Women’s Organizations among Ontario Mennonites

While women’s organizations in Protestant churches did not exist as separate groups until the last part of the 19th century, one could almost have considered Sunday schools as women’s organizations. By 1900 in Methodist Sunday schools fully 80% of the volunteers running the schools were women. The formation of urban missions also created new opportunities for local Mennonite congregations as they began to help provide food and housing as well as remuneration for the workers. Women in particular began to organize local groups to help provide such assistance. Here, too, Mennonite congregations were influenced by their neighboring denominations to introduce these innovations.

Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, United Brethren, and Evangelical Association congregations in Ontario had already launched Ladies Aid organizations in the 1870s and 1880s. While some Mennonite women had provided funds or clothing for specific needs or institutions, however, no formal organizations developed until the first decade of the 20th century.

The first Mennonite women’s organization in Ontario emerged in the Waterloo (now Erb Street) Mennonite Church in 1908 as a direct result of the new Toronto Mission started by the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. Lena Weber, who had been one of the first workers at the mission, returned to her home congregation and continued to advocate for the mission. The mission, in cooperation with the Toronto Children’s Fresh Air Mission, arranged for city children to stay with Mennonite families in Waterloo.


Ida Stauffer Snider, 1912. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

After seeing the poor state of the children’s clothing, the Waterloo congregation’s women held a sewing bee at Lena Weber’s home to provide clothing. With bishop Jonas Snider’s blessing, they decided to formally organize a group known as the Waterloo Charity Circle. Ida Stauffer Snider was elected its first president in April 1908. Several months later the women at the Berlin Mennonite Church (now First Mennonite) also organized a society. The third organized circle began at Wanner Mennonite in 1915.

During World War I, interest in relief work speeded the formation of women’s societies in Mennonite congregations. A binational organization related to the Mennonite Church, the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS), formed in 1916, and was headed initially by Mary Burkhard, a widow and former missionary to India. This group asked Mary Ann Cressman to be the Mennonite Conference of Ontario representative. Cressman got her local group in Kitchener (the new name for Berlin) to ask the conference’s ordained leadership for their blessing.


Mary Ann Cressman and her husband, M.C., ca. 1890. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

In November 1917 the conference’s executive committee, chaired by Lewis J. Burkholder, gave enthusiastic support to local sewing circles and encouraged participation in the WMS. As part of her duties as president of the churchwide women’s organization, Mary Burkhard, together with Mary Ann Cressman, then visited congregations in Ontario to encourage the formation of societies in each congregation. About 20 new societies began at that time.

Mary Ann Cressman continued to hold significant leadership positions in the denominational organization, including president from 1924 to 1929—a time of considerable conflict between the women’s organization and the male-led Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. The board expressed concern that this autonomous women’s mission organization was not formally accountable to the denominational structures and used its own judgment in directing the significant funds it raised. Thus the male-led mission board set up a Sewing Circle Committee of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities that bypassed the autonomous group.

The Mennonite Woman’s Missionary Society reluctantly sanctioned the change and went out of operation, but several leaders of the women’s movement left the Mennonite Church because of the heavy-handed male interference. However, the Ontario women’s organizations did not resist the changes demanded by the U.S.-based mission board.


St. Jacobs Mennonite Church women quilting for the Mennonite Relief Sale in 1967. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

The local women’s organizations usually met monthly, often in homes. Members paid a small monthly fee as well as special offerings for particular projects. A devotional time and formal minutes were often a part of the meeting. As newer church buildings with basements became available, the meetings often moved to the meetinghouses. Although the initial impetus was the creation of garments for the poor in the city, and later for war relief, the existence of women’s organizations also fostered more organized visitation to the congregation’s sick, organized assistance for families at times of bereavement, and provisions for the poor in the local community.


Annie Lichti and her husband, Christian. Family photo

It is less certain when the Ontario Amish Mennonite women began to formally organize groups. The conference itself was not formally organized, and no district secretary had been identified by the Mennonite Woman’s Missionary Society for the Ontario Amish Mennonites in 1916. At the end of World War I, when the Non-Resistant Relief Organization called for relief clothing, several of the Amish Mennonite congregations responded; for example, East Zorra women contributed forty-eight garments. However, formal records from the groups do not begin until the early 1920s when women like Magdalena “Mattie” Ropp and Annie Lichti gave leadership at East Zorra and Wilmot, respectively. The organized circles in the Wellesley area came later.

The women of the Mennonite immigrants who came from the Soviet Union in the 1920s organized local societies fairly quickly, but they did not relate closely to coordinated activity. They had not yet established regional or provincial societies to provide such coordination. An exception was the Vineland United Mennonite group, which worked with The First Mennonite Church in Vineland to provide materials for MCC. The fact that Vineland native John E. Coffman worked for MCC in England likely provided impetus to this cooperation. The United Mennonite women in Essex County did not form a regional women’s organization until March 1944. Until then, the individual Vereins (societies) sewed for relief through the Red Cross, sometimes in conjunction with other Protestant church groups in their community. In Niagara, some of the groups prepared dried fruit to ship overseas.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) had congregational sewing circles as early as the 1910s but had no denominational or regional coordinating body in those years. About 1916 the Markham congregation initiated a missionary society that made quilts and clothing for an organization in Edmonton, Alberta. In 1922 the New Dundee women organized to provide help for the conference’s city missions. They agreed to meet in homes once monthly. They first made rag mats and bedding and supplied fruits and vegetables for their mission at St. Thomas, Ontario. A provincial women’s society for the Mennonite Brethren in Christ in Ontario was not organized until 1939.

The more separated Mennonite groups like the Old Order Mennonites did not have women’s organizations in this time period.

For more information on the role of women in Mennonite communities, read In Search of Promised Lands.


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