, 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Ella’s organizational skills were essential for Fred’s hectic schedule. On one occasion he called home from the Hamilton Train Station to ask Ella where it was that he was travelling. On another occasion, when he was without her help, he arrived at a destination a week early.

She helped to organize the local women’s sewing circle, and taught children’s Sunday school, but she declined leadership beyond the congregation.

Unsurprisingly, her heavy responsibilities sometimes affected her health. Ella experienced serious health concerns on several occasions. She died of heart failure in 1935 as the age of 62, shortly after being involved in an auto accident. Her role was taken over by three daughters who never married and lived with their father.

For much of this information I’m indebted to Lorraine Roth, Willing Service: Stories of Ontario Mennonite Women (Waterloo, Ont. : Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, 1992) and Urie Bender, Four Earthen Vessels (Kitchener, Ont.: Herald Press, 1982).

To learn more about Ella Mann Coffman and Samuel F. Coffman read In Search of Promised Lands.

One thought on “Ella Mann Coffman, Leader in the Background

  1. Pingback: The Pre-History of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario – Part I | In Search of Promised Lands

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