Peter Wall and Mennonites on the Niagara Peninsula

Last week I made a presentation to the Toronto Mennonite Heritage Club. After that meeting I had a fascinating conversation with Nicholas Dick about Peter Wall, a Mennonite entrepreneur in the Virgil area of the Niagara Peninsula. Nicholas had done an extensive interview with Peter Wall’s son, Alex. I also had recently received a nine-page typescript from Randy Klaassen on Peter Wall, written by the late Russian history scholar, Bob Augustine. It seemed time to write a bit about this Peter Wall.

Peter Wall (February 19, 1894–March 26, 1968) was the oldest son of Jacob P. Wall and Maria Albrecht Wall. Jacob and a brother had actually come to the United States as single young men to homestead in Nebraska in 1889, but they returned to Russia in 1890 because of lingering troubles between the U.S. Army and Native Americans. Jacob Wall then became a very wealthy estate owner near the Molotschna settlement, owning ten thousand acres adjacent to the even larger Wintergreen estate. He owned glass, flour, and paper mills, and he was an investor in and president of the Tokmak Railroad in 1910.

Peter Wall in Russia in 1914. Mennonite Heritage Centre photo

Peter Wall in Russia in 1914. Mennonite Heritage Centre photo

Son Peter, a member of the Kirchliche church (in Ontario they became United Mennonites), but not a pacifist, served six and a half years in the Russian Army through World War I and served in the White Army during the Russian Revolution where he reached the rank of colonel. Several times Wall family members were imprisoned, and twice Peter was almost executed. The Jacob Wall family lost its property in the chaos of the revolution and its aftermath. Jacob P. Wall died in March 1922. Peter and his brother, John, escaped Russia under false identity. The family, including Jacob’s widow, Maria, came to Ontario in 1924 but within five months moved to Ste. Anne, Manitoba, where Maria died in 1925.

In Canada Peter suffered from tuberculosis and while living in Manitoba was almost deported because of his illness. After their mother’s death and three crop failures, Peter and his brothers moved to Ontario in December 1927. After working for several years, the four brothers were able to purchase a foreclosed farm in Vineland in 1930 for a down payment of one dollar. The brothers farmed peaches, cherries and grapes, which initiated Peter to the possibilities in local agriculture. Peter gradually became involved in land development and helped many Mennonite families to get started in fruit farming. He began by helping a few farmers get land in the Vineland area.

Peter worked closely with the Toronto-based real estate firm Home Smith Company, purchasing foreclosed agricultural properties suitable for growing fruit and subdividing them into smaller 10-15 acre plots. He started his development in 1933 when he bought a 110 acre wheat farm on the outskirts of Virgil. He sold not only to Mennonites, but also to other immigrants settling in the area. By 1937 fifty families had purchased land in the Virgil area, many from Peter Wall, and begun to plant fruit orchards and vegetable crops.

A Mennonite Brethren minister, John F. Dick, arrived in the Virgil area in 1936. Another Mennonite Brethren minister and a United Mennonite minister came in 1937; this allowed the formation of two congregations that became influential in their respective conferences. By 1938 at least 350 Mennonites lived in the Virgil area, most of them fruit farmers. By 1937 the Mennonite farmers had formed the Niagara Township Fruit Cooperative to handle their produce, and at the end of the decade Peter Wall began the Niagara Canning Company owned by local shareholders, most of whom were also members of the cooperative.

The United Mennonites began construction of a building in 1937 and formally organized as a congregation in early 1938 under the leadership of Peter Kroeker, who had recently moved to the area from Hespeler. The Niagara Canning Company operated only eight years before going bankrupt in 1948 when markets in Great Britain for Canadian canned fruit suddenly collapsed. The bankruptcy had the effect of estranging the Wall family from the Mennonite community, although Peter Wall remained a member of the Niagara United Mennonite Church until his death. Peter Wall himself lost $70,000 in the canning factory failure. In 1949 Peter Wall and his sons formed a real estate company in St. Catharines.

Niagara Canning Company Limited

The staff and employees of the Niagara Canning Company Limited, 1945. Courtesy of the Niagara Historical Society & Museum

The most detailed account of Peter Wall is found in Bob Augustine, “The story of Peter Wall.” It is hoped this will sometime be published with other Augustine writings.

The Urbanization of Ontario Mennonites

Although some Mennonites had moved to cities like Toronto prior to World War II, either to study at places like Toronto Bible College, or to work at one of the city missions, this was not common. Generally Mennonites still viewed cities as somewhat “foreign” and dangerous. But after the war things changed.

The urbanization of Mennonites in Canada from the 1940s to 1970 was dramatic. This was especially pronounced in western Canada in places like Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Vancouver, but the trend was also occurring in Ontario.

Urbanization during this time was by no means confined to Mennonites. By 1961 three-fourths of Ontario’s population lived in centers of 1,000 or more, and only 9 percent lived on farms. Sociologist Leo Driedger has described the 1970s as the “watershed” when Mennonites shifted from being primarily rural to a majority living and working in an urban context. He described the 1940s and 1950s as a time of “incubation” for the pronounced urban shift that began in the 1960s and went into the 1970s.

The move to the cities, especially in western Canada, was stimulated by the Depression, which drove rural job seekers to urban centers. The postwar Mennonite immigrants settled largely in urban centers. Driedger also suggested that World War II’s turmoil and the displacement of many Mennonite young men either in alternative or military service made a return to their previous farm community less attractive.

Urbanization did not mean Ontario Mennonite conferences quickly provided churches for their members in major centers. In Ontario, at least initially, many Mennonites moving to the cities for work or study attended and often joined other denominations. With the exception of Kitchener-Waterloo, prior to the 1940s the primary reason Ontario Mennonite conferences established churches in larger cities was for mission outreach to the unchurched, often immigrants and the poor.

In the 1890s the Mennonite Brethren in Christ started two mission churches in Toronto and in the smaller cities of Woodstock, St. Thomas, Owen Sound, and St. Catharines. They also started a church in Stratford in 1906. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario followed with a mission in Toronto in the first decade of the twentieth century. The large urban areas of Hamilton, Ottawa, Windsor, London, and Kingston had minimal Mennonite populations and no Mennonite churches or mission outposts before 1940.

The twin towns of Kitchener-Waterloo differed from other Ontario urban centers because of their peculiar history, rooted in Mennonite-owned farmland. These towns, which later became cities, continued for decades to be surrounded by a significant Mennonite rural population who visited the cities for business, hospital care, and jobs. Mennonite churches, including First Mennonite Church and the Waterloo Mennonite Church (now Erb St. Mennonite), were originally located outside the early towns. The former became swallowed up by the expanding city, while the Waterloo church moved two kilometers (one mile) to the edge of town in 1902.

When the 1920s immigrants arrived in Waterloo County, they also chose, within a short time, to meet in either Waterloo or Kitchener because the transportation options in these central locations were advantageous.

By the 1940s both the United Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren recognized that many of their members were moving into St. Catharines, a small city of over 30,000, both from surrounding rural areas and from Canada’s west, to live and to work in industries like the General Motors automobile plant. During the war, with gas rationing, some Mennonite city-dwellers had trouble traveling to their rural churches. Wilhelm Schellenberg first gathered United Mennonites in the city for a worship service in July 1942. Regular Sunday worship began the following year in a rented hall. In September 1945 they completed a church building on Carlton Street and the following month established an independent congregation.

Similarly, Gerhard Epp moved to St. Catharines from Manitoba and began a Bible study for Mennonite Brethren families. In October 1943 the group rented a hall for weekly evening fellowship. In September 1945 it established a congregation in a larger hall at 36 James Street, independent from the Mennonite Brethren  congregations in Vineland and Virgil.

Scott Street MB Church

Scott Street Mennonite Brethren Church, St. Catharines. Ontario’s Places of Worship photo

Both of these churches, ultimately to become St. Catharines United Mennonite and Scott Street Mennonite Brethren, respectively, debated which language to use for worship in the urban context. In some ways the Mennonite growth in St. Catharines paralleled the Kitchener-Waterloo pattern: a nearby urban center with jobs attracted those Mennonites who could not take advantage of rural job alternatives.

Scattered 1920s immigrants lived in Toronto during the 1930s. They occasionally held worship services in homes with the assistance of visiting ministers from the Niagara Peninsula or Waterloo County. But they were too thinly spread to form a congregation, and it would be the next decade before meaningful steps were taken to serve them.

The 1940s and 1950s provided two additional impulses for planting Mennonite churches in large urban areas. The first was to provide support for Mennonite students attending universities and for professionals working in the large centers. The second was a vision for mission churches deliberately linked to rescue mission work and complementary social service programs. Bishop Jacob H. Janzen, employed for years by General Conference Mennonite Church Home Missions, was charged with visiting scattered United Mennonites. In 1941 the General Conference discussed a possible mission in Toronto.

Partly as a result, Mennonite evangelist John J. Esau, then based in Bluffton, Ohio, visited Ontario in 1942, and was the first Mennonite minister to attract to a meeting a broad spectrum of United Mennonites living in the Toronto area. From this beginning Jacob H. Janzen arranged for regular Sunday English-language services. For a year these services were held in homes with visiting ministers from outside the city. With overcrowding, services shifted to a Lutheran church. In September 1943 Arnold Fast of South Dakota became the first resident minister.

Toronto United Mennonite Church

Toronto United Mennonite Church, 1956. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

In 1945 a residence was purchased at 140 Victor Avenue, and in 1948 the Toronto United Mennonite Mission formally organized with eleven members. Despite its name, the mission served mainly those of United Mennonite background living in the city. In 1956 various United Mennonite leaders helped the local chapter of the Association of Mennonite University Students facilitate the creation of a Menno House in Toronto where young Mennonite men attending university could live together in a community environment. This endeavor continued until at least 1962

Jean and Winfred Soong

Jean Soong, Winfred Soong, and Raymond Ho of the Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church. Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg

The move into other cities took longer, but in the 1950s congregations were established in Hamilton, London and Ottawa. But the real flourishing took place in the 1970s and 1980s when Mennonite churches using languages other than English began to proliferate in all large Ontario urban centers.

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

Ontario Mennonites and Toronto Bible College

Toronto Bible College

Toronto Bible College when located on College Street in 1920. Toronto Public Library photo.

The Toronto Bible Training School was founded in 1894, modeled on Dwight L. Moody’s Bible school in Chicago that was started in 1889. This school, after Moody’s death, was known as Moody Bible Institute. The first North American Bible school was the Missionary Training Institute established in New York City in 1882 by A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.

Assimilated Ontario Mennonites began attending each of these schools early in their existence, as more Mennonites engaged the “great awakening” of the evangelical movement and began to aggressively introduce evangelical theology to local Mennonite congregations.

Toronto Bible College (TBS), as the Bible Training School became known in 1912, had a profound impact on Ontario Mennonites, beginning already in the 1890s. It was a non-denominational school that promoted the following vision:

The great design of the School is the training of consecrated men and women as Sunday School Workers, as pastor’s Assistants, and as City, Home, and Foreign Missionaries. It is intended for those who believe they have been called of God to Christian service, and who, from age or other reasons, cannot pursue a full collegiate and theological course of study. Special provision is also made for Sunday School Teachers and others who desire a better knowledge of God’s Word.

Toronto Bible College did not require a high school diploma of its students, making it even more attractive to Mennonites, since most Mennonites did not attend high school in the early 20th century. The then principal of Toronto Bible College, William Stewart, encouraged the new Mennonite Brethren in Christ mission in Toronto in 1897, saying, “We need your testimony in Toronto.”

This may have encouraged Mennonite mission workers to explore the new school. In any event, some Mennonite Brethren in Christ members began to attend TBS as early as 1899. One of these was Ada Moyer, of the Vineland area. She worked as a “ministering sister” in Toronto in 1897 and helped start the Grace Chapel in Toronto in 1899.

M. Elizabeth Brown

M. Elizabeth Brown, TBS grad and Toronto Mennonite Mission worker, 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Mennonite Conference of Ontario laypersons probably began attending Toronto Bible College in 1908. John S. Musselman of Pennsylvania, who had come to work at the conference’s new Toronto Mennonite Mission, was a student at the college beginning that fall.

In 1909–10 Mennonites made up over 10 percent of the daytime student body. The new students included Bernice Devitt and M. Elizabeth Brown, who were also working at the Toronto mission. Both Devitt and Brown received their diplomas in 1911. Mennonites (including both Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Conference of Ontario) hovered around 10 percent of the full-time student body until 1919–20.

Vera Hallman and Selena Gamber

Vera Hallman (standing) and Selena Gamber, TBS graduates and missionaries to Argentina, 1920s. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

In the postwar environment, Toronto Bible College enrollment surged, though the number of Mennonites remained constant. Nonetheless, Mennonites still made an impact in the 1920s. Vera Hallman’s departure for Argentina was pictured in TBC’s publication, Recorder, in 1923, and Edna Bowman Weber’s graduation address on “Redeeming Love” was published in the Recorder in 1925.

A fascinating sidelight is the role that Mennonites played in Toronto Bible College’s early music program. No music courses were offered until 1911, when John I. Byler, superintendent of the Toronto Mennonite Mission, began to offer an optional course in “Vocal Music” (probably a sight-reading course). By 1913–14 he was offering two courses: “Music Sight-Reading” and “Conduct of the Gospel Song.” When Byler left the mission, the music courses were then offered by S. M. Kanagy (beginning in fall 1914), who later became superintendent of the Toronto Mennonite Mission. Kanagy continued in this role until he left to teach at Hesston College in 1920. Toronto Bible College’s music program then passed into non-Mennonite hands.

Today, after several mergers, the Toronto Bible School is known as Tyndale University College and Seminary, and is no longer located in downtown Toronto, but is at 3377 Bayview Avenue in Toronto.

The Mennonite Conference of Ontario started its own Bible school in 1907. The Ontario Mennonite Bible School (OMBS) too was modeled on the Moody Bible Institute and Toronto Bible College model, since its founder and principal was S. F. Coffman, who had studied several years at Moody Bible Institute.

OMBS became quite popular in Ontario Mennonite circles, and did much to introduce fundamentalist theology to Ontario Mennonites, since all the faculty members were strongly inclined to that theology. Of course it also taught Mennonite distinctives, like uniform dress, nonresistance, and non-swearing of oaths, which helped to preserve those values in the church.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) did not start their own Bible college until 1940. This meant most of its theological training prior to World War II came from outside the denomination, and contributed to the loss of Mennonite “values”  in that denomination.

To learn more about Mennonites and Bible schools, read In Search of Promised Lands.