Mennonites and Major League Baseball

It’s the playoffs, and I’ve been a Blue Jays fan since the team began in 1977. This is a modest update of a post first done in 2015 in which I’ve tried to list Mennonites who have been participants in Major League Baseball. I’ve listed a number of connections in more or less chronological order. I’d be happy for other suggestions to add. I would like the players to have grown up in a Mennonite home or been an active participant in a Mennonite church.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis is surrounded by baseball owners as he agrees to be Commissioner of Baseball, November 12, 1920: Wikimedia Commons

I’ll immediately make an exception for Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944), the first commissioner of baseball, appointed after the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal. His father was a Civil War veteran, but his grandfather, Philip Landis, was a Mennonite from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Kenesaw got his unusual name from the Civil War battlefield where his father was wounded.

Johnny Bassler
Johnny Bassler, 1924 as Detroit Tiger. Wikimedia Commons.

Johnny Bassler (1895-1979) was regarded as the best catcher in the Major Leagues for a time in the 1920s. He was born in 1895 to a large Mennonite family in Mechanics Grove, Pennsylvania. He left home (and the Mennonite church) at age 17 and moved to California where he got his chance to play ball. His best years were with the Detroit Tigers.

Dan Quisenberry
Dan Quisenberry, 1986. Wikimedia Commons.

Dan Quisenberry (1953-1998) was best known as a relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals during the 1980s. He led the league in saves for five years. He graduated from a Church of the Brethren College, but also took classes at Fresno Pacific College, a Mennonite Brethren school. For a time he attended a local Mennonite Brethren church in Fresno. During his professional career, and later in life, he was a Presbyterian, but always identified with peace and justice issues.

James “Jaime” Cocanower (1957- ) played for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1983 to 1986. He was the son of a Mennonite couple from northern Indiana who were serving in Puerto Rico at the time of his birth. He did not attend Mennonite schools, and later in life his parents did not appear to be Mennonite. He began his professional baseball career in 1979 after graduating from Baylor University in Texas. 

Danny Klassen
Danny Klassen from Baseball Almanac

Danny Klassen (1975- ) was born to a Mennonite family in Leamington, Ontario, but moved to Florida with his family at the age of three. He did return to Leamington in summers to play baseball, and continued to attend the Mennonite church in those summers. He played for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 1998-2002, and briefly for the Detroit Tigers in 2003. He played for Canada’s national team in 2004.

Chris Heisey
Chris Heisey as a Cincinnati Red. Wikimedia Commons.

Chris Heisey (1984- ) grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and attended the Mount Joy Mennonite Church. He attended Messiah College, a Brethren in Christ school, but was selected in the baseball draft after his junior year. He played for the Cincinnati Reds 2011-2014 and was then traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was briefly in the Toronto Blue Jays system in 2015, but did not play at the major league level.

Erik Krath, 2015.
Erik Kratz speaking on January 29, 2015. Minda Haas Wikimedia Commons.

Erik Kratz (1980- ) was born in Sellersville, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a Mennonite home. He graduated from Christopher Dock Mennonite High School and Eastern Mennonite University. (Larry Sheets also attended Eastern Mennonite, but he did not play baseball there.) Kratz was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2002, but got to the major leagues as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010. He has had his greatest success with the Philadelphia Phillies. He has also played for the Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays, and New York Yankees. He retired from baseball in November 2020. Perhaps more than anyone else listed, he has  acknowledged his Mennonite heritage.

Brandon Beachy
Brandon Beachy, 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

Brandon Beachy (1986- ) grew up in a Mennonite home in Kokomo, Indiana. One incident that shaped his life was burning down the family home as the result of a prank gone wrong. He starred as a third baseman for his high school team, but made it to the major leagues as a pitcher. Before suffering severe injuries to his arm, he pitched for the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, 2010-2015.

Some players with “Mennonite” names have not grown up in the Mennonite church. For example, Bill Bergen and Marty Bergen who played at the end of the 19th and early 20th century were actually Irish. Jamie Moyer from Souderton, Pennsylvania, grew up in the United Church of Christ, though his ancestry was likely Mennonite several generations previously. Tommy Herr from Lancaster, Pennsylvania also had Mennonite ancestry, but seems to have grown up in the Church of the Brethren. Bruce Sutter, a hall-of-fame reliever from the 1970s and 1980s, also grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He may have Mennonite ancestry, but grew up in the United Methodist Church. Adam Loewen from Surrey, British Columbia appears to have grown up in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, though his grandparents were Mennonite Brethren.

Old Order Amish districts in Ontario

I have added a second layer to my map of Mennonite churches and meetinghouses in Ontario. This layer (which you may see better if you click on the map legend symbol  on the upper left of the map, and unclick the “churches” layer) locates Old Order Amish districts in Ontario. The token of a farm building indicates one Amish district. A district is defined by being led by one bishop. It will include up to 25-30 families. If it gets larger than that size, it will be split into additional districts. The size limitation is set by the ability to hold the entire population of a district in an Amish home for Sunday worship.

There are six types of Old Order Amish in Ontario. The oldest and largest settlement is the one around Milverton, Ontario. It originates from the Amish who came to Canada from Europe in the 1820s. The “Old Order” part of the Amish in Ontario began in the 1880s when a majority of the community decided to build meetinghouses like their Mennonite neighbors. Those who did not build meetinghouses were thought of as “House Amish,” but gradually picked up the term “Old Order” that was used in the United States. They are “moderate” Old Orders in the technology permitted.

The Aylmer Amish are unique in that they have included a major publishing enterprise as part of their small three-district community. Pathway Publishers publishes many periodicals and books for the Old Order Amish community. Many homeschoolers have picked up their materials for use. There was also a major historical library at Aylmer, though this has recently been moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Aylmer Amish moved to Canada from the U.S. in the early 1950s.

The second largest Amish settlement is the one around Norfolk, Ontario. These Amish also came from the U.S., and are “Troyer” Amish, a fairly conservative Old Order group that is more restrictive in the level of technology used in the community.

The most conservative Amish group is the Swartzentruber Amish located south of Owen Sound, and at Iron Bridge, Ontario. They came from the U.S. and shun the most technology, and are cautious in their interactions with other Amish.

The Lakeside and Mount Elgin Amish are smaller groups that also originated in the U.S.

The map tokens are approximations. There are not obvious “centers” in each district. In some cases I used the locations of schoolhouses to place the tokens, in other cases I used the address of a leader if I knew it. However, in other cases I only had a “rural route” number and had to make a guess. Districts can be spread over multiple roads in various directions.

In 2018 there were five Amish districts in Canada outside of Ontario — two on Prince Edward Island (Amish from Ontario), two in New Brunswick (Amish from Maine), and one beginning in Manitoba (Amish from Ontario).

As with the church and meetinghouse map, I would be most happy for corrections and additions to the map.

My sources for the map are:

Lichti, Fred. “Old Order Amish in Canada — 45 Districts.” Ontario Mennonite History 35, no. 1 (June 2017): 4.

New American Almanac 49 (2018): 98-99. (This Old Order Amish publication from Ohio lists all Amish districts in North America.)

A Map of Mennonite Churches in Ontario

In the last week or so I’ve worked on a map of Mennonite churches and meetinghouses in Ontario, trying to include all churches that identify as Mennonite, and even a few that do not claim a Mennonite identity, but hold to conservative Mennonite values in significant ways. It does not include new congregations that temporarily worship in rented spaces, or locations that appear to be in private homes.

Presently there are 260 churches in the list, including several historical churches that are no longer used for regular worship. If you click on the down arrow in the map legend on the left, you will see all the churches listed, grouped by conference. Unaffiliated congregations (light grey) are listed at the end.

If you click on an icon, you’ll see the name of the conference in which the congregation is a member, as well as the address of the congregation.

I created this map in Google Maps, which allows a limited amount of maneuvering by visitors to the map. You can drill down on the map or drag it various directions as you wish. If Google “knows” the site, it does allow you to get to a Google map that will let you request directions, etc.

I’m sure there are errors and omissions. I’d love to hear about these. Give me the exact address (or GPS location), and if you can provide a picture of the building it would be great.

John Wolf Miller, a Principled Maverick

One of my colleagues at Conrad Grebel University College for many years was John W. Miller. (People are bemused by that middle name–his mother was a Wolf, and giving a child as a middle name the mother’s maiden name was typical in Pennsylvania German Mennonite families of that era.)

I would have first met John at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois which he founded in the 1950s. My brother, Albert, had been one of the Goshen Biblical Seminary students who was influenced by John to explore living in Christian community. Albert and his wife, Carol, have been part of that community for over 50 years.

John came to Conrad Grebel in 1969; I arrived five years later. I remember John as a  quiet person who did not spend a lot of time in the faculty-staff lounge. He was more likely to remain at his desk with the office door open, several offices down from the lounge, intensely focused on whatever project engaged him at the time. His hearing loss may have helped maintain his remarkable focus. If you did engage him in conversation, he was very congenial, with a pleasant sense of humor.

I took a couple of courses from John, I don’t remember if for credit or as an auditor. His course on the Parables of Jesus was very enlightening, providing perspectives on the New Testament I had not previously considered.

I also recall the many years John cared for his wife, Louise, as she struggled with Parkinson’s disease. One heard stories of how they regularly played tennis together, with John hitting the ball in such a way that she didn’t have to move far to hit a return.

In later years John became isolated from other faculty in some of the positions he took on internal Conrad Grebel controversies. I particularly remember one college council meeting, after John’s retirement, in which he came to sternly lecture the council on a personnel issue in which he disagreed with the decisions made.

John Miller marched to his own drum on many issues during his life. He was unafraid to stand alone on a point of principle. He was one of those very interesting characters that J. Winfield Fretz brought to Conrad Grebel College to teach in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Below is a new article on John W. Miller that I have written for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. To see the bibliography and listing of books written by John Miller, go to the GAMEO website.


John & Louise Miller, 1992

John Wolf Miller: professor, author, and founder of Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois, USA was born 22 December 1926 in LancasterPennsylvania, USA to Orie O. Miller (7 July 1892-10 January 1977) and Elta Wolf Miller (20 May 1893-14 February 1958). John was the third son and fourth child in a family of one daughter and four sons. On 18 September 1949 he married Louise Frances Heatwole (25 November 1928-12 February 2015); they had three children—Christopher, Jeanette and Karen. John W. Miller died 2 December 2017 at the home of Lowell and Jeanette Ewert. John and Louise Miller were buried in the Blenheim Mennonite Cemetery near New Dundee, Ontario.

John grew up in an unusual Mennonite family in Akron, Pennsylvania, since his father, Orie, was both part of the Miller Hess Shoe Company, founded by his wife’s family, and a founder of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), also based in Akron. The Orie Miller family was wealthy, though Orie was gone from the family for extended periods of time because of his business and MCC responsibilities. At the age of six, John suffered complications from scarlet fever that left him deaf in one ear.

John Miller attended Eastern Mennonite School in HarrisonburgVirginia for his secondary school education, graduating in 1945. It was here that he came to know Louise Heatwole, though they did not begin to date until both attended Goshen College in Indiana. John spent his first years of college at Eastern Mennonite College, but graduated from Goshen College in 1948 with a BA in Bible. Louise graduated a year later.

Both John and Louise Miller intended to study medicine after graduation, and eventually to serve in overseas mission. However, Harold Bender asked John to train in Old Testament studies in preparation for teaching at the evolving Goshen Biblical Seminary. After an intense meeting in summer 1948, John agreed.

Since he had taken science courses as an undergraduate, Miller also wanted to strengthen his background in literature. Consequently, his graduate studies led to degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary (BD, 1951), New York University (MA in Literature, 1951), and the University of Basel (ThD, 1955). His doctoral dissertation explored the influence of the prophet, Jeremiah, on the prophet, Ezekiel. It was published as Das Verhältnis Jeremias und Hesekiels sprachlich und theologisch Untersucht: Mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Prosareden Jeremias. During his studies in Europe, John was an active participant in the Concern movement.

John W. Miller returned to teach at Goshen Biblical Seminary from 1954 to 1957. During these years John and Louise were influenced by renewal movements like the Iona Community in Scotland, and especially the Woodcrest Community of the Society of Brothers. A “Fellowship House” at Goshen College explored the implications of living in a disciplined Christian community. John’s active participation in this movement led to conflict with Paul Mininger and Harold Bender, the president and dean of the college.

The possibility of linking a new community with a voluntary service program in Chicago became an option pursued by John and Louise Miller, with the assistance of John’s father. This was enabled when Paul Mininger asked Miller to take a three-year leave from teaching “to deepen [his] experience of the Mennonite Church.” This ended in John and Louise Miller’s move to 727 Reba Place in south Evanston, near the northern border of Chicago, and the formation of what became Reba Place Fellowship, a communitarian Christian fellowship. Although Miller assumed he would return to Goshen Biblical Seminary after three years, he was replaced at the seminary before his leave had ended.

For most of his years at Reba Place Fellowship, Miller worked as a counselor and administrator at the Chicago State Hospital, a facility for the mentally ill. He became influenced by the insights of Freudian psychology during this time; this had a profound impact on his later theological thinking. He also did some teaching at the North Park and Garrett Theological Seminaries.

In 1969 John W. Miller was invited to teach at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario in the area of Biblical studies. He retired from the college in 1992. During his years at Conrad Grebel, he was actively engaged in lay leadership training in the college’s adult studies program. He also served as the first chair of the Religious Studies department at the University of Waterloo, beginning in 1976.

At Conrad Grebel, John Miller became a prolific writer, including a regular column in the Mennonite Reporter during the 1970s. His academic writing especially focused on New Testament themes of the parables and the historicity of Jesus Christ. His writing on the latter topic became controversial, and some critics believed his theological positions were not adequately orthodox.

Miller also placed strong emphasis on the fatherhood of God, and extended that emphasis to leadership questions within the church and family. This also created dissonance with emerging feminist theologians and within the Kitchener-Waterloo house churches in which he was an active leader, and in which he was ordained as a pastoral leader by the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada in 1992.

After his retirement from Conrad Grebel, John Miller developed lay Bible study courses for a program called the Blenheim Bible Study Program, so named because of its connection to the Blenheim Retreat Centre near New Dundee, Ontario that was administered by the Blenheim Ecumenical House Church(formerly part of the K-W House Church) in which John and Louise Miller were members.

John W. Miller was a capable administrator and a passionate and tenacious scholar who did not avoid taking minority positions on matters of theology or college administration. He was able to communicate effectively both with lay people and fellow academics. Illness in his later years prevented his ability to speak, though he continued work on writing projects until days before his death.

A Brief History of Menno Singers

Historically whether a Mennonite congregation in Canada had a regular choir in Sunday worship told one much about the historical roots of the congregations. Amish congregations and Mennonites from Pennsylvania did not have choirs in churches, though Mennonite educational institutions like high schools and postsecondary institutions from early in their history had choirs that toured congregations with special musical programs on Sunday evenings or other times.

Mennonites whose roots were in the 1920s immigration from Russia brought the notion of regular choirs along with them; they had developed in Russia many decades before.

Below is a draft article for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that I drafted about Menno Singers, a non-professional choral group in the Region of Waterloo that has existed since 1955.  It is no longer a strictly Mennonite choir, but still has a majority of Mennonite choristers.

Menno Singers, a non-professional community choir, gave its first performance in December 1955. Abner Martin, Harold Good, Doris Moyer and Edith Shantz founded the choir. All of them had participated in a touring chorus of students from Goshen College in Indiana, and desired a similar choral opportunity in the Waterloo County area. They were also Rockway Mennonite School graduates who wanted to continue to sing classical choral music. Although it began as a Mennonite group, over time non-Mennonite choristers have also participated in Menno Singers.

In its early years, the choir followed the pattern of Mennonite college choirs from the United States, and sang only a cappella music, in English, and raised money only through free-will offerings. Finally in 1962 it hired an orchestra, charged admission for the first time, and sang a two-hour setting of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin. This marked a significant change in the aspirations of the Menno Singers.


Menno Singers in 1966. Abner Martin in suit at left of second row. David Hunsberger photo at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario

cdcover_winters_snowMenno Singers established an association with Conrad Grebel College in 1974; this extended into the 1980s. In 1975 Menno Singers began to apply for grants to support its programming, initially from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, and later from other foundations. It has produced three recordings – Rachmaninoff’s Vespers in 1992, See Amid the Winter’s Snow in 2000, and Cloths of Heaven (2009).

Mennonite Mass Choir, sponsored by Menno Singers, began in 1974, and provided opportunities for amateur singers to perform major choral works with professional soloists and orchestra. While participants were not auditioned, they needed to be able to read music and attend regular regional rehearsals. Initially held annually, mass choir events became more occasional in the 2000s.

Menno Singers established an Abner Martin Music Scholarship after Martin’s retirement as director. The first award was made in 1981. The annual scholarship has been given to deserving Mennonite music students.

In 1997 Menno Singers experienced a difficult period when the newly-appointed director, Wayne Gilpin, lost the confidence of the Menno Singers executive over differences in philosophy and spending, and was dismissed just prior to Christmas. The dispute received much coverage in the local press. Fortunately, Peter Nikiforuk was then appointed and served the next 20 years.

In the 2000s Menno Singers cooperated closely with the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir (founded in 1965 by Helen Martens at Conrad Grebel College) and the Menno Youth Singers (founded in 2004 by Judith Bean). Together these groups became known as the Menno Singers family of choirs.


Brandon Leis

Menno Singers directors have included Abner Martin (1955-1969, 1973-1979); Jan Overduin (1969-1973, 1979-1984); William Janzen (1984-1987, 1988-1995); Leonard Enns (Interim)(1987-1988); Robert Shuh (Interim, 1995-1997); Wayne Gilpin (1997); Peter Nikiforuk (1998-2017; Brandon Leis (2017-present). William Janzen and Robert Shantz also filled in on several occasions when Abner Martin was unable to direct because of illness.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Rodney J. Sawatsky

Rodney J. Sawatsky was the fourth president of Conrad Grebel College (1989-1994). There have been earlier blogs on J. Winfield Fretz, Frank H. Epp and Ralph A. Lebold.

Rod Sawatsky and I both began to work at Conrad Grebel College in 1974 when he came from Canadian Mennonite Bible College to Ontario to teach and serve as academic dean, while I began half-time in the Mennonite Archives at Conrad Grebel.


Rod Sawatsky speaking at an Inter-Mennonite Conference (Ontario) retreat in 1985. In the background are Bernhard Stobbe and Herb Schultz. Photo by Sam Steiner.

We shared a deep interest in Mennonite history and Mennonite church politics. He was very supportive of my increasing involvement in denominational activities, especially the integration of three Mennonite regional conferences in Ontario in 1988 into what is now known as Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

Rod was known for his booming voice, the way he leaned back while thinking out loud, and for the extremely gracious hosting he, together with his wife, Lorna, frequently did in their home.

Rod was an innovative academic dean, and the years that he and Ralph Lebold were the leadership team at Conrad Grebel stand out in my own memory. Projects like a graduate degree in theology, and the launch of the Conrad Grebel Review as an inter-disciplinary Mennonite academic journal were important to Rod.

He became president of Conrad Grebel at a time that became very difficult for the College. Financial challenges included an ambitious capital fund drive that fell well short of its goal, meaning only a part of the planned expansion could be built. Changes in government funding to post-secondary education ultimately saw the number of Conrad Grebel’s faculty members shrink by a third. Not surprisingly the financial challenges also created tensions within the faculty that resulted in conflicts that received publicity well beyond the college.

Perhaps providentially, Rod received an invitation to become president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania in 1994. His experience as president there was an extremely positive one, and ended because of his early death from brain cancer in 2004.

My memories of Rod’s years at Conrad Grebel are overwhelmingly positive, particularly as I remember many informal conversations in the staff lounge about the state of the Mennonite church in Ontario, in Canada and in North America.

Below is the article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online about Rod Sawatsky by Margaret Loewen Reimer. For a bibliography of his writings, go to the article.


Rod and Lorna Sawatsky, 2002. Family photo

Rodney James “Rod” Sawatsky: church historian and college administrator, b. 5 December 1943 in Altona, Manitoba, the second child of Jacob and Catherine (Loewen) Sawatsky, who both predeceased him. He was baptized into the Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church (Conference of Mennonites in Canada) in 1961. He was married to Lorna Ewert, daughter of Agnes (Regier) and Elmer Ewert, in 1964 at the North Star Mennonite Church in Drake, Saskatchewan. Rod and Lorna had three daughters: Tanya, Lisa and Katherine.

Rod graduated from Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and from Bethel CollegeNorth Newton, Kansas, before pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota (MA in History, 1969) and Princeton University (MA, 1972 and PhD in Religion, 1977). He and Lorna, a musician and teacher, taught at the Menno Bible Institute in Didsbury, Alberta, for a year (1965-1966), before Rod was hired to teach history at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC). He taught at CMBC from 1967-1970 and 1973-1974. Rod and Lorna were active members of Charleswood Mennonite Church during this time.

In 1974 Rod Sawatsky was appointed Academic Dean at Conrad Grebel College, the Mennonite college at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, under the presidency of Frank H. Epp. He also taught courses in Mennonite history and new religions. Probably his most popular course was “Sects and Cults,” which looked at new religious movements such as the Unification Church (Moonies). Sawatsky was also interested in issues of religious liberty and testified several times in court on behalf of minority groups. Sawatsky presented the Benjamin Eby Lecture at Conrad Grebel College in 1982 on the topic, “Commitment and Critique: A Dialectical Imperative,” outlining the role of Christian education in a pluralist community. In 1990 he helped organize a conference of church-related colleges in Canada entitled “Educating for the Kingdom?”

Besides his commitment to education, Rod had a keen interest in the history and development of the Mennonite church. In the early 1980s he wrote a widely-circulated article entitled “Autonomy and Accountability: Church Polity within the Conference of Mennonites in Canada.” In 1985 he presented the Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College on “Authority and Identity: The Dynamics of the General Conference Mennonite Church” (published by Bethel College in 1987).

In 1989 Rod became president of Conrad Grebel College, a position he held for five years. Under Sawatsky’s leadership, the college added new programs and hired several outstanding scholars. Lorna taught early childhood music.  They were members of Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.

In 1994 Rod was appointed president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, a liberal arts college with roots in the Brethren in Christ Church. In his 10 years there he led the college to a new mission and identity that emphasized excellence, diversity, international study and a spirit of service and engagement in society. His leadership resulted in an increase in enrolment and a considerable expansion of campus facilities and programs. Lorna, as “first lady” of the college, was active in campus life, planning and hosting events and supporting school activities. During this time, Rod was active in several educational organizations, including the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Christian College Consortium, and the Council of Independent Colleges.

Rod’s life was driven by his passion for education within a Christian college environment. Christian scholarship is a holy calling, he argued in one of his last publications, “The Virtue of Scholarly Hope,” a prologue in the book Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford University Press, 2004). An optimist and visionary, he was always eager to pursue new possibilities. Deeply committed to the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith, Sawatsky was also committed to engagement in the wider church and culture, ever alert to new developments and ideas in the church and in society.

Rod Sawatsky died of brain cancer on 27 November 2004 at the age of 60. He was buried at the historic Detweiler Meetinghouse cemetery near Kitchener, Ontario.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Ralph A. Lebold

Conrad Grebel University College’s third president was Ralph A. Lebold, who died recently on October 31, 2017.

I first met Ralph Lebold in 1973/74 during a year that Sue and I lived in London when I attended law school and quickly learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Ralph was nearing the end of his time as the pastor at Valleyview Mennonite Church, and had accepted the new role of Conference Minister that would begin in summer 1974.

I recall Ralph’s wit from one conversation that year between Sue and Ralph after one of his sermons. Sue had been very impressed by the content, and told Ralph he had preached “an incredible sermon.” He immediately responded, “Oh, I had hoped it would be credible!” I don’t remember the sermon, but I do remember Ralph’s comment.

A biography for Ralph Lebold in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online has not yet been written. What follows are some of the things that might be included in such an article.

At his funeral I heard someone describe Ralph Lebold as an entrepreneur within the church–not about making a lot of money, but in helping to innovate new programs and approaches to ministry that had an influence on the Mennonite Church throughout North America. These included the founding the Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp (1962), the provision of Supervised Pastoral Experience in a congregational setting for seminary students (1969), early encouragement for women to serve in pastoral leadership (1976), and founding Shalom Counselling Services (1982).


Ralph Lebold, 1953. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Ralph was born in the town of New Hamburg in 1934, but the family moved to a farm near Wellesley in 1945. He left school after grade 8, which was customary for Amish Mennonites at the time, and happily worked on the farm for several years. By the late 1940s he began to attend Wellesley Winter Bible School, where he met his future wife, Eileen Erb. About 1951 he switched to attending the Ontario Mennonite Bible School in Kitchener, and graduated from OMBS in 1953.

Ralph continued in the pre-university course at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute in 1953/54, and enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College in 1954, where he received his BA in 1958.

Ralph and Eileen married in 1955, and they would have three children — Connie, Marvin and Cindy.

The family moved to Goshen, Indiana in 1959 where Ralph studied at Goshen Biblical Seminary, and from which he graduated with a BD degree in 1961. He began pastoring the King Street Mennonite Church in London, Ontario that fall. In 1963 the congregation moved to a new location in northeast London, and became known as Valleyview Mennonite Church.

In 1966-1968 the Lebold family took a one-year leave and moved to Chester, Pennsylvania where Ralph studied at Crozer Theological Seminary for an MTh in Pastoral Care and Counselling (1968). Ralph provided some pastoral services to Valleyview during the second year of the program.

The Lebolds then returned to London and Valleyview where in 1969 Ralph launched a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program in association with the Associated (now Anabaptist) Biblical Seminary. That first fall three seminary students spent a year at Valleyview working both in the congregation and at the London Psychiatric Hospital where Ralph was a Teaching Chaplain, while also serving half-time at Valleyview.

In 1974 Ralph Lebold became the first Conference Minister for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference. (Orland Gingerich had served in a similar, reduced role of this type in the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference beginning in 1966, and the position of a full time paid conference minister had begun in some Mennonite Church regional conferences in the U.S. in the late 1960s.)  Of course this led to jokes about a Mennonite “pope.”

It was during the conference minister years that Ralph encouraged women to pursue pastoral leadership. In 1976 he suggested that Doris Weber be commissioned for pastoral service alongside her ordained husband, Rod. By 1978 this status was changed to ordination. Other women in leadership soon followed.

In 1978 Ralph Lebold began work in the new DMin program at the Toronto School of Theology; he received his degree in 1980 with a research project on “The evaluation of the pastoral leader in the context of the congregation.” This led to a later book, Learning and growing in ministry : a handbook for congregational leaders published by the Mennonite Publishing House in 1986.


Conrad Grebel College’s first three presidents: L-R, J. Winfield Fretz, Frank H. Epp and Ralph A. Lebold. 1979 photo from the Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Ralph served in the conference minister role until 1980, and likely would have continued longer except for a call asking him to consider becoming president at Conrad Grebel College in 1979. He was familiar with some of the issues at the College, having been called to help work at an internal conflict in 1977, and had been involved in the School of Adult Studies based at the college for several years. He accepted the position, and served from 1979 to 1989.

Ralph Lebold’s ten years as president at Conrad Grebel College were good years for the College. Ralph worked well with his Academic Dean, Rod Sawatsky, who succeeded him as president. In 1988 the college received a new charter, permitting it to grant a range of degrees in Religious Studies, leading to the beginning of the MTS program at the College. The Peace and Conflict Studies program also deepened and expanded. In my own memory of my time at Conrad Grebel, these were the “golden years” at the College, with everyone pulling the same direction, and relationships with the Mennonite constituency flourishing.

In 1989, Ralph took on a joint assignment with the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the new Mennonite Conference (now Church) of Eastern Canada (MCEC) in Pastoral Leadership Training, the part of his vocation that gave him the most energy. He continued in this work until retirement in 1997.


Ralph Lebold counsels me about retirement at my December 2008 retirement dinner. I seem startled by the possibilities!

In 1991 Ralph was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, a disease with a prognosis of up to three or four years. Although his health went through cycles, new treatments extended his life 26 years. During most of those years he was able to make strong contributions to the local conference, to Waterloo North Mennonite Church, where he was a charter member, and as a mentor to many younger leaders in the church.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Frank H. Epp

Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario just inaugurated its eighth president, Marcus Shantz, and mourned the death of its third president, Ralph A. Lebold. For the next couple of weeks I want to reflect on the lives of the Grebel presidents who have died.

I earlier did a blog on Grebel’s first president (1963-1973), J. Winfield Fretz, so I will not repeat that one.

Grebel’s second president (1973-1979) was Frank H. Epp, a native of southern Manitoba. He started teaching at Conrad Grebel in 1971, moving with his family from Ottawa where he had pastored the Ottawa Mennonite Church and begun research on what became volume 1 of the Mennonites in Canada series. When he came to Waterloo, he also began the revival of the bi-weekly inter-Mennonite Mennonite Reporter newspaper, and served as its editor for two years.

I had determined to finish my BA at the University of Waterloo about the time that Frank Epp had come to Waterloo. I had recalled Frank from my Goshen College student days when he came and lectured publicly about the Vietnam War. He had made a strong impression on me, and so I signed up for many of his Mennonite history/Canadian minorities courses at Conrad Grebel.


Conrad Grebel College in 1974, after the Academic Building was added. GAMEO photo

Frank Epp was an intense, driven man for causes in which he believed. He wrote and spoke with passion and clarity about the Middle East, Vietnam, U.S.-Canadian relations and other things. He also wanted a larger role for Conrad Grebel College academically, and added the Peace and Conflict Studies program and expanded the Music department. He brought influential young faculty members, like Rod Sawatsky, Conrad Brunk and Len Enns on board, and stabilized music administration with Wilbur Maust. To house this growing program, he built an “academic building” completed in 1974.

Frank Epp’s passion for detail led him to micromanage and to tightly control finances, and sometimes led him into conflict. The final years of his presidency included some troubling times within the College community, and his post-presidential years at Grebel found him often isolated from other faculty on internal issues.

Despite this, Frank Epp was one of the two ro three most influential teachers in my life, helping to shape my worldview at a time I was finding my way back to the Mennonite Church. And I am forever grateful that Frank hired me as the archivist for the Mennonite Archives of Ontario in September 1974.

Below is the text of the article on Frank Epp in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online by Adolf Ens. For the bibliography of his published books, go to the GAMEO article.

Frank H. Epp

Frank H. Epp. GAMEO photo

Frank H. Epp: churchman, journalist, educator, and author; born 25 May 1929 in Lena, Manitoba, the third of 13 children of Heinrich M. Epp (1904-1958) and Anna (Enns) Epp (1902-1958). On 27 June 1953 Frank married Helen Dick of Leamington, Ontario and they had three daughters (a son died at birth). Frank died on 22 January 1986 in Kitchener, Ontario.

Educated in theology, mass communication, and history, Epp began his professional career as a public school teacher and was professor of history at Conrad Grebel College at the time of his death. He was president of Conrad Grebel College, 1973-1979. Under his leadership the college expanded to include a new academic building as well as programs in music and peace and conflict studies. An ordained minister, he was a part-time pastor in four Mennonite congregations in Canada and the United States.

His extensive public writing career began in 1951 as editor of the Jugendseite, the youth section of Der Bote, which served General Conference Mennonite youth in Canada. As founding editor of The Canadian Mennonite (1953-1967) and Mennonite Reporter (1971-1973) he exercised a broad and sometimes controversial influence among Mennonites in Canada at a time when many of them were in a language transition from German to English.

From 1957-1963 he was director and regular speaker for the Conference of Mennonites in Manitoba‘s “Abundant Life” radio program. During most of this time he also served the Board of Christian Service of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada in various capacities. He was a board member of Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCCC) from its inception in 1963 until his death and was chairman of the international MCC Peace Section, 1979-1986. From 1972-1978 he was on the presidium of Mennonite World Conference.

Beyond the Mennonite churches, Epp served on four committees of the Canadian Council of Churches (1967-1973) and was appointed to two advisory bodies by the federal government (Immigration, 1968-1977, and Multiculturalism, 1980-1985). For two years (1970-1971) he served as Executive Director of the World Federalists of Canada, and after 1980 was active in the United Nations Association of Canada. In the 1979 and 1980 federal parliamentary elections he was a candidate for the Liberal Party in the Waterloo (Ontario) constituency.

Epp’s research travels, related to peace education and writing projects, included numerous trips to the Middle East (6), Southeast Asia (3), and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (3). Epp’s twelve books include three on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and three on Mennonites in Canada. These included Mennonites in Canada, volumes I and II; he was working on volume III at the time of his death. His other books deal with educational institutions and with peace and refugee concerns.


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.