Winfield Fretz, the Innovator

One individual who had a profound impact on Ontario Mennonites in the second half of the 20th century was Joseph Winfield Fretz, a native Pennsylvanian, who taught for many years at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, before serving as the founding president of Conrad Grebel University College.

Winfield also was a driving force in beginning the Kindred Credit Union, the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario and MCC’s New Hamburg Relief Sale. Winfield engaged the Old Order Mennonite community in Ontario like no scholar had done previously.

He was a gregarious man, who seemed to never forget anyone’s name, and would pick up a conversation from a decade ago as if little time had passed.

As it happens, Winfield’s wife, Marguerite, was also my second cousin once-removed. Below is the GAMEO article I wrote in 2013. For the full bibliography and other links, see the article in GAMEO.



Joseph Winfield Fretz: sociologist, college president, and institutional innovator, was born 29 September 1910 in Bedminster Township, Bucks CountyPennsylvania to John Clarence Fretz (15 August 1878-27 May 1963) and Ella Landis Fretz (19 March 1873-10 June 1963). “Winfield” was the ninth of 11 children. His three oldest siblings were from his mother’s first unhappy marriage to Christian Gross (3 August 1869-17 July 1895). On 9 September 1936 Winfield married Marguerite Irene Geiger (2 July 1913-17 March 2002). They had three sons and one daughter. J. Winfield Fretz died 24 January 2005 in North NewtonKansas. He and Marguerite were cremated and their remains interned at the Deep Run Mennonite cemetery in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

Winfield had a happy childhood on the family farm where he was born. The family attended the Deep Run Mennonite Church-West, a General Conference Mennonite congregation where his uncle, Allen Fretz, was the pastor. However, life in the country ended in 1922 due to the farm’s bankruptcy resulting from over expansion and the the loss of several livestock herds to disease. The family moved into the town of Lansdale, where his father worked for a pretzel bakery. Winfield, who had previously attended a one-room school, was thrust into a larger urban educational system. He was put back a year in order to catch up on some basic courses, but he soon thrived in the Lansdale high school of 300 students where he graduated in 1930. He was class president his last two years, and was captain of the basketball team.

Against the advice of his pastor at the new Grace Mennonite Church in Lansdale, Winfield declined attending Moody Bible Institute, and chose rather to study at Bluffton College, a Mennonite school. He majored in history, and was deeply influenced by C. Henry Smith, his major professor. Another influence was a fellow student of Methodist background and socialist political leanings who questioned how the teachings of Jesus and the principles of capitalism could be reconciled. Through these conversations Fretz became aware of the co-operative movement associated with the Ohio Farm Bureau. This was the beginning of his life-long interest in mutual aid organizations. Fretz graduated from Bluffton with a B.A. in 1934, but had difficulty finding work due to the Depression. For a time he was employed by Bluffton College as a student recruiter.

Fretz’s courtship with Marguerite Geiger took place during the two years following his graduation. Immediately after their 1936 marriage, they moved to Chicago where Winfield began graduate studies at the University of Chicago where his mentor, C. Henry Smith, had also studied. He completed his M.A. with a dissertation on “Christian Mutual Aid among Mennonites” in 1938. Mennonite Quarterly Review (MQR) editor Harold Bender was so impressed, he published two chapters of the dissertation in MQR in 1939. In 1940 Fretz completed a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological Seminary, and in 1941 he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago on “Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Contribution Toward the Establishment of a Christian Community.”

Winfield and Marguerite Fretz moved to Kansas where he accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Economics at Bethel College in fall 1942; he served on the Bethel faculty until 1963. Soon after arriving at Bethel, in order to help the College’s tight financial situation during the war, he accepted a two-year assignment with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In this assignment he visited Russian Mennonite immigrant communities in Canada from British Columbia to Ontario. His report on this study was also published in MQR, and solidified his strong relationship with Mennonite Church academics at Goshen College and further enhanced activity within the inter-Mennonite scholarly community. One result was the formation of the Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems, a gathering that met annually from 1942 to 1947, and then biennially until 1967. This inter-Mennonite gathering encouraged a myriad of research projects. In 1951-1952 Fretz took another leave sponsored by MCC to study 25 years of Mennonite colonization in Latin America; this resulted in the book, Pilgrims in Paraguay (1953). He did another immigration study in 1958 that produced Immigrant Group Settlements in Paraguay (1962). During the 1950s, partly to supplement the family income and partly as an experiment in “real world” economics, he opened “The Guest House” restaurant in Newton, together with his sister, Ethel. This enterprise continued until after his move to Canada, and was the first to break racial segregation customs in Newton and serve black and Hispanic customers through the front door rather than the back door.

Fretz’s interest in mutual aid extended to his volunteer board work. He served as chair of MCC’s Aid Section, and was the executive secretary of the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Board of Mutual Aid in the 1940s and 1950s. Although not a founder, he was active in the Mennonite Community Association formed in 1947.

Following an administrative crisis at Bethel College, Fretz agreed to serve as Acting President of the College for 1959-1960. The experience was not a good one, and he decided it was time to seek a new position outside the college. In 1962 he considered an offer that would have seen him become a country director for CARE, a leading international relief organization. However this changed after a conversation he had with Harvey Taves, the MCC Ontario director, at an MCC meeting in Manitoba. During a break during the meetings, Taves asked Fretz if he would like to become a college president in Canada. Followup conversations with the presidential search committee soon followed. In 1963 Winfield and Marguerite Fretz, with their youngest two children, Thomas and Sara, moved to Waterloo, Ontario to help found the new Conrad Grebel College affiliated with the University of Waterloo. For the first year Fretz taught on the university campus as Conrad Grebel College was built; the residence facility opened in fall 1964.

Fretz served as the College’s president until 1973, and continued on the faculty until his retirement in 1979. In the 1963/64 year Fretz taught a total of 38 students. By the time he ended his service as president, the College was teaching over 1750 “course-students” per year with a full-time faculty of seven.

Winfield and Marguerite Fretz joined Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church within a year of arriving in Canada, and Winfield served actively as a lay leader on the Board of Deacons and the Missions Committee. His innovation continued as a founding board member of the Mennonite Savings & Credit Union in 1964; it utillized the mutual aid concepts he had articulated for years. Fretz was also the founding president of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario in 1965 and founding president of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada in 1968. In addition he was a key promoter of Mennonite Relief Sales in Ontario.

In 1989, during retirement back in North Newton, Kansas, Fretz completed his book, The Waterloo Mennonites: a Community in Paradox, based on research he had done in the 1970s. He also found time to serve as Acting President of Mennonite Biblical Seminary inElkhartIndiana in 1983-1984. He received two honorary doctorates–from the University of Waterloo in 1982 and from Bluffton College in 1988.

Winfield Fretz had boundless energy and enthusiasm; he was known for routinely sleeping only four or five hours a night. He had a remarkable memory for names and details of a person’s life; he would ask about family members after years of no contact. He was able to relate to Mennonites of every stripe and theology; he garnered the trust of Old Order Mennonites, as well as leading business persons and academics. His ecumenical spirit served to draw Mennonites together in cooperation, not in division or rancor.

–Sam Steiner

Harold Groh and Rockway Mennonite School

Last week we talked about the early history of Rockway Mennonite Collegiate. Today, thanks to the article by Ferne Burkhardt in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online on Harold and Cora Groh, we’ll look more closely at the first principal of that school.

Harold gave leadership to a new and difficult venture at Rockway, but his contribution was not well-recognized by his board in the mid-1950s when they nudged him out to replace him with younger leadership. Nonetheless, the current Rockway Mennonite Collegiate would not exist without the foundational 10 years he gave to its formation.


Cora and Harold Groh. Family photo

Harold David “H. D.” Groh: mission worker, educator and pastor; born 22 November 1900 on a farm near Preston (now Cambridge), OntarioCanada to Anson and Lovina (Bechtel) Groh. Cora Isabelle (Gingrich) Groh: teacher, mission worker and leader among Mennonite women; born 9 June 1907 also on a farm near Preston to Enoch and Rebecca (Witmer) Gingrich. Both Harold and Cora were baptized as teenagers, Harold at Wanner and Cora at Hagey (now Preston) Mennonite churches. They were married on 29 June 1929 at Hagey Mennonite Church. They had eight children, two of whom died in infancy. Harold died on 23 September 1981 and Cora on 9 January 2000, both at Fairview Mennonite Home in Cambridge. They are buried at Wanner Mennonite Church cemetery.

In an era when most Mennonite farm children left school after grade eight, Harold Groh attended high school in Galt (now Cambridge), earned a BA at McMaster University (then located in Toronto) in 1926 and while directing the Mennonite Gospel Mission in Toronto, completed high school teaching qualifications at the Ontario College of  Education (1944-1945). Cora Gingrich was the first of her family to attend high school in Galt and to have a professional career. After “Normal School” (teacher training) in Toronto, she taught elementary school for several years before marriage and again in the 1950s and 1960s. Education was a given for the Groh children, among whom are teachers, a minister and two doctors, one of medicine and one a physicist.

While Cora and Harold were students in Toronto, they participated in a “Mission Circle” with other young people preparing for church work. A “circle letter” kept them connected for decades. After their marriage, the Grohs lived in Kingston, Ontario until the Mennonite Mission Board of Ontario called them to direct the mission in Toronto in 1931. Harold was named superintendent, which included preaching (he was ordained in 1932), teaching and visiting. He also commuted to Fort Erie, Ontario to do some part-time teaching at a Brethren in Christ school (now Niagara Christian Community of Schools).

Cora organized activities at the busy mission house, which was home for the growing Groh family and two women workers. On Sundays, Mennonite students and domestics working in the city came to help with Sunday services and stayed for dinner. Cora hosted a constant stream of visitors as well as weekly women’s meetings. There was little money, but Cora made sure her children were well dressed in clothes she created, paying no heed to prevailing Mennonite conservatism.

In the early 1940s, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario named a High School Committee to study a proposal to open a Mennonite high school. Harold, the conference secretary (1940–1952), was a committee member. Rockway Mennonite School opened in September 1945 with Harold as the founding principal. He taught full time and did all the administrative and promotional work with no support staff. He always struggled to support his family on his meager mission and Rockway salaries, supplementing his income by taking on summer manual employment. After 11 years at Rockway, Harold resigned in April 1956. Subsequently, he taught high school math in Chatham, Ontario (1956–1957) and St. Catharines, Ontario (1960-1961).

Moving to Preston and Rockway was difficult for Cora, who thrived on the whirl of activity in Toronto, but she got involved in women’s activities at Wanner Mennonite Church. She helped organize a new evening group which elected her president. From 1947–1955 she served as vice-president then president of the Mennonite Sewing Circles of Ontario. Also in 1947 she was named secretary of girls’ work on the General (bi-national) Sewing Circle Committee and attended Mennonite women’s and mission meetings across North America.

In 1957 Harold and Cora accepted a Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities assignment to manage the Mennonite Centre in London, England. The center served as temporary lodging for students from commonwealth countries and mission workers enroute to and from North America, Africa and Asia. Again their home buzzed with activity and endured the chaos of too many people – including the occasional aristocrat. Cora plied her considerable hosting skills, loving every minute of it. London was the highlight of her life. In her words, “It was smashing….I feel it such a waste of time here to sleep.”

Harold and Cora Groh returned to Ontario in 1960 to teaching and pastoral ministry at Bloomingdale Mennonite Church until retirement. Harold, whose wry sense of humor tempered his usual serious reserve, and Cora, his flamboyant partner, dedicated the best decades of their lives to leadership in the church. Their commitment and hard work in pioneering in Mennonite high school education, mission work, women’s activities, church administration and ministry have left an indelible mark on the Mennonite Church in Ontario.

Ontario Mennonites and Christian Peacemaker Teams


Ron Sider, 1970s. Photo from Mennonite Church USA Archives-Elkhart, HM4-299

In 1984 Ron Sider, an Ontario native who grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, gave a speech at the Mennonite World Conference sessions in Strasbourg, France. In it he called for a nonviolent peacekeeping force to move into areas of violent conflict. This developed into Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in 1986, with initial leadership from the binational Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, and Church of the Brethren. The Mennonite Brethren were part of the early discussions but then withdrew their sponsorship. Hedy Sawadsky of Vineland, Ontario, was on the founding steering committee. Gene Stoltzfus became the first staff person in 1988.

In the 1990s the organization took on the motto “Getting in the Way,” based partly on the New Testament meaning of “The Way” (the name followers of Jesus gave their movement in Acts 9:2) and partly on CPT’s clear confrontation of injustice. Other denominations and denominational peace groups later joined CPT.

Ontario participation in CPT has been extensive, and has involved both assimilated Mennonites and non-Mennonites. In 1989 CPT in Canada initiated protests of low-level military flights over Innu territory in Labrador. In 1995 a long presence in Israel and the West Bank began. In August 1997 MCC Ontario asked CPT to consider establishing a local team to respond to violence affecting aboriginal communities in Ontario. Since then CPT Ontario has organized numerous visits to First Nations communities and advocated for First Nations in many land claim controversies. The most widely publicized CPT mission, however, was in Iraq: in 1990 CPT sent its first delegation to Iraq.


George Weber talking with Mexican soldiers. CPT photo

In January 2003, George Weber of Chesley, Ontario, was killed in an auto accident while on another delegation in Iraq. Then in 2005, four CPT members were kidnapped and held for several months near Baghdad, including James Loney of Toronto and Harmeet Singh Sooden of Montreal.

Christian Peacemaker Teams was not endorsed by theologically conservative Mennonite and Amish groups. They saw CPT as clear evidence that assimilated Mennonites had left traditional Mennonite peace positions. In the broader public, MCC and CPT’s involvements in Iraq, Israel, and Palestine were not always seen favorably. While some saw their work as courageous efforts to maintain dialogue with people most North Americans considered the enemy, others considered them naive or one-sided in their political views.

Some critics may have seen Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams as cut from the same cloth; in fact, however, they had an uneasy relationship, particularly as CPT more frequently chose sides in most conflicts while MCC was less inclined to advocate a political position. Nonetheless, many early CPT leaders and volunteers had their first international experiences working for MCC.


CPT member, Stephani Sakanee, in a vigil at the Kenora courthouse. CPT photo

By 2007 CPT’s sponsoring bodies has expanded to include the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilians), Every Church a Peace Church, Friends United Meeting, On Earth Peace, and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. In 2017 Pierre Shantz, an Ontario native now living in Colombia, is on the CPT steering committee.

Ongoing CPT projects in Ontario have focused on First Nations justice issues in Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishnabek (Grassy Narrows), Kenora, and Haudenosaunee Territory (Brantford, Six Nations). These have not been continuing projects, but have involved periodic delegations to stand in solidarity with the local community. More information is available on the CPT website.

To learn more about Mennonites and social action, read In Search of Promised Lands.



Ontario Mennonites and Criminal Behavior

In the last two months I’ve taken significant exception to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC)’s entertainment production, Pure, and the Fifth Estate “investigation” about the Mennonite Mob. This might lead some readers to believe that I don’t want criminal activity by Mennonites to be aired in public.

That is not the case. Mennonites, like any other religious or ethnic group, have a shadow side. Whether crime among Mennonites is greater or lesser than other groups is hard to tell, since usually one’s religious affiliation is not mentioned in crime reports. It is interesting that on occasion a Mennonite or Amish connection is mentioned in news reports even when it doesn’t seem particularly relevant.

I have discussed the “marred images” of Mennonites in an earlier blog, and have a short section on the topic in my book In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontariobut I didn’t talk much about actual criminal activity. I’ll do so briefly below.

Crimes by Ontario Mennonites and Amish that have seen individuals charged and/or convicted have ranged across the gamut of seriousness.  A sampling is listed below:

  1. Animal Cruelty — Menno Streicher, an Old Order Amish Bishop in the Milverton area, and his wife, Viola, were charged with animal cruelty in connection with a dog kennel they owned. Viola was convicted in 2013 of having a dog in distress, operating a kennel without a license, and obstructing justice. She was put on probation and fined.
  2. Drug Smuggling–There are numerous newspaper accounts of arrests and convictions related to Mennonite drug smuggling from Mexico. A recent conviction involved Abraham Klassen, who received a six year sentence and forfeiture of his home after pleading guilty in a Simcoe court in June 2016. He and an accomplice were caught selling drugs to undercover police from September 2013 to May 2014. Apparently after his arrest Klassen worked at personal rehabilitation, and received support from his church community during sentencing. A more recent conviction within this “Mennonite Mob” can be seen at
  3. Sexual Abuse — a former Mennonite Brethren youth pastor in St. Catharines was convicted in 1996 of sexual abuse of a parishioner between 1975 and 1981 when she was between 16 and 21 years of age. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years probation. I’m not publishing his name because he served his penalty over 20 years ago. The crime was fully reported in the Mennonite Brethren Herald (June 14, 1996), p. 16.There are numerous accounts of sexual abuse by Mennonite pastors in North America, though most do not end in criminal proceedings. Many of these stories, including some from Ontario, can be see on the Our Stories Untold website or the Mennonite section of SNAP.
  4. Child abuse–The arrest and trial phase of the well-known “Old Order Mennonite” abuse case took place near Brandon, Manitoba, but had its origins in Ontario. A splinter group of Orthodox Old Order Mennonites left Ontario in 2006 when it came into conflict with the larger Old Order community over its practices.The leader of the splinter group continued the abuse he had begun in Ontario. The leader was unnamed, as was the name of the community, in order to protect the children. He was convicted in 2016 both of physical and sexual abuse, and was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison.
  5. Attempted murder–an unidentified devout Mennonite man in the Kitchener area was convicted in 2010 of trying to get his three children, aged 16, 14 and 11 at the time, to murder his wife in 2007 by drowning her in the bathtub. The attempt was made and failed, though a child called 911 and claimed the mother had tried to kill the children. The father was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He had a retrial in 2015 because the prosecutor in 2010 had described him as a “Jesus Nut.” He was convicted again in 2015, but was released for time served. He was never identified, in order to protect the children.


    Toronto Star headline, November 1, 1985

  6. Murder–Helmuth Buxbaum was the wealthy owner of a nursing home near London, Ontario, and a prominent lay leader in the Komoka Community Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation. He was convicted in 1986 for the contract murder of his wife, Hanna, in July 1984. The case was widely publicized, and several books were written about Buxbaum. He died in prison in 2007.


    Toronto Star headline, Nov. 12, 2001

  7. War Crimes–In 1999 Jacob Fast of St. Catharines, Ontario was charged with war crimes and lying about his past when he immigrated to Canada in 1947. Born in 1910 in a Mennonite village in Ukraine, Fast was drafted into the German army when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. In that process he became a German citizen. Many Mennonite men in Ukraine had the same experience. He became a Canadian citizen in 1954. The Canadian government alleged that his failure to divulge his involvement as a collaborator with occupying German forces (namely as part of the auxiliary police) and his German citizenship warranted revocation of  his Canadian citizenship. On October 3, 2003, the Federal Court ruled that Mr. Fast had obtained his Canadian citizenship by deceit, in that he had failed to reveal his German citizenship when applying to come to Canada in 1947. The court also found that Mr. Fast had collaborated with the German Security Police responsible for enforcing the racial policies of the German Reich, but on the balance of probabilities had not been asked this question directly and therefore, had not lied nor concealed his wartime activities. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration recommended to the Governor in Council that Fast’s citizenship be revoked. The Government of Canada announced the revocation on May 24, 2007. Jacob Fast died three weeks later on June 11 at the age of 97.

I have not mentioned here the Poplar Hill Residential School run by Mennonites in northwest Ontario. Although part of the Canadian government’s compensation program, and the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no one connected with Poplar Hill was charged with a crime. I discussed the Poplar Hill residential school in an earlier blog.

Today’s blog has felt like my hands are left soiled. I remind myself and the reader that these accounts do not reflect the lives of the vast majority of Mennonites. They simply concede that all Mennonite groups have their dark sides.

To learn more about the diversity of Mennonites in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Noah Bearinger–Old Order Mennonite Maverick

One of the most interesting Old Order Mennonites of the 20th century was Noah Martin Bearinger, a businessman in Elmira, Ontario whose religious affiliations took him from the Old Order Mennonite Church to the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Church to the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and back to the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Church.

As a young Old Order Mennonite man in his early 20s, Bearinger attended business college, extremely unusual for a Mennonite of that branch, especially for the grandson of Bishop Abraham Martin, the founder of the Old Order Mennonites in Ontario.

Bearinger was also tuned into national politics. In 1917 he wrote to his Member of Parliament suggesting that Mennonites should give a gift to the government for war relief,  in gratitude for the government’s recognition of Mennonite nonresistance.

When the inter-Mennonite Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO) was formally organized in early 1918, Noah was there as an interested observer. In World War II, Noah represented his group on the NRRO, the Conference of Historic Peace Churches, and was secretary of the Committee on Military Problems that interacted directly with Canadian military officials on the conscientious objector claims of individual Ontario Mennonites from all the Mennonite groups.

A prickly and sensitive personality, Noah Bearinger had his critics, and eventually he resigned from all his positions during World War II.

Barb Draper tells the fascinating story of Noah Bearinger in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.


Noah Bearinger. Family photo

Noah M. Bearinger: a strong supporter of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO), and a key leader of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches (CHPC) during World War II, was born 19 July 1891 near Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, the fifth son of Noah H. Bearinger (4 December 1858-5 February 1914) and Anna Martin Bearinger (27 February 1858-28 March 1933). On 26 December 1917, he married Annie Weber (10 October 1895-31 July 1955), the daughter of Enoch M. Weber (1869-1944) and Lydia (Gingrich) Weber (1874-1969). They had two children, Irene, married to Oscar Martin and Edwin (Eddie) Bearinger. Noah was a widower for 15 years after his wife died; he died 11 May 1970.

Noah Bearinger was the grandson of Abraham Martin, the first bishop of the Old Order Mennonite Church in the Waterloo area. Noah was baptized in that church in 1912 at the age of 21. He attended business college for six months in 1913 and then began working in a planing mill in Elmira. This was a very unusual step for someone in the Old Order Mennonite Church where almost everyone lived on a farm and higher education was regarded with suspicion. Noah’s connection to the Old Order church was not an easy one, but he played an important role in connecting the Old Order Mennonites with what other Mennonites in Ontario were doing in the areas of relief and conscientious objection.

Living in the town of Elmira, Noah Bearinger must have been aware of the rising hostility toward Mennonites who refused to fight in World War I and whose everyday language was a dialect of German. On 23 May 1917 he wrote a letter to his Member of Parliament, William Weichel, suggesting that Mennonites might make “a memorial gift for war relief” as a gesture of goodwill.

Bearinger was present at the organizational meeting for the Non-Resistant Relief Organization held 17 January 1918, but there were others who were official representatives of the Old Order Mennonites. He was a strong supporter of the work of the NRRO but did not serve in an official capacity in the early years.

By the 1920s, Bearinger owned a lumber business and built a house beside it on Duke Street in Elmira. When he bought a car in 1926 he was no longer a member in good standing in the Old Order church. For some years he attended Elmira Mennonite Church, but sometime in the 1930s he joined the Old Order Mennonites of the Markham area who allowed cars. The Bearinger family was part of the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference after it organized in 1939.

Bearinger served as treasurer of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization from 1939 to 1944. He also played an important role during the war years as secretary of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches and as secretary of the Committee on Military Problems. In this role he corresponded with various church conferences, keeping them informed of recommendations of how young men should apply for conscientious status. As secretary of the Committee on Military Problems he also had the responsibility of deciding which young men could receive agricultural postponements rather than serving in alternative service camps. He received significant criticism for some of his decisions and in June, 1943 he resigned fairly suddenly both as secretary of the Committee on Military Problems and from the Conference of Historic Peace Churches.

Noah Bearinger passionately believed in the need to be a witness for peace during times of war and that conscientious objectors should be active rather than be regarded as freeloaders who just avoid military service. He was deeply hurt by church members who criticized his work and his relationship with his church was never properly restored.

“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 6

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4 and Episode 5.

In this episode we finally learn the supposed reason for Mennonite drug lord Eli Voss’s rejection of the faith of his community. It was the death of his eight children and wife when he and they were on the way to church one Sunday and a drunk driver hit their wagon and horses killing all of them except for Voss. Because of this, Voss has seen God as a God of terror, not of love and grace. He clearly retains a strong emotional tie to his Mennonite community, but rejects all it believes. He intensely dislikes Pastor Noah Funk’s continuing faith in the goodness of God, and wishes to prove Funk wrong.

The final episode continued to integrate important Mennonite religious symbols into the conclusion of this crime story. One of the images was again gratuitous in my view and did little to advance the story. This was the martyr fire above which Noah Funk was chained.


From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 6

Eli Voss, in a speech to the watching crowd, explicitly refers to 16th century Anabaptist martyrs (forerunners of the Mennonites), and claims Noah Funk wishes to join them. Voss makes somewhat bizarre references to Gelassenheit, the Anabaptist doctrine of yieldedness and humility, and justifies killing Funk because Funk intended to destroy the drug ring and take away the technology and other economic benefits the drug trade has brought to the Low German Mennonite community. At the time of the martyr scene Voss believes that Funk’s family is already dead, as he has ordered his nephew, Gerry Epp, to kill them, perhaps to compensate for the death of his own family.

Back in southern Ontario, Anna Funk, fearing that her husband, Noah, is dead, implies to Joey Epp, Gerry Epp’s younger brother, that she will need a husband to help raise her family. She basically makes seductive overtures to him. Joey takes this to heart and kills Gerry Epp to prevent him from murdering the Funk family. Anna sees this intervention as the hand of God protecting them and refuses to run away with Joey.

Back in Mexico, a gunfight arises when the Mexican police arrive with the discredited DEA agent and  Bronco, the suspended and corrupt policeman from Ontario. To prevent Eli Voss from killing the young surviving witness to the murders that opened Episode 1, Noah Funk kills Eli Voss.

This then leads to the extended second religious symbol — that of a baptismal service, in which Noah and Anna Funk’s son, Isaac, is part of the baptismal class.


From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 6

For me this was a powerful scene, and reflected the struggle between good and evil that has run through this series. Noah, who has returned to Ontario (I guess the Mexican police don’t care that he killed someone) is ultimately unable to enter the meetinghouse to witness the baptism because of his sense of guilt, and Isaac is clearly ambivalent even as he accepts the baptism from Bishop Bergen who finally showed up in the last 10 minutes of the series.

As a crime drama the series worked reasonably well. The acting was at a high level, given the script with which they had to work. The writing and story line, in my view, was less successful, and relied on too many logical jumps in the plot to be convincing.

And the creators, in order to set this drama apart from other crime dramas, felt compelled to keep emphasizing that the characters were highly traditional Mennonites. This led to numerous gratuitous insertions of symbolic practices loosely based on traditional Mennonites, explicitly reflected in the titles of the episodes. These “symbols” were often an inaccurate mashup of the various Mennonite groups that has never been adequately addressed.

[Since first posting this blog, I’ve listened to the interview of Michael Amo, the creator and producer of “Pure” in a Writers Guild of Canada event. It can be heard at In the interview, at about the 9:00 minute mark, he defends the mashup of Old Colony and Old Order Mennonites as a way of not implicating any one group of drug dealing. He called it the “right thing to do ethically.” I’m not sure why this was ethical, since the inspiration for the series was a Fifth Estate program and  a Saturday Night magazine article on the Mennonite Mob in Mexico.]

If one subtracted the “Mennonite” angle, the high level of violence in “Pure”was quite clichéd. A tortured protagonist with the best of intentions ultimately triumphs over evil through “redemptive violence.” Clint Eastwood made a career out of this approach.

The difference, of course, is that the protagonists were pacifist Mennonites who reject violence, and don’t believe that killing a human being can ever be redemptive. The tension of the series arises from Noah Funk’s ongoing internal conflict on this issue, into which the rest of his family is pulled.

The sad, and most objectionable, part about this series is that the creators presented a distorted Mennonite theology, and pasted it on to a traditional Old Order Mennonite community that has no hint of this kind of crime or violence in its 125 year history. There are something over 10,000 people in Canada that might be described as Old Order Mennonite and use horses and buggies for transportation. This feels like extremely unwarranted exploitation.

This is not to claim that crime in unknown in traditional Mennonite communities — both Old Order Mennonite and Low German Mennonite have “marred images” in their histories. These have included child abuse and drug trafficking. But neither of these communities would ever condone what was portrayed in this series.

The creators of “Pure” did not reflect any understanding of how accountability or submission to the shared Ordnung (rules) in traditional Mennonite faith communities function. A minister like Noah Funk would not have made the decisions he did in isolation; he would have felt internally compelled to consult more widely with other leaders. And no Mennonite community has only one leader, as seemed the case for these “Edenthalers.” The individualism of modern society does not function in the same way in these communities.

Let us hope that season 1 of “Pure” is the final season.

To better understand the complexity and reality of Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.


Valentin Sawatzky–Poet

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so it seemed appropriate to feature a Ontario Mennonite poet whose name was Valentin.

Valentin Sawatzky had the unusual experience of immigrating to Canada from Russia as a boy in the 1920s with his family. However his family made the unusual decision to return to Russia/Soviet Union in 1928 because they believed Lenin’s New Economic Policy and its promises of freedom. Valentin’s father died in prison and his mother eventually died in Siberia. Valentin finally returned to Canada in 1948 as a refugee. He and his wife had left the Soviet Union when the German Army retreated in the 1940s, and were assisted by C. F. Klassen to get to Canada.

Valentin published seven books of poetry in the German language. His story is told in more detail in the article by Erica Jantzen in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.


Valentin & Anna Sawatzky. Photo courtesy of Karl Dick

Valentin Sawatzky: poet; born 2 September 1914 in Chortitza, Rosental, Ukraine to Abram (1890-1940) and Anna (von Kampen d. 1962) Sawatzky. He had a younger sister, Anna (1922-2006) and a younger brother, Herman (b. 23 June 1929).

In the 1920s, Sawatzky’s family came to Canada, but returned to Chortitza in 1928 because the New Economic Policy promised freedom and hope in the newly established Communist regime. However, in 1936 Sawatzky’s father was accused of being a traitor, was arrested and died in custody in 1940. Sawatzky’s mother was arrested in 1937 and remained in prison 5 years. She died in Siberia in 1962. Her sisters took care of the two younger children while Valentin escaped to Zaporizhia (Zaporozhe) where he  studied to become an engineer.

On 5 June 1940, Valentin Sawatzky married Anna Pries, daughter of Gerhard (b. 1864) and Aganetha (Andres) Pries (9 April 1915–20 November 1996) of Rosental. They had two sons, Ernest (6 June 1942–28 October 1993) and Peter (b. 2 March 1952). When the German army retreated from the Ukraine, Valentin and his family fled to Germany. By the end of World War II they were in Oldenburg, northwest Germany. Contact with C. F. Klassen and other Mennonites led them to Leer, Ostfriesland in The Netherlands where refugees gathered in the Mennonite church still in existence there. Here Valentin and 40 others were baptized by elder H. H. Winter on 19 June 1947. After joining the church, Valentin and Anna asked Rev. Peter Klassen to solemnize and bless their marriage.

In 1948 Valentin and his family arrived as refugees in Vancouver, British Columbia. When he found a job at MacKinnons, now the General Motors Plant in St. Catharines, Ontario, the family moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Later after he got a job in Toronto in 1961 they moved to Waterloo and Valentin commuted from there. The family joined the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church.

Valentin Sawatzky loved poetry and art and was a prolific writer of poems. His seven German collections were published during 1958-1983 in both Canada and Austria:

Lindenblätter,  Ausgewählte Gedichte (Virgil, 1958, 1962); Heimatglocken, Lyrik und Balladen (Virgil, 1958, 1962); Friedensklaenge, Gedichte (Waterloo, 1971); Abendlicht, Gedichte und Märchen (Waterloo, 1977); Eichenlaub, Gedichte und Märchen (Waterloo, 1981); Glockenlaeuten, Gedichte (Waterloo, 1983); Einkehr, Gedichte und Märchen (Steinbach. 1983). His themes were nature, homeland, childhood, youth, love and God. His deep religious faith is evident in poems like, “Zuversicht,” “Verirrt” and “Preis der Gnade” despite an inclination to periods of depression.

Valentin Sawatzky died in Waterloo 23 February 1995. His poems were of great significance. J. J. Thiessen expressed amazement at his God-given talent that allowed him to express his thoughts and feelings so beautifully. He belongs to the group of writers in the Mennonite-German tradition of early Canadian-Mennonite poets who set the stage for the surge of writers to follow.

Jacob Moyer–First Mennonite Bishop in Ontario

About a month ago we wrote about Valentine Kratz, the first Mennonite minister in Canada. Today we look at Jacob Moyer, also part of the first Mennonite congregation in Canada at Vineland, Ontario. Moyer was ordained as a minister in 1802, one year after Kratz. In 1807 he was ordained as a bishop, the most senior position in the Mennonite ministerial hierarchy.

Historically the bishop performed the rites of the church — marriages, baptisms, serving communion to members, ordinations of ministers, etc. He (in the age of bishops they have always been men) also gave oversight to church discipline, determining when a member might be “set back” from ability to take communion (indicating a good relationship with the church and fellow members), or even revoke membership.

Jacob Moyer was a more gifted leader than Valentine Kratz; at least he is remembered that way. After his death in 1833, divisions within the Ontario Mennonite community began to occur.

The full article and bibliography can be seen in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online


Mennonite Bicentennial monument at The First Mennonite Church in Vineland, on Jacob Moyer’s original land. GAMEO photo

Jacob Moyer: bishop and farmer; born 24 November 1767 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to Samuel and Catharine (Kolb) Meyer. He was the fifth child and third son in a family of nine children. On 1 September 1791 he married Magdalena Bechtel (24 March 1773-23 June 1816). They had ten sons and no daughters. After Magdalena died, he married Catherine Bechtel Hoch (14 April 1776-6 February 1851), the widow of immigrant, Daniel Hoch. Jacob died 5 June 1833 while on a trip to Pennsylvania, and was buried in Bucks County.

By vocation Jacob Moyer was a farmer. He, with several others, scouted for land on the Niagara Peninsula in 1799 and purchased 1000 acres. He returned later that year with a larger group of families to settle. In 1802 he was ordained as a minister in the Mennonite Church, the second Mennonite minister ordained in Canada (one year after Valentine Kratz). He was ordained as a bishop in 1807; the first Mennonite bishop in Canada. Jacob Moyer was a gifted peacemaker, and had a reputation for being a good speaker. Three of his sons — Jacob, Abraham and Dilman — also became ministers in the Moyer congregation at Vineland. Dilman also served as a bishop.

Jacob Moyer was one of the natural leaders of the Mennonite community, and himself the son of a minister. His Bible records the first meeting of ordained leaders in 1810 that became the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. His location near Jordan Station made his home a natural stop for new settlers moving on to the larger settlement developing in Waterloo County, Ontario. As bishop he also ordained the earliest ministers in Waterloo County, probably including Benjamin Eby. Along with his cousin, Samuel, who was the local schoolteacher in the Vineland area, Jacob Moyer successfully forged a lasting Mennonite community. — Sam Steiner


Ilda Bauman–Unsung hero

Ilda Bauman was born in the wrong generation to get the recognition she deserved. It was classic case of being the person who made the institution operate smoothly, while her male boss got the public recognition.

Ilda was a single woman, born in 1898, who got an education at Toronto Bible College. However she did not go on to the mission field or work for years in city missions–places that would have a least brought modest recognition.

No, she was a founder of the House of Friendship in Kitchener, Ontario. It began as a mission to Jews, but quickly turned to the physical and spiritual needs of transients and immigrants.

Ferne Burkhardt’s short sketch of Ilda Bauman’s contribution to the House of Friendship was written for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO). Go there to see the article and bibliography.


Ruby Dettweiler, Joseph Cramer and Ilda Bauman, ca. 1940. Source: House of Friendship

Ilda Bauman: key leader in the launch and development of the House of Friendship in Kitchener, Ontario. She was born 26 August 1898 on the family farm to Ira S. Bauman (14 July 1865-13 October 1935) and Matilda (Groff) Bauman (29 April 1865-10 September 1949). She was the sixth child and fourth daughter in a family of eight children. Ilda died after lengthy illness on 2 April 1974.

The city of Waterloo now covers the farm where Ilda was born. At age 11, her parents moved the family into a town home near the Erb Street Mennonite Church where they attended. Ilda became a baptized member on 21 March 1913.

In 1923 Ilda graduated from Toronto Bible College (now Tyndale University College and Seminary). She served briefly with  her sister, Emma, at the Mennonite Orphans’ Home in West Liberty, Ohio, sometime between 1924 and 1927. She worked at House of Friendship from its beginning in 1939 until October 1949 as a co-worker of founding director Joseph Cramer. About 10 years later she suffered a stroke which paralysed her and kept her in Scott Pavilion for 13 years. Ilda was moved to Sunnyside Home in Kitchener where she died in 1974.

Ilda did not hold prominent church or public positions but she worked tirelessly at House of Friendship. In 1939 she was part of an interdenominational women’s prayer group in Waterloo intent on reaching Jewish people. When the women learned of Joseph Cramer, a Jewish teacher turned Christian, they sought him out to lead their vision. Cramer soon set up shop in rented quarters in downtown Kitchener. Ilda worked alongside Cramer, making hundreds of home and hospital visits, distributing books and thousands of pieces of literature in many languages, and helping with numerous worship services in the rented room. Ilda also cooked meals for clients from donated food in a small adjoining kitchen. The House of Friendship, which began as an interest in Jewish evangelism, quickly turned to attending the physical and spiritual needs of transients and immigrants, some of whom were Jewish.

Ilda’s signature appears with Cramer’s on formal reports and documents. People close to the mission saw her as the real manager, yet, after Cramer’s death, the all-male “Advisory Committee” did not consider inviting Ilda to become the new director. Rather, they gave her a month’s salary ($65.00) to  “help toward your waiting on the Lord for your next move.” It was a bitter end to her sacrificial service and her rejection may have contributed to the ill health which plagued her for the rest of her life.