Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario 50th anniversary

In 2015 the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario had it 50th anniversary, though it did not explicitly celebrate the event. Perhaps the publication of In Search of Promised Lands could be seen as an anniversary project.

J. Winfield Fretz, the founding president of Conrad Grebel College, had moved to Waterloo in 1963 to undertake his role at the new college. One project he gave early attention to was the formation of a local Mennonite historical society.

MHSO Board, 1966

Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario Board of Directors, 1966. L-R: Dorothy Swartzentruber, secretary; Barbara Coffman; Herbert Enns, treasurer; Elven Shantz; J. Winfield Fretz, president; Wilson Hunsberger; Lorna Bergey; Harold Nigh; Orland Gingerich, vice-president. Missing: Henry Dueck, Earle Snyder. MHSO photo

On May 8, 1965, thirty-five people gathered to hear Orland Gingerich talk about the need for an historical society. Winfield Fretz then circulated copies of the constitution for the Mennonite Historical Society based in Goshen, Indiana. The group reviewed that document, and a month later approved a constitution along similar lines. It elected a nine-person board composed of J. Winfield Fretz, Orland Gingerich, Dorothy Swartzentruber, Barbara Coffman, Earle Snyder, Lorna Bergey, Henry Dueck, Wilson Hunsberger and Elven Shantz. The board was soon expanded to twelve.

The group, which had first-year expenses of sixty-three dollars, had ambitious dreams. It launched a series of bus trips, beginning with Vineland in 1966, with subsequent bus trips continuing into the 21st century. The society sponsored a 1967 centennial pageant titled The New Commandment, by Barbara Coffman. Later it mounted a stage play, adapted by Norma Rudy from Mabel Dunham’s Trail of the Conestoga, with performances in 1969, 1970, and 1973, and a film version in 1977.

Mennonites in Ontario booklet

Mennonites in Ontario by Marlene Epp, 2012 edition

The society published a popular booklet, The Mennonites in Ontario, by J. Winfield Fretz, in 1967, followed by updated editions by Fretz and later Marlene Epp. It  also sponsored two books by Lorraine Roth, and a reprint of Lewis J. Burkholder’s A brief history of Mennonites in Ontario. More recently it was the sponsor for In Search of Promised Lands.

The MHSO also played a key role in the preservation of two historical buildings. The first was the Brubacher House Museum , an 1850 stone farmhouse on the University of Waterloo campus. After a fire in 1968 gutted the house, restoration of the interior took several years. The society then furnished the main floor of the Brubacher house and developed the programming for the museum. Lorna Bergey coordinated the gathering of furnishings for Brubacher House which reflect the style of a 19th century Ontario Mennonite farm house.

Detweiler Meetinghouse

Detweiler Meetinghouse, 2003. Sam Steiner photo

The second preserved building was the Detweiler Meetinghouse located just west of the village of Roseville. This 1855 stone meetinghouse had been part of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario until services ended in 1966. It was rented for a time to other groups and  then remained empty for a time. The conference responded to appeals from local groups, including the historical society, and transferred ownership of the meetinghouse and the adjoining cemetery to a new board. Detweiler Meetinghouse, Inc. Three members of this board are appointed by the MHSO. The restoration to a 19th century meetinghouse interior was completed in 1999.

The society has been affiliated with Conrad Grebel University College since the beginning. It has encouraged donations to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, and to the historical library at the College.

MHSO also became an early partner in what became the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, joining with the Manitoba society in 1968 to help sponsor the writing of a history of Mennonites in Canada. The first two volumes of the Mennonites in Canada series were by Frank H. Epp, who joined the faculty at Conrad Grebel College in 1971.

Winfield Fretz served as the society’s president from its beginning until 1977. Lorna Bergey, another charter member, served as the society’s secretary from 1968 to 2000.

The Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario hosts a website at

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