Yesterday I spoke to a Sunday school class at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, located in St. Jacobs, Ontario. They are celebrating the 100th anniversary of their congregation’s presence in the village of St. Jacobs.
Prior to that they were known as the Conestogo (for the river) congregation located several km. west of the village at “Three Bridges,” where their cemetery is still located. There was a meetinghouse at Three Bridges beginning in the early 1850s, and the congregation had met earlier in a schoolhouse at the same location.
My assignment was to talk about how this congregation fit into the larger Ontario Mennonite world. I’ll mention four points out of the larger number given in the presentation.
The Mennonites of St. Jacobs were always in an ambiguous relationship with other local churches, especially the Evangelical Association (now part of the United Church of Canada). The Evangelicals “missionized” the Ontario Mennonites beginning in the 1830s, and attracted a significant number to their denomination, including the parents of longtime Mennonite of Parliament Isaac E. Bowman, and Mennonite “preacher’s kid” E.W.B. Snider of Ontario Hydro fame. They also welcomed Mennonites who felt called to serve in the military, or attracted to levels of secular business life that were uncomfortable within the Mennonite environment. In contrast, the years since World War II have been marked by cooperation– in things like community Vacation Bible Schools and occasional joint worship services.
Like many other Ontario Mennonite congregations, when the Conestogo congregation moved into town, it built a church, not a meetinghouse. As with First Mennonite Church (Kitchener) and Erb Street Mennonite Church (Waterloo), new Mennonite places of worship in the early 20th century followed the Protestant style of rows of pews facing a raised pulpit at one end, with a basement built for children’s Sunday school. The “Protestantization” of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario came quickly after the 1889 division that saw the non-evangelical portion of the Mennonites establish the Old Order Mennonite Church. This Protestant shift followed the Mennonite pattern in other parts of North America.
The St. Jacobs Mennonite congregation benefited from crises in the Old Order Mennonite community from the 1920s to 1940s. A significant part of the congregation’s growth in those years came from a steady stream of Old Order Mennonites deciding to move to a conference church. These were years of crisis in the Old Order community. One bishop, Jesse Bauman, tried to introduce evangelical fundamentalist theology to the Old Order community until he was finally silenced by the other ministers. Both the Plymouth Brethren and the Mennonite Brethren (especially MB leader Henry H. Janzen), also preached to Old Order listeners who were seeking a more emotionally satisfying faith. Other members of the Old Order church desired greater freedom to adopt technologies such as the automobile or telephones in the home. These conflicts helped St. Jacobs’ membership grew from 149 in 1925 to 364 in 1950.
The St. Jacobs congregation has always given much of itself to the larger activities of the Ontario Mennonite community. Since World War I congregational leaders, both ordained leaders and lay leaders, have given leadership to Ontario Mennonite programs like the Ontario Mennonite Bible School, the creation of Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, and provided significant service to the Mennonite Mission Board of Ontario and other conference commissions and committees. This began in 1918 with minister, then bishop, Moses M. Brubacher, and continued through almost all the subsequent leaders. In addition, since the end of World War II more than 20 pastors who have served in other Mennonite congregations grew up or were nurtured within the St. Jacobs congregation.
Although there have been times of crisis in its history, the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church has been a healthy contributor to the larger Ontario Mennonite community. It was a very pleasant contrast to some congregational anniversaries that seem to be near the end of a life cycle.
To learn more about the Ontario Mennonite community, read In Search of Promised Lands.