Earliest Ontario Mennonites joined their neighbors’ congregations

The small group of Pennsylvania Mennonites who settled near Thirty Mile Creek (between modern-day Grimsby and Beamsville)  did not have a spiritual leader when they arrived in 1786. It is not possible to tell from existing records if they ever sought guidance from their home communities on establishing a congregation.

Conestoga Wagon Trek historical marker

This historical marker about the Conestoga Wagon, located on the Niagara Parkway near the intersection with Netherby Road, commemorates the earliest arrival of Pennsylvania Mennonites in Ontario.

Historian Frank Epp has suggested the 1786 immigrants were “fringe” Mennonites since none of them remained Mennonite. Epp’s assumption seems to be based solely on the fact that they did not become part of the Mennonite congregation that finally organized at The Twenty (Vineland) in 1801; they had begun to fellowship with other denominations in the 15 years before a permanent Mennonite congregation was available.

Tradition has suggested that Staats and Susannah Overholt worshiped with a small so-called Baptist fellowship at Clinton by the mid-1790s, though the earliest record is their charter membership in the Beamsville Baptist congregation that formally organized in 1807, twenty years after their arrival in Upper Canada. It is also possible the Overholts were part of a Tunker (Brethren in Christ) congregation for a time, along with their Kulp neighbors, before joining the Baptists.

Staats Overholt’s family did not join the new Mennonite congregation when it formed in 1801 under the leadership of later Mennonite immigrants, but it is probable they worshiped with the Mennonites or Tunkers occasionally, especially during the years before the Baptist fellowship was functional.

Indeed, the Staats Overholt family had an uneasy relationship with the Baptist fellowship after it was formally organized. Already by early 1808 Staats, his oldest son, Isaac, and their wives declared a “disfellowship” with the Baptist church because “they could not walk with us because we bore arms.” They then returned to the Baptist fellowship for periods of time, though a Jacob Overhault is listed as “Menonist” in the 1818 Lincoln [County] Militia Return.

Overholt’s neighbors, Jacob and Tilman Kulp, might have been Tunkers before they immigrated to Canada, but it is more likely they were Mennonites influenced by the Tunker settlement at Pelham that began in the late 1780s. The only confirmation of their being Tunker is the 1818 militia return, some 30 years after their arrival in Canada.

Affiliation with the Tunkers by some of the Clinton Mennonites need not have included traveling to Pelham Township for worship services, since the Tunkers did not have meetinghouses until much later—in the 1870s. It is more likely that Tunker Bishop John Winger or Minister Christian Stickley traveled occasionally to Clinton Township to the home of the Kulps or others who wished to participate in such a worship service. This could have been as infrequently as several times a year to perhaps monthly.

Early services would likely have included lengthy sermons, singing, and testimonies. The meetings in private homes would have continued the intimate nature of worship that reflected the group’s Mennonite and Pietist roots. The early Tunkers had no hymnbooks of their own, and may have continued to use hymnbooks inherited from their Mennonite roots. Indeed, John Winger’s family records are said to have been kept in an Ausbund, the hymnbook used by Mennonites in North America until they began to create their own in 1803.

In an earlier post, I discussed whether these early Mennonite immigrants were Loyalists.

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

European Amish come to Canada in the 1820s

Although Mennonites had not yet filled Woolwich Township, north of Waterloo Township, by 1819 they were looking for more land to develop to the west, particularly the Crown Reserve that became Wilmot Township. As they became aware that more townships were being surveyed by the government in preparation for settlement, in April 1819 they petitioned the Executive Council of Upper Canada to set aside a township, or part thereof, for Mennonites.

The Mennonites received a quick refusal since some government leaders, including Anglican priest (later bishop) and educator John Strachan, believed (correctly) that the pacifists in Upper Canada had financially benefited from the War of 1812.

The council also believed the pacifist sects had not made an appropriate sacrifice in the war effort, and had actually obstructed that effort. While the petitioners wanted a block settlement similar to their experience in Waterloo and Woolwich Townships, they likely also wanted to profit from land development as Mennonites continued to arrive from Pennsylvania.

The government changed its mind about providing land to pacifist groups in 1821, when it tried to develop the “Crown Reserve for the County of Lincoln” (roughly the present Township of Wilmot) in order to defray the expenses it had incurred in purchasing other lands from the First Nations. British immigrants, who would have been preferred by the government, were less able to contend with the pioneer world in the vast rural areas of Upper Canada.

So the government was forced to look elsewhere. The most interested settlers were Mennonites. News of the government offer in November 1821 to reserve a township for Mennonites reached Pennsylvania just about the time an Amish pioneer seeking economic opportunity for himself and his Amish countrymen arrived in North America. Christian Nafziger set out from near Munich in Bavaria in late 1821, and arrived in New Orleans in January 1822. He visited an Amish settlement in western Ohio, and made his way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by May. There his hosts advised him to seek land in Upper Canada, probably because of the recently reported Canadian government’s offer. Nafziger soon followed the suggestion.

The Amish in Bavaria were looking for alternative economic opportunities, at least partly because of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. The imposition of military conscription became widespread during the Napoleonic Wars, even though the option of paying for substitutes was available in Bavaria and elsewhere. These policies, which created difficulties for Amish and Mennonites, encouraged widespread consideration of emigration.

Christian Nafziger did not come to North America promoting a mass migration of Amish. Rather, he was searching on behalf of 70 or 80 Amish families from his region of Bavaria. In early September 1822 Nafziger and two or three Mennonites from Waterloo Township traveled to Niagara to meet Lieutenant Governor Peregrine Maitland. Nafziger asked for assurance that land would be granted if the Amish settlers came. Maitland’s civil secretary, George Hillier, reported such a guarantee was not possible. However, the discussion did confirm the parameters of the land grants that would become available—fifty acres, with an adjoining 150 acres that could be leased.

The role of Waterloo Township Mennonite land developers is puzzling. In many ways Jacob Erb and others seemed to use Nafziger’s petition to strengthen their own desire for more land at favorable prices. Jacob Erb’s February 4, 1824, petition said “a great number of Persons [are] ready to settle on said [proposed] Roads.” One suspects most of the “great number” were Mennonites from neighboring Waterloo Township looking for a good land deal.

Nafziger returned to Bavaria, stopping in England on the way. There he conferred with Prince Frederick, Duke of York and younger brother of King George IV. Prince Frederick provided further assurances about land grants. Nafziger successfully encouraged some Amish families from Europe to settle in Upper Canada, but not many.


Wilmot Township settlers in 1830. Ontario Mennonite History 14, no. 2 (September 1996).

In addition, two families he encountered in Pennsylvania came to Upper Canada in October 1823: the Jacob Kropf and John Brenneman families. The Michael Schwartzentruber family, newly arrived in Pennsylvania from Hesse, Germany, and perhaps a few others, also came along to Canada with the Kropfs and Brennemans. They arrived even before the location of the government’s land grant had been confirmed.

Another young couple who came to Upper Canada in 1824 from Alsace was Joseph Goldsmith and his seventeen-year-old bride, Elizabeth Schwartzentruber. At the same time or a bit later in the year, Amish bishop John Stoltzfus visited the emerging Amish settlement, perhaps to see property that his father, Christian, had purchased in Woolwich Township many years before. Stoltzfus ordained two ministers and a deacon for the Amish community while there: John Brenneman and Joseph Goldsmith (ministers) and Jacob Kropf (deacon).

The arrival of the Amish continued until controversy arose from the 1828 decision of the Upper Canada government to transfer ownership of the recently surveyed Crown Reserve west of Waterloo to the new Anglican-controlled King’s College (later University of Toronto). This transfer introduced complications for the Amish settlers. It raised the prospect that their land costs would become much higher than they had assumed from Christian Nafziger’s 1822 conversation with Lieutenant Governor Maitland. Indeed, concerns raised by this controversy led to the early departure of some Amish families for the United States.

For more information on Amish and Mennonites in Upper Canada, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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.



Mennonite-Muslim Dialogue – a Review of Events

Assimilated Mennonite conversations with other faith groups increased considerably in the 1960s. These Mennonites began to send observers to events sponsored by the World Council of Churches and similar ecumenical organizations in 1961. A series of Believers Church conferences that included Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, and others began in the 1960s and accelerated during the 1970s and later.

After Vatican II (1962–65), conversations began between Mennonites and the Catholic Church. Mennonite graduate students began to study at Catholic institutions like Notre Dame University in Indiana and St. Michaels College in Toronto.

Intentional dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics began in the late 1990s; perhaps the best-known forum was Bridgefolk, “a movement of sacramentally-minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics,” established for shared conversation and worship at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and other locations. These meetings often included Ontario Mennonite participants.

In more years there have specific academic conversations with Lutherans.

Mennonite academics also began to hold dialogues with non-Christian faith groups. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) had worked in relief efforts in Muslim-majority countries for years. In the early 1990s MCC carried out relief work in Iran after devastating earthquakes in that country. MCC then began to initiate student exchanges with Iran.

The Shia (Shi’ah) seminary in Qom, Iran, the world’s largest, has about 50,000 students. The Imam Khomeini Institute, which is attached to the Qom seminary, offers graduate-level training in the humanities to a small number of people who are already imams, or Islamic clerics. The Institute also sought wider dialogue, particularly with Christian theologians.

Under a formal agreement, Mennonite Central Committee sent Christian scholars to Qom for two-year terms. The Khomeini Institute particularly stressed that it wanted scholars who were very strong in their Christian faith because their purpose was to explain Christianity to Iranian students. In exchange, the Imam Khomeini Institute sponsored two Iranian students to come to Canada and to earn doctorates at the Toronto School of Theology.


A. James Reimer. GAMEO photo

These exchanges led to a series of academic conversations between Mennonite and Shia Muslim academics beginning in 2002, initially at the Toronto School of Theology, with the deep involvement of Conrad Grebel College theologian, A. James Reimer. Quite remarkably this first dialogue took place when the events of 2001’s 9/11 attacks remained fresh in North American minds.

The first conference addressed “The Challenge of Modernity”; the second, held in 2006 in Qom, focused on “Revelation and Authority.” The papers for the first two conferences were published in the Fall 2003 and Winter 2006 issues of the Conrad Grebel Review.

The third dialogue in May 2007 took place at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, and attracted considerable media coverage. Macleans magazine raised an alarm in an article that portrayed naive Mennonites meeting with thugs, and protesters threatened to overwhelm the event.

Although all of the Muslim scholars attending the 2007 conference had doctorates from schools in North America or Britain, opponents tried to get Canadian authorities to deny them visas. According to Macleans, opponents contended that the Khomeini  Institute “[was] a training ground for the Islamic regime’s most repressive elements.”

Representatives of MCC and Conrad Grebel invited the protesters to a meeting on the evening of May 23 to express their concerns. Arli Klassen, then executive director of MCC (Ontario) recalled, “They felt that if we knew about the human rights abuses in Iran then we would automatically cancel the conference. They were shocked to discover that we do know about the abuses, and we were intending to carry on with having the dialogue.”


Riot Police at Mennonite-Muslim Dialogue. Photo by Jen Konkle, Conrad Grebel University College

Riot police from Toronto were brought in and attendees remember police stationed on the roof of the college’s academic building. The initial public meeting was canceled in the face of protesters shouting down the speakers. (See Canadian Mennonite coverage and an article by Jim Coggins in CanadianChristianity.com for more detailed commentary on the event.)

Ultimately police action was not required, and the formal conversations continued the following day as scheduled. The event at Conrad Grebel took place eight months after Mennonite Central Committee had facilitated another controversial meeting at the United Nations in New York between North American church leaders and then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The essays from the third dialogue were published in 2010 as On Spirituality: Essays from the Third Shii Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue.

Despite the 2007 controversy, further dialogues took place: the fourth in Qom, Iran, in 2009 and the fifth in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2011 without incident. The papers from these conferences were published as Peace and Justice: Essays from the Fourth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue  and On Being Human: Essays From The Fifth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian DialogueThe sixth dialogue took place in Qom, Iran in 2014. The seventh dialogue is scheduled for Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2017.

Inter-faith consultations are a preoccupation of highly assimilated Mennonites only. Other Mennonite groups regard them as having no value and possibly dangerous in compromising Mennonite understandings of faith.

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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.