At the end of World War II, all the (partly) assimilated Mennonite groups in Ontario launched their own private high schools. Partly this was related to changes in the Ontario high school system during the war, which renewed an emphasis on patriotic teaching. In the fall of 1944 a reinvigorated cadet training program for boys in high school became compulsory, complete with uniforms and drills. Mennonite boys could ordinarily request an alternative activity such as first aid training, but peer pressure to join the cadets was strong. All the more assimilated Mennonite denominations had seen a significant number of their young men enter active military service during World War II, so an alternative to Ontario’s British-oriented curriculum became attractive to Mennonite leaders.
In addition, the more culturally comfortable Mennonites, as well as the churches from the 1920s immigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union, believed more advanced education enhanced Christian service, particularly for those considering a Christian vocation. Increasing interest in overseas mission work only underscored the need for adequate preparation.
We talked earlier of the Mennonite Brethren high school in Virgil, Ontario, Eden Christian College, as it was known for most of its years. This week we’re look at United Mennonite Educational Institute, located in the Leamington Mennonite community.
The majority of Mennonites in the Leamington area were United Mennonites (also from the 1920s migration), so it was this group that had the resources and enrollment potential to envision a high school to serve that community. As in Virgil, first Bible school courses were taught at the Leamington United Mennonite Church in the 1930s, but those ended with the beginning of World War II.
Word reached Leamington that United Mennonite students in Niagara planned to attend the Brethren in Christ’s Ontario Bible School in fall 1943. After a visit to the Leamington community by Brethren in Christ bishop Ernest J. Swalm, during which he stayed with elder N. N. Driedger, Swalm successfully addressed concerns of the Leamington people. Thus twelve boys from Leamington joined those from Niagara who attended Ontario Bible School that fall. The following year twenty students from Leamington attended, including some girls.
By fall 1945, however, the Bible school in Leamington decided to add some high school courses to its curriculum. Jacob A. Dyck and John C. Neufeld taught the courses in the Leamington United Mennonite Church basement, with an attendance of twenty-five students in grades nine and ten.
In 1946 a building for the United Mennonite Bible School was erected on seven acres of land along Concession 6 north of Leamington. The school added grade eleven in 1946 and grade twelve in the following year. The first classes in the new building began in January 1947.
The decision to build the school at the Leamington location was not a foregone conclusion. All the United Mennonite congregations in Ontario participated in the conversations about launching a school, and the association that was established to support the school included members from all geographic areas of the conference. The association model was chosen because a significant number of persons opposed the project, and this model placed financial responsibility only on committed supporters. Perhaps more importantly, the United Mennonites had no structural body in position to launch a high school. The United Mennonite Conference had only organized again in 1944 with four congregations, and the large Leamington congregation, with almost seven hundred members, had not yet formally joined the conference.
One reason Leamington was selected was that it was seen to have the greatest potential for providing students for the new school. The Essex County Mennonite settlement had grown rapidly into the 1940s, and it seemed likely this trend would continue. The school had 78 students in 1947–48, the first year that it offered grade twelve, and had a graduating class of ten students. In 1948 the school’s name was changed to United Mennonite Educational Institute, popularly known as UMEI. With the seeming growth potential, an auditorium and gymnasium was added in 1950–51. This facility became a Mennonite community center for numerous activities, including churchwide conferences. In 1950–51 the school added grade thirteen, but this proved too expensive to maintain and was dropped after two years.
Except for an upward enrollment blip in the two grade thirteen years, the student population remained in the seventy to ninety range until the 1960s. UMEI never achieved the student enrollment that Eden Christian College did in Virgil. One reason was the low number of students that came from outside the Essex County Mennonite community. United Mennonite students on the Niagara Peninsula often chose to commute to Eden rather than to live in a dormitory at Leamington. Over the years, use of the dormitory decreased until it was closed in 1970. In 1974 enrollment exceeded 120 for the first time, and the number of graduates topped 30.
In the next decades the school worked to attract more students from other Mennonite and non-Mennonite groups. Despite the influx of students from outside the core community, the decade of the 1980s, with its difficult economic times, created great stress for administration and staff. The graduating classes for 1989 and 1990 had only ten students each, and in 1988 enrollment dropped to 54 students, making the operation of the school financially unviable.
The 1990s saw a revival for UMEI, but the numbers never returned to the levels of the early 1970s. The demographics of the supporting Mennonite community limited potential for growth, and the school’s size did not allow for academic specializations that were available in large public high schools. By 1995 over 40 percent of the students came from outside the sponsoring Mennonite community. Ultimately, the effort to expand the base of supporters led to a name change in 2006 to UMEI Christian High School. By fall 2012 total enrollment dropped to 42.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, UMEI Christian High School continued to play an important role within the Mennonite community. Many of its graduates became leaders in the churches and the community.
To learn more about Mennonite secondary education in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands. Next week we’ll look at Rockway Mennonite School.