Ontario Mennonites in the Military

During World War II most Ontario Mennonites and Amish either had farm deferments or went in to alternative service work camps like the one at Montreal River that was building roads, or camps in British Columbia to fight forest fires, construct trails, or the like. In April 1942, men in alternative service camps were told they would be “in for the duration” of the war.

The turmoil created by the disappointment in the make-work nature of alternative service camp life and the impact of having their service extended for the duration of the war led many Mennonite young men to enlist in the military. The peak in the number of Canadian Mennonites enlisting in the military came in the second half of 1942.


Personnel of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in England treating “casualties” during rehearsal in England for raid on Dieppe. Source: Canada at War website

Throughout Canada at least 30 percent of military-age Mennonite young men joined the armed forces during the war. The percentage may have been slightly lower in Ontario, but not significantly so. Within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, its Peace Problems Committee calculated after the war that almost 20 percent of young men from their congregations had voluntarily enlisted. In the large First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, fully one-third joined the military, and in the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church 25 percent did so.

Among the United Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren the situation was similar. It appears that about 20 percent of Ontario Mennonite Brethren young men joined the military; among the United Mennonites the percentage was closer to 25 percent. At the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church, nine of its young men originally registered as conscientious objectors but subsequently joined the military. Out of 107 men of service age in the Leamington United Mennonite congregation, 24 served in the military, including five in the medical corps. Isaak Lehn, one of the latter, died in Europe in January 1945. John Unger, from the Virgil area, was shot down over Europe in 1944.

Within the Ontario Amish Mennonite community probably a smaller percentage joined the military, though half a dozen men enlisted from the East Zorra congregation. Two young men from the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church were killed in action. One of these, Frederick Shantz, was the son of Elven Shantz, secretary of the Committee on Military Problems from the middle of 1943 through the end of the war. Of all the Mennonite groups, the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were the most divided on the question of military service; approximately one-half of the Canadian young men of that denomination joined the military. The rest entered alternative service or had essential work deferments.

Some men joined the military reluctantly. Sheldon Martin, for example, was called to alternative service in British Columbia in mid-1942, just six weeks after his wedding. His wife, Mary Ann, followed and found work in a Vancouver shoe factory. She developed health problems after nine months and required expensive treatment by specialists. To earn more to help pay the costs, Sheldon left the alternative service work  camp and joined the army.


Mennonites at War by Peter Lorenz Neufeld was the first book focused on Mennonites in the military

Other men joined because they believed in the cause. Gerhard “Gerry” Thiessen was a young man from the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church who served both at Montreal River and in British Columbia, before finally joining the Air Force in 1943. He had already felt in Montreal River that shoveling gravel was useless work. Although he thought some of the firefighting in British Columbia served a good purpose, he abhorred shoveling snow out of the ditches next to mountain roads in the winter time. While waiting for his enlistment papers to go through, he had a conversation with a Mennonite minister who cautioned him that serving in the military was dangerous. This only reinforced Thiessen’s decision, because he believed Mennonites shouldn’t hide to avoid getting killed; he believed he should be doing something about the war. He served in Canada as a mechanic in the Air Force for the remainder of the war.

Even a few women joined the military. One such was Mary Faust, from the Leamington United Mennonite Church, who joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942 and served until 1946, achieving the rank of sergeant. This was unusual since women (except for nurses) were not subject to registration and service.

The consequences for those who joined the military during the war varied depending on the denomination with which the young men (or women) affiliated. In all cases, church discipline was administered only to young men who were baptized members. Many who joined the military had not joined the church. Among the more conservative, culturally less assimilated groups, the act of enlistment by a baptized member automatically removed one from church membership rolls.

To regain good standing in the church, a confession for violating the church’s teaching was required. This was also the formal position in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Ontario Amish Mennonite congregations, but some congregations did not require a public confession for full reinstatement. The United Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren congregations had their own variations. Of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren who joined the army during the war (estimated at 34 in 1945), only seven were baptized members. These were excluded from membership. The United Mennonites, who had 67 of their members join the military, with another dozen joining the medical corps, took a more inclusive approach, but only after considerable debate within the conference. The ministers strongly encouraged the peace position, but stopped short of calling for exclusion of members who joined the armed forces.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ no longer made pacifism a matter of church membership, and men in alternative service and in military service were treated the same.

One consequence of the Mennonite stance was that young Ontario Mennonite men and women who joined the military received little spiritual counsel or support from their churches while they were in the military. No Mennonite chaplains served in the army, nor did Mennonite ministers visit their parishioners in the military as they did those in alternative service camps. There were a few exceptions, however. A small group of United Mennonites living in Toronto tried to maintain contact with enlisted Mennonite men at Camp Borden. In spring 1942 the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite congregation established a committee to keep in touch both with the men in alternative service and those in the military. Families also kept personal contact, but the church provided no organized effort to work with men and women who may have been quite conflicted about the decisions they had made.

Some more recent writers have claimed the percentage of Mennonites who joined the military is closer to 50%. These include Peter Lorenz Neufeld, whose book is shown above, but he tends to see Mennonites as an ethnic, not religious, community. A 2010 MA thesis by Nathan Dirks, “War without, Struggle within: Canadian Mennonite Enlistments during the Second World War” also argues for a higher percentage. In any event, I believe “Mennonite” would include those who grew up attending a Mennonite church, whether or not they eventually became a member. I do not count as “Mennonite” those who are a generation or more removed from participation in a Mennonite church.

For more information on Mennonites and World War II, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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 http://www.simcoereformer.ca/2017/04/19/clear-creek-man-guilty-of-trafficking
  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.

CBC, the Fifth Estate and the Mennonite Mob

If you want to watch relatively balanced investigative journalism on the Mennonite Mob you need look no further than the CBC’s Fifth Estate. Unfortunately it’s the Fifth Estate program from March 10, 1992, not the self-promoting show from February 24, 2017.

The 1992 episode was hosted by Hannah Gartner. She provided a (very) brief history of the Old Colony Mennonites and their move to Mexico in the 1920s. Although she over-generalized  (“almost all Mennonites in Manitoba and Ontario have relatives in Mexico”), she did better than many journalists, particularly with the more limited scholarly resources available on Low German Mennonites in 1992.


Helen Dyck, an original Old Colony immigrant to Mexico, interviewed by Hannah Gartner

In addition to border officials in Texas and Windsor, Gartner (or CBC researchers) interviewed undercover police in Windsor,  an Old Colony community leader in Mexico and 90-year-old Helen Dyck, one of the original Old Colony settlers in Mexico. She also talked directly to Abe Harms, the “godfather” of the Mennonite Mob, his son Enrique, and Abe Froese, a Mennonite farmer from Manitoba that helped to smuggle drugs. Finally she talked to a former mayor of Cuauhtémoc, Mexico and two Loewen brothers who were described as the “brains behind the operation” of the Mennonite Mob. (Abe Harms was described as “in position number 2 or 3” of the Mob.) Finally, it was clearly stated near the end of the program by a Canadian border official that the drug dealers were “a very small element of the overall Mennonite community, and I don’t know if they [the community] realize how much impact it has in this particular area.”

The 1992 Fifth Estate had its problems, but it represented significant and thorough journalistic effort.

In contrast, the 2017 Fifth Estate program, narrated by Bob McKeown, did very limited “investigation.” CBC’s researchers appeared to travel no further south than Oklahoma. They interviewed no Mennonites from the Old Colony community either in Mexico or Ontario and no academics (like Royden Loewen or Kerry Fast or Luann Good Gingrich or many others) who have studied Low German Mennonites, including the Old Colony, very extensively in the past two decades. The show also reflected little evidence researchers had read any analysis beyond their 1992 show.

Their sources of information were three: Ryan Cortez, an undercover drug agent in Oklahoma, Cindy Cunningham, an agent in Oklahoma drug enforcement, and Sam Quinones, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Quinones writes books about Mexico and colorful Mexicans. His knowledge about Low German Mennonites is narrow, based on the last chapter in his book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration (2007) that described his 1999 encounter with Enrique Harms, the son of Abe Harms, who by then was apparently the head of the Mennonite Mob. Quinones admitted in his book that “by the time it was over, I couldn’t say I’d gotten to know Mennonites well.” Quinones’ major book on Mexico and the drug trade, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (2015), makes no mention of Mennonites.

The 2017 show opened with a re-enactment of Abraham Wiebe’s 1999 arrest in Oklahoma for drunk driving, and Wiebe’s willingness to become a paid police informant in their drug investigations to avoid losing his driver’s license. We later learn that Wiebe soon disappeared and was probably killed by the Mennonite Mob.

Then McKeown provided a quick explanation about Mennonites, “many of whom lead lives as if it were a century ago,” against a backdrop of images of Old Order Mennonites in Elmira, Ontario. Then we met R. J. Peters, a former Mennonite and playwright, whose claim to authority for this show was that he’s written a musical about the Mennonite Mafia and Abe Harms.


Old Order Mennonites illustrating the Mennonite Mob in Fifth Estate’s 2017 show

After a break we got a number of scenes from “Pure,” while McKeown intoned “CBC’s new hit drama, ‘Pure’ is art imitating life.” McKeown than suggested the Fifth Estate knew this story well. He informed us that Mennonites came to Canada from Europe in the 19th century, and many have remained cloistered in farming communities in Ontario and Manitoba. (All this against a backdrop of Old Order Mennonites in Waterloo Region riding a buggy down a snowy road.) We learned that many Mennonites shunned modern conveniences like automobiles and electricity. He said they (the Mennonites) all spoke Low German. We saw a map of where the Mennonites moved in Mexico, with Cuauhtémoc misspelled. Then Quinones became the expert explaining the Mennonites in Mexico

None of this reflected any serious research, and revealed no attempt to understand the complexity of the Canadian Mennonite community, and continued the generalizations so evident in “Pure.”

The show then launched into extensive cherry-picking from the 1992 program, with none of the context provided by the earlier show. It added innuendos that Enrique Harms killed his father, Abe, who died in a single-car crash in Mexico in 1994. The 2004 Saturday Night article on the Mennonite Mob had speculated Harms might have been killed by the Mexican police. Nonetheless, McKeown suggested 22-year-old Enrique Harms took over the mob after his father’s death. The program concluded with Quinones describing his 1999 encounter with Enrique Harms, and Ryan Cortez speculating about the current state of the Mennonite Mob.

There is no denying that a “Mennonite Mob” that has its roots in the Old Colony Mennonite community in Mexico is a reality. Like any ethnic/cultural group, there is a dark side to the Mennonite community, and not just the Old Colony Mennonites.

It is also true that the Mennonite Mob has no connection to the Old Colony Mennonite Church, unlike the implications of the “Pure” series for which the Fifth Estate saw fit to provide free advertising. It is true that in the early 1990s people like Abe Harms were still members of the Old Colony church since church leaders were unsure what to do.

The Old Colony Mennonite world in Mexico has changed dramatically in the last quarter century. Educational practices have begun to change, and leadership is more aware of the issues faced by the community.  In Ontario the Old Colony Mennonite Church does not tolerate this kind of activity.

When I watch CBC journalism, I expect to see context and evidence of research. Neither was in evidence on February 24. It felt more like a program quickly slapped together to take advantage of the publicity created by “Pure.” It’s a shame. A real update on the 1992 program would have been nice.

See my comments on “Pure” at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5 and Episode 6.

If you are interested in a more accurate historical account of Mennonites in Ontario, see In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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 http://www.wgc.ca/files/WTTV046Pure_Amo.mp3. 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.

“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 5

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3,  Episode 4 and Episode 6.

Sometime in the last week, someone at the CBC as decided Pure’s “Edenthaler Colony” in Southern Ontario is an Old Order Mennonite group (thanks to Sherri Klassen for alerting me to this change). Previously CBC’s references had been generically “Mennonite,” though the story line, geography, and language have consistently been Low German Mennonite, if not specifically Old Colony Mennonite.

Perhaps this change was done to justify the horses and buggies and the appearances of the women. This new, narrower description makes even more of the depictions in “Pure” incorrect — the family names are not Old Order Mennonite, no Old Order church members in good standing use cars, the meetinghouse (church) is designed incorrectly, the women still look more Amish than Old Order Mennonite, the cemetery seen in the last episode had incorrect tombstones, the location of the colony (near Chatham) is some distance from Old Order Mennonites who are further east or north. The list of inaccuracies goes on.


From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 5

Today’s episode was again mostly about plot, though there were some gratuitous religious references, including a “communion service” at the drug lab in Mexico, after Noah Funk “turned the other cheek” twice by being slapped by drug lord Eli Voss, before Funk agreed to serve communion to excommunicated Old Colony Mennonites. (The folks pictured in Mexico did look like Low German Mennonites.)

Communion is only served by bishops, and the “congregation” at the drug lab would have known the service had no legitimacy (as Funk did observe in the episode). The only point for including this in the story line seemed to be to display a bit of “Mennonite” content otherwise not needed for the plot.

There were many plot lines that didn’t make sense in this episode. Why did the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have suspended cop Bronco Novack travel to Texas and then order him not to do anything? Why did the crooked DEA agent (who was subsequently killed) think her kidnapping of a child who had nothing to do with the drug business think her actions would go undetected by law enforcement? Why was Tina (Noah Funk’s daughter) not able to escape from a cheap motel room with a window?

The show has generally upped the level of violence in the last couple of episodes.

Many of my Mennonite friends stopped watching “Pure” after the first episode. To me it will be a shame if “Pure” actually gets a second season. The show is now suggesting its drama is based on true events about a Mennonite group that will not defend itself in public and has nothing in its history to justify such a portrayal.

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






It can happen in Canada–Immigration by Mennonites prohibited

The current dismay over President Donald Trump’s decision to temporarily stop the entry of refugees into the United States reminded me that xenophobia (the fear of people who are “foreign” to us) in not limited to time and place. It has also affected Mennonites in Canada.

At the end of World War I, over 1,000 Mennonites and Hutterites from the United States began to immigrate to Canada, partially in response to the harsh treatment some of them experienced during the war, including imprisonment and the death of several Hutterites. Initially Canada welcomed them as good agricultural settlers, but this welcome changed almost overnight.

Charges were made that Hutterites and Mennonites from the United States were getting the best land, and that veterans of World War I were unable to get similar prime land. Popular media like the Ottawa Citizen claimed they were draft dodgers “on a wholesale scale.” The Calgary Eye-Opener said in alarm that 2 million Mennonites were headed to Canada, buying up blocks of land. (We are only approaching that number of Mennonites in the world today.)

Rumblings of discontent from conservative Mennonites in Manitoba contributed to the reaction against Mennonites. Some of these Mennonites were discussing the possibility of leaving Canada for another location because western provinces were trying to force their children into English-language public schools. Many of these Mennonites did leave for Mexico in the 1920s, and became of the ancestors of the Low German Mennonites who have returned to Canada, including Southern Ontario, beginning in the 1950s.

edwardsSoon even Members of Parliament called for restrictions on Mennonites as they prepared to amend the Immigration Act in 1919. John W. Edwards, a Conservative M.P. from the Frontenac riding in eastern Ontario referred to Mennonites and Hutterites as “cattle” during a debate on immigration on April 30, 1919.

The next day the government issued an Order-in-Council prohibiting Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors from entering Canada because they were:

…undesirable, owing to their peculiar customs, habits, modes of living, and methods of holding property, and because of their probable inability to become readily assimilated to assume the duties and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship within a reasonable time after entry.

This order-in-council affected not only immigrants. For a time it also made it difficult for American Mennonite ministers to visit Canada for revival meetings, or American Mennonites who wanted to come and work at places like the Toronto Mennonite Mission.


S. F. Coffman

In July 1921 Bishop S. F. Coffman from Vineland, Ontario, joined a Russian Mennonite group seeking to meet with the new Canadian Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen, whom Coffman had previously met. However, Meighen was out of town, as was deputy prime minister George Foster. They finally met with opposition leader Mackenzie King, who promised that if he formed the next government, the restriction on Mennonite immigration would be lifted. The following afternoon the delegation was finally able to meet George Foster, who pointed out the irony of some Mennonites seeking to leave Canada while others petitioned to immigrate.

In February 1922 S. F. Coffman wrote to the new prime minister, Mackenzie King, about lifting the ban against Mennonite immigration and allowing Mennonites from Russia to come to Canada. After further meetings between Coffman, western Canadian Mennonite leaders and the government,  the restriction on Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukobor immigration was finally lifted on June 6, 1922 and officially announced on June 22, 1922.

Mennonites in Canada felt a sense of urgency in getting this ban lifted because of the plight of Mennonites in Russia after World War I and the Russian Revolution. The large Mennonite immigration to Canada from Russia began already in 1923.

So we see that Canadians have not been free of fear of the “other” in their history. Even more grievous accounts from Canadian history could be given about African-Canadians, Chinese, Jews and Japanese. And most recently we have seen expressions of fear and violence against another minority faith group — the Muslims.

I am indebted to Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: the history of a separate people. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974 for some of this information.

The John W. Edwards quote comes from Official report of the debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, Second Session-Thirteenth Parliament, p. 1929.

For this and many other historical items of Mennonite interest, read my In Search of Promised Lands: a religious history of Mennonites in Ontario.

“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 4

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2 and Episode 3. I have also commented on Episode 5 and Episode 6.

Most of episode 4 relates to the crime drama and introduces little new about the life and culture of the Low German Mennonites. The plot continues with its plausibility shortcomings, and introduces an additional layer of corrupt police detectives. One plausibility concern is why Noah Funk is ordering Low German Mennonite caskets for the two bikers killed by other bikers. These are two Ausländer (non-Low German Mennonites) with their own families and community. How are these deaths to be kept secret?


From Episode 4 of CBC’s “Pure”

The funeral scene for the two Low German Mennonite men who died in the plane transporting the drugs is the one new Low German Mennonite cultural scene. Of course the burials were illegal since no permits were received.

There was no church funeral service, but I suppose that is excused by the necessary secrecy for these particular burials. The theology expressed by Preacher Noah Funk in his brief remarks does not reflect theology of Old Order Mennonites or Amish or any traditional Low German Mennonite theology. His comments seemed to imply there was still hope for the men who had died; this would not be the case for traditional Mennonites. None of these groups would ask a  layperson to lead in prayer at the graveside. Closing the graveside service with the Doxology (“Praise God from Whom all blessings flow”) seems unusual. Some Mennonites use this hymn to close regular Sunday worship services, but it is not generally associated with funerals. And they sang it way too fast for a traditional Mennonite group.

The cemetery itself looks most like an Old Order Amish cemetery, but could pass for an Old Colony Mennonite cemetery which also feature simple markers.

The most objectionable part of this series continues to be the mashing of Low German Mennonite, Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite culture. No Low German Mennonites in Canada use horses and buggies and lack electricity in their homes.

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

Lorna L. Bergey–Business Woman and Historical Mentor

Last week we looked at Peter Shirk, an Old Order Mennonite businessman in Bridgeport, Ontario. This week we look at one of his granddaughters — Lorna Lucille Shantz Bergey.

Lorna’s parents were Walter and Selina Shantz. Selina was the daughter of Peter Shirk and his second wife, Judith. Because Lorna’s husband, David, was incapacitated by a serious farm accident in 1954, the family was forced to begin its own commercial business. This was a cheese business that they operated from multiple farmers’ markets and two cheese shops in Southern Ontario.

Although a successful business woman, Lorna was likely better known for her historical research and writing, and her assistance to many historians who wanted to research and write about the Ontario Mennonite story. Lorna’s own historical writings have been collected in  Lorna (Shantz) Bergey: Her Literary Legacy, published by the Pennsylvania German Folklore Society of Ontario in 2011.

See the article and bibliography about Lorna, who taught me much about Ontario Mennonite history in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.


Lorna Bergey, 1999. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Lorna Lucille Bergey: businesswoman and community historian; born 29 May 1921 in Wilmot Township, Waterloo County, Ontario to Walter C. Shantz (13 April 1894-10 December 1987) and Selina (Shirk) Shantz (21 May 1898-14 June 1979). She was the oldest child in a family of three sons and five daughters. On 29 May 1940 she married David D. Bergey (1916-1980). They had two sons, Edward and Robert. Lorna died 22 March 2009, and is buried in the Blenheim Mennonite cemetery.

Lorna grew up on the family farm, and attended the local public school through grade eight. She was only 12 years of age at this time. She passed her high school entrance exams, but following the custom within much of the the Mennonite community her education ended at that time, and she worked at home helping to raise her younger siblings. Nonetheless she developed a lifelong interest in reading; and she recalled reading about church news in the Gospel Herald stored in her parent’s home. She was a member of the Blenheim Mennonite Church until it closed, and later was a member at the Nith Valley Mennonite Church and First Mennonite Church in Kitchener after she moved to the city during retirement.

After marriage to David Bergey on her 19th birthday, she lived on the Bergey family farm west of New Dundee, Ontario where they farmed and operated a cheese stand at the Galt Farmers Market. In 1954 David suffered serious injury in a 14 meter fall from a silo, and Lorna was forced to become the major financial support for the family. David and Lorna gave up farming and developed the Bergey Cheese business that also expanded to farmer’s markets in Waterdown, Hamilton, Burlington and Milton, Ontario. When David was sufficiently recovered from his injuries, two cheese/deli shops were opened in Toronto and Hamilton. After David’s death in 1980, she scaled back the business, and retired in 1988.

In the 1950s Lorna became passionately interested in local history and the history of her Pennsylvania German Mennonite forebears. She joined the Waterloo Historical Society, and later the Pennsylvania German Folklore Society (secretary 1980-2005). She served as President of the Waterloo Historical Society in 1969. She was a founding member of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, and served as its secretary from 1968-2000. She also served on the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada (treasurer, 1980-1985), Mennonite Bicentennial Commission (1983-1993), and the Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church (1969-1979). She was historian for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario (1971-1988) and served on the Historical Committee of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (1988-1994). She was also active with Doon Pioneer Village, and was central to establishing the Brubacher House Museum on the University of Waterloo campus and the restoration of the Detweiler Meetinghouse near Roseville, Ontario. She was acting archivist at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario from 1967-1974. In the business world she served on the credit committee of the Mennonite Savings & Credit Union and was secretary of the Eastwood Mennonite Community where she lived in retirement.

Lorna’s frequent role as committee secretary was characteristic. She held organizational positions that got the work done. Her minutes were meticulous, and her reports detailed. She was the Society member who would do the mailings, sit at the display table in malls, seek out the donation of artifacts for the Brubacher House Museum, and speak to elementary school classes. A special gift Lorna had was developing tours of various Mennonite communities in Ontario. Lorna “put feet” under the projects that others thought up.

Lorna’s greatest impact, however, may have been her influence on the academic historical interpretation of Ontario Mennonite history. Lorna was always aware that she attended school fewer years than the people who consulted with her. Although Lorna was modest about her education, academics streamed to her door for direction to sources, counsel on interpretation of the Pennsylvania German Mennonite story, and basic fact-checking on Ontario Swiss Mennonites. She sat on the all the reading committees for the three-volume Mennonites in Canada series written by Frank H. Epp and Ted Regehr, and vigorously championed the place of Pennsylvania German Mennonites in Canadian history. Her contribution is acknowledged in many volumes of Ontario Mennonite history.
— Sam Steiner