On Sunday, May 28, I participated in a “service of remembrance and cemetery walk” at the Detweiler Mennonite meetinghouse, just outside of Roseville, Ontario.
The Detweiler Mennonite meetinghouse is the only surviving 19th century stone meetinghouse built by Mennonites in Ontario. The building was constructed in 1855, replacing an earlier log schoolhouse/meetinghouse built at this same location about 1830.
Mennonite pioneers began to settle Dumfries Township in 1822. A Mennonite farmer named Jacob Rosenberger is credited for giving his name to the nearby village of Roseville. He, his wife, and two children died in the cholera epidemic of 1834.
Jacob F. Detweiler was already ordained as a minister when he came to the Roseville area in 1822. Jacob H. Detweiler, possibly a third cousin of Jacob F., who was an ordained deacon in Pennsylvania, also came to the Blair area at that time.
These men had both been affiliated with the Christian Funk group in Eastern Pennsylvania that was not in fellowship with the larger Franconia Mennonite Conference. The Funkites, as they were popularly known, had been willing to pay taxes to the new American government at the time of the Revolutionary War in the U.S. in 1776. This led to division with the larger Franconia group. The fact that both Detweilers had come from the minority side of this Pennsylvania division may account for the fact that the Detweiler congregation was not listed in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario’s Calendar of Appointments until sometime after 1837.
In 1830 Samuel Snyder conveyed an acre of his land to three trustees for the Mennonite congregation for a church, school and cemetery, and a log building would have been erected here about this time.
The present meetinghouse was built in 1855, and was dedicated on December 2 of that year. As was the custom of the time, services were not held in the meetinghouse every Sunday. On “off” Sundays local families would either travel to a nearby meetinghouse where services were being held – such as Blenheim, or would use the day for visiting friends and relatives.
Roseville always remained a small congregation. In addition to suffering from internal dissension from time to time, its location on the edges of the larger Mennonite community inhibited its potential for growth. Although families were large, the congregation’s children needed to move some distance away to find affordable farms or employment in the larger settlements. The congregation also suffered losses to the New Mennonites about the time this meetinghouse was built. The New Mennonites met at the Blenheim Union Meetinghouse about 3 km southwest of Roseville.
At the time of the John S. Coffman revivals in Waterloo County in the 1890s, the Detweiler congregation had something of resurgence. Solomon Gehman was minister at the time, and brought a more dynamic style than some of the earlier leaders. Nonetheless, after his death in 1912 decline again set in when no local minister was available.
The Rural Mission Board of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario provided monthly services at Detweiler for a time, with a variety of visiting preachers. This approach was not conducive to growth. However the little congregation of 15 members in 1921 again tried to revive by adding a second Sunday service in each month – this one on Sunday afternoons. They also renovated the building by closing the side entrances and placing a door at the east end of the building. The walls and ceiling were plastered and papered, the pulpit was shortened and moved to the west wall, the benches were cut to a uniform length and provided with a full back. At this time the congregation began to be more popularly known as Roseville Mennonite Church, though the name did not change more formally until the 1960s.
The little congregation undertook another renovation project in 1956. They added an 18 x 20 foot annex to provide Sunday school rooms, an oil-fired furnace was installed, along with a new ceiling, electrical wiring, and chemical toilets. They also stuccoed the exterior walls, covering the stone surfaces. The following year additional painting and new doors were installed. The renovated building was rededicated in November 1956.
After their pastor, Moses Bowman, died suddenly of a heart attack in August 1964, the congregation had to seriously consider its future. In late 1965 seventeen members voted to discontinue services at Roseville, and the last service was held January 9, 1966.
A cemetery board continued to look after the adjoining cemetery, and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario appointed a board to look after the building. Little maintenance was done to the building over the next 20 years and it gradually deteriorated – shingles loosened, window frames rotted and the stucco cracked. Three different groups of Mennonites from Mexico rented the facility for worship services, but none of the groups stayed because of the inadequate facilities.
An Old Colony Mennonite group offered to buy the building in 1979, but on the advice of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario that irreversible changes to the building might be made, the conference decided not to sell. As rumors continued that the building might be demolished, Historical Society member Allan Dettweiler began a campaign to preserve the building. He urged the North Dumfries Township Council to purchase the building a museum. Eventually in November 1987 the conference agreed to transfer ownership of the building to a non-profit organization with the stipulation that the property remain intact and unsevered. The formal transfer to the new Detweiler Meetinghouse Incorporated board took place on March 30, 1992.
The new board aimed to restore the meetinghouse as it appeared in 1855 – this meant “undoing” all the exterior and interior renovations that had taken place beginning in 1921. Stucco was removed, and the stone cleaned and repointed. The addition of 1956 was removed and the entry doors returned to their former location. Windows were replaced, and the chimneys restored. A “wood shed” was added to include modern washrooms to serve the meetinghouse and cemetery. Tiered benches following the design of the original benches were installed over a refurbished floor, and a ventilation system to reduce future damage was included. The restored meetinghouse was dedicated September 26, 1999, including a worship service following a mid-nineteenth century style.
For a detailed history of this meetinghouse see Reg Good. Detweiler: Detweiler’s Meetinghouse: a history of Mennonites near Roseville, Ontario. Roseville, Ont.: Detweiler Meetinghouse, Inc., 1999.
To learn more about 19th century Mennonites in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.