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.

2 thoughts on “The Urbanization of Ontario Mennonites

  1. Pingback: Mennonite Church Eastern Canada–a Synopsis of its History | In Search of Promised Lands

  2. Pingback: A Bargain Hunter’s Guide to the Mennonite Relief Sale

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