A Lazy Sunday Morning in Mennonite Country

My wife, Sue, and I attend an assimilated Mennonite Church (Rockway Mennonite) that chooses not to hold worship services on the August Civic Holiday weekend. The last several years we’ve started a tradition of driving about the countryside passing as many Mennonite churches as possible, both in variety and number, over a three-hour period.

This year we made it past 26 churches from 10 Mennonite denominations between 9:30 am and 12:30 pm. In addition we passed two churches with Mennonite roots that are no longer Mennonite. The churches we passed included:

  1. Kitchener Mennonite Brethren (service was underway; Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches)
  2. Rockway Mennonite Church (also in Kitchener, no service; Mennonite Church Canada)
  3. Martin’s Mennonite Meetinghouse (north end of Waterloo on King Street, no service this Sunday by the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Church)
  4. Conestoga Old Order Mennonite Church (Three Bridges Road near St. Jacobs, service underway; lot full of buggies)
  5. David Martin Meetinghouse (King Street North west of St. Jacobs, service underway; note the variety of buggies)


    David Martin meetinghouse near St. Jacobs

  6. Hawkesville Mennonite Church (service underway; Mennonite Church Canada)
  7. David Martin Meetinghouse (Ament Line near Linwood, service underway)


    David Martin meetinghouse near Linwood

  8. Linwood Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Ament Line, closer to Linwood than the David Martin meetinghouse, service underway)


    Linwood Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse. Note the row of bicycles. These are not allowed by the David Martin Mennonites

  9. Countryside Mennonite Fellowship (Herrgott Road near Hawkesville, service underway; they are part of the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship)


    Countryside Mennonite Fellowship. We noted the cars brighter colors than some of the other conservative Mennonite groups.

  10. Peel Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Line 86 west of Wallenstein, no service this Sunday)
  11. David Martin Mennonite meetinghouse (Line 86 east of Wallenstein, no service this Sunday)
  12. Elmira Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Church Street, service underway)
  13. Elmira Mennonite Church (service ending; Mennonite Church Canada)
  14. Calvary Conservative Mennonite Church (Arthur Street, eight km. north of Elmira, service underway; Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario)


    Calvary Conservative Mennonite near Elmira; the cars are black or gray in color.

  15. Creekbank Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Concession 9, 12 km north of Elmira, no service this Sunday)
  16. North Woolwich Old Order and Markham Mennonite meetinghouse (Sandy Hills Drive, north of Floradale, service underway)


    North Woolwich meetinghouse, with Markham-Waterloo Conference Mennonites. The vehicles are all black. This picture is from 2016.

  17. Floradale Mennonite Church (service underway; Mennonite Church Canada)
  18. Crystal View Mennonite Church (Floradale Road, Floradale, service underway; Midwest Mennonite Fellowship)


    Crystal View Mennonite Church in Floradale. These cars seemed a bit plainer than at Countryside Mennonite Fellowship.

  19. Weaverland Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Buehler Line near Hesson, service underway)


    Weaverland Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse

  20. Bethel Conservative Mennonite Church (William Hastings Road near Millbank, service underway; Nationwide Fellowship Churches)


    Bethel Conservative Mennonite Church, Millbank. The building formerly belonged to a Bethel Conservative Mennonite Church that was part of the Midwest Fellowship. A division in the congregation led to creation of the Milverton Conservative Mennonite Fellowship. When the original Bethel congregation closed, the Milverton group bought the building and assumed the name.

  21. Heritage Mennonite Church (Millbank, no service?, building for sale; Biblical Mennonite Alliance)


    Heritage Mennonite Church in Millbank

  22. Riverdale Mennonite Church (Perth Line 72 west of Millbank, joint service with another church; Mennonite Church Canada, closing the end of August 2017).
  23. David Martin Mennonite meetinghouse (William Hastings Line near Crosshill, no service, or everyone has departed by 12:10 pm)
  24. Crosshill Old Colony Mennonite Church (probably had service that was over)
  25. Crosshill Mennonite Church (Hutchison Road near Crosshill, service over; Mennonite Church Canada)
  26. Martindale Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (service just ended; Durst Road near Heidelberg; there was also a schoolbus full of persons from a distance).

With the Martindale Old Order services being over (12:30 pm), we know that we’ll find no more active services in Mennonite churches, and we head home.

The two churches with Mennonite roots that we passed were the Emmanuel Evangelical Missionary Church in Elmira and the Wallenstein Bible Chapel just south of Wallenstein.

We were impressed by how full the parking lots were on a sunny holiday weekend Sunday morning, especially at the David Martin and Old Order Mennonite meetinghouses. Sunday worship has remained central in their lives, with no distractions of sports activities or a late brunch with the New York Times or disappearing to the cottage. It is a discipline that has helped to keep these groups thriving.

Another delight on our drive was finding a few David Martin Mennonite fields with stooks of grain, a sight that is becoming less and less in Waterloo Region.


Stooks of grain on Hemlock Hill Drive near Hawkesville

All in all, it was a nice way to spend a sunny Sunday morning in August.

Becoming a Toronto Blue Jays Fan

Since this is the dead of summer, and Mennonite history feels a little distant, and even though the Toronto Blue Jays have fallen on harder times, it has caused me to reflect on how I became such an avid baseball fan. In October 2015 I wrote a blog about Mennonites and Major League Baseball, but didn’t talk about why it mattered to me.

When I was growing up in eastern Ohio on a small 80-acre farm, two of my siblings, my oldest brother and my second-oldest sister, were baseball falls, following the Cleveland Indians. In the 1950s the Indians were a competitive team, unlike the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were about an equal distance away. (In 1954 the Indians won 111 of 154 games in the regular season, but lost the World Series in four straight games to the New York Giants; in contrast Pittsburgh won 53 of 154 games and finished in last place.)

Miss-MantleMickey_Mantle_1953In the third grade, 1954-55, I really liked my pretty, young teacher, whose name was Melva Mantle. My clear memory is that this positive association with Miss Mantle turned me into a New York Yankees fan, with their (also) young (age 22) star center fielder, Mickey Mantle.

My love for baseball means I cannot even count the number of times I read Duane Decker’s series of baseball books for boys about the “Blue Sox,” and I had my mother make a T-shirt with “Blue Sox” imprinted on the front.

On radio I was restricted to listening to Cleveland games (with play-by-play announcer Jimmy Dudley). My married oldest brother had a TV, and occasionally I’d get to see a New York game on a Saturday afternoon. On a few occasions, I saw a game in Cleveland, and saw Mantle hit one of his majestic home runs.

My interest in Major League Baseball continued at a lessened pace in my college years, but my year of poverty in Chicago in 1967-68 found me still going to several Chicago Cubs games, since seats in the bleachers were quite cheap. Leo Durocher was the manager, and Ernie Banks still played every day. Ron Santo and Billy Williams were the team stars, and Canadian Fergie Jenkins led the pitching staff, winning 20 games that year (and pitching 20 complete games) in 308 innings.

My move to Canada in late 1968 coincided with Mickey Mantle’s retirement from baseball. I remained a nominal Yankees fan, but never liked George Steinbrenner when he took over ownership of the Yankees in 1972. I was more than ready to switch my allegiances when the Blue Jays launched in 1977.


By Jerry Reuss (1988 Toronto Blue Jays Exhibition Stadium 11) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Although it was an odd ball park, old Exhibition Stadium had a kind of intimacy that the Skydome/Rogers Centre will never match. I still go to two games a year, and watch all or part of Blue Jays games when at home. I use my IPad to keep linked to statistical information at Gameday on mlb.com while watching the game.

I well remember the small group from our church meeting in our home on October 23, 1993.  After our usual sharing, we watched game 6 of the World Series. My wife, Sue, who was not yet an avid baseball fan, went to bed because she was preaching the next morning at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church. Needless to say, the small group erupted when Joe Carter “touched ’em all” to win the series. (Sue has reminded me, that she has “mended her ways” and is now an avid Blue Jays fan.)

Erik Krath, 2015.

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

I was also inordinately pleased when Mennonite Erik Kratz briefly played for the Jays in 2014.

If you are a baseball fan, how did it come about? What keeps you attracted? What caused you to lose interest?

Go Jays!

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference comes to Ontario

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference has a long history reaching back to the early days of Mennonite life in Russia. In 1812 in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement, a division took place between Klaas Reimer, who had been a minister in Danzig, and a new church Ältester (bishop), Jacob Enns, who apparently was arbitrary and inconsistent in church discipline, came into conflict with local Mennonite civil authorities, and was thought to have a weak spiritual life.

Reimer believed the church did not discipline its members adequately and that moral standards in the Mennonite community were low. Reimer and a like-minded minister in the Chortitza colony began to hold separate services and refused to participate in communion services at the main Mennonite churches.

In 1815 Reimer was chosen by lot by his followers to be an Ältester, but he was not ordained until 1817. Reimer’s group, because it was so small, was known derisively as the Kleine Gemeinde (small church), as distinguished from the Grosze Gemeinde (large church).

The Kleine Gemeinde remained small, and faced many struggles because the local government officials and the Grosze Gemeinde worked jointly in discipline and punishment. The emergence of the Mennonite Brethren as a Pietist renewal group in the 1860s provided the Kleine Gemeinde with more legitimacy as the Russian Mennonite religious community became more pluralistic. Nonetheless, the Kleine Gemeinde went through its own significant conflict in the 1860s, and members of the Kleine Gemeinde helped to form another group that became the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren.

As was the case with the other Mennonite groups in Russia, when the government in the 1870s threatened to eliminate military exemption as part of its desire to Russianize the Mennonites and other foreign colonists, the Kleine Gemeinde became part of the Mennonite migration to North America. About two hundred families were part of the 1870s migration; over 80 percent of the Kleine Gemeinde families settled in Manitoba.

In 1948 recurring concerns about spiritual faithfulness in modern North American society led about one hundred families to immigrate to Mexico under Kleine Gemeinde Ältester Peter Reimer in search of less troubled theological lands. Some of their concerns included increasing use of wedding dresses, use of musical instruments in the churches, and use of tobacco.

The emigrants also wanted to maintain control of their children’s education, and, in the postwar era, they had concerns about the security of their exemption from military service in Canada. It was this group that joined the search for a Mennonite “promised land” in Mexico, though they were more culturally assimilated than the Old Colony and Sommerfeld groups that went to Mexico in the 1920s.

By the mid-1950s the Kleine Gemeinde in Mexico had separated from the Kleine Gemeinde remaining in Canada, who were turning to English and a more evangelical theology. Some of the Kleine Gemeinde in Mexico moved to Belize in subsequent years.

The Canadian Kleine Gemeinde changed its name to Evangelische Mennoniten Gemeinde in 1952 and to Evangelical Mennonite Conference (EMC) in 1959. The more evangelical theological self-understanding did not include an explicitly premillennial or fundamentalist stance. Like the EMMC, the EMC traveled the path from Separatist Conservative (SC) to Assimilated Mennonite (AM) during these years. In addition to the language change, they welcomed flexibility in baptismal mode and the use of musical instruments in church, and they established a separate mission board. More pastors became trained and salaried. Like the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, the EMC also joined the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference had some outreach to Low German Mennonites who lived in Mexico, though it was less intense than that of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, which began outreach to the Old Colony immigrants to Ontario already in the 1960s. The EMC did not begin a mission work in southern Ontario until 1976, although there had been a mission in northwestern Ontario at Stratton in the late 1960s.


Lorna and John Wall, 2004. Photo from The Messenger

One couple who symbolized the target group for the EMC was John and Lorna Wall. Both grew up in Mexico; John was part of the Old Colony Mennonite Church and Lorna was Kleine Gemeinde. They were baptized and married in Mexico in the Kleine Gemeinde church. They moved to Canada in 1986, and then lived in Seminole, Texas, for two years before returning to Canada. John worked as a welder and attended the Aylmer Bible School in the evenings. They were active in the Mount Salem congregation near Aylmer, and they eventually studied at Steinbach Bible College before undertaking more formal church leadership.


Mount Salem EMC as portrayed in The Messenger, the denomination’s periodical, in 2015.

The Mount Salem church held its first service in September 1976. The EMC board of missions had heard “there’s a big field open and no workers,” which reflected an interesting lack of recognition for the work in the area by the EMMC and the fifteen-year presence of organized Old Colony churches. The congregation formally organized in 1977 and bought a former public school building late that same year.

The EMC next established mission efforts directed at Low German-speaking Mennonites in Virgil, Ontario (1988), and Leamington (1990). The Virgil effort soon withered, but after a slow start the Leamington congregation prospered, with assistance from the Mount Salem congregation. They began with German-language singing services and held services for over five years in the chapel at the United Mennonite Educational Institute. New congregations also began in Straffordville (1997), Tilbury (2000), and Tillsonburg (2000).

In 2017 the active EMC congregations in Ontario were The Church of Living Water (Tillsonburg), Grace Community Church (Aylmer), Leamington Evangelical Mennonite Church, Mount Salem Community Church, New Life Christian Fellowship (Coatsworth), the Straffordville Evangelical Mennonite Church, and the Evangelical Fellowship Church (Fort Frances).

Ontario is not the Promised Land

Last week this blog discussed some Ontario Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites that have moved to Prince Edward Island. This pursuit of cheaper land and better economic opportunity continues a long-standing pattern that began already in the 19th century.

Southern Ontario held less promise for many Mennonites by the 1870s after several generations of Mennonite settlement. The price of good agricultural land was becoming prohibitive for families needing to provide farms for many sons. The worldwide Long Depression that began in 1873 drove down agricultural prices, and many countries adopted protectionist import policies that limited trade. The agricultural economic malaise continued into the 1890s and encouraged struggling Ontario farmers to explore new opportunities. Many Canadians, not just Mennonites, sought new opportunities in the larger United States market because of low agricultural prices and the trade protectionism practiced by North American and European countries. Canadian historian Donald Creighton says the out-migration to the United States “began to reach the most alarming proportions.” In 1887 the Toronto Mail wrote that there was scarcely a farmhouse in the older Canadian provinces “where there is not an empty chair for the boy in the States.”

Mennonite agriculturalists began to move to Michigan and elsewhere in search of cheaper land. Mennonites from Waterloo County had already settled near Brutus in the 1870s, at the northern end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. As the newcomers came, this group subsequently divided in 1886 into an Old Order group and a group affiliated with John Funk of Elkhart, Indiana; Old Order bishop Abraham Martin traveled there in the 1890s to perform baptisms. Peter Ropp, originally from the Ontario Amish community, joined a Mennonite congregation in Pigeon and became a leading Mennonite minister there. This settlement, located near Saginaw Bay, began about 1890, and included persons from both the Amish Mennonite and Mennonite Church of Canada communities.

The Pigeon church was first organized in 1894 under Daniel Wismer of Berlin, Ontario. The congregation remained part of the Mennonite Church of Canada for about 22 years before transferring to the Indiana-Michigan Conference.


Amos Bauman. GAMEO photo

Other Ontario Amish and Mennonites seeking better economic alternatives moved to Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, Virginia, Oregon, and New York, though many of these eventually returned to Ontario or moved on yet again to other locations. One example was Amos Bauman, an Ontario Mennonite, who was ordained as a minister in the Stauffer Mennonite Church in Iowa. In 1903 Bauman moved to what is now Alberta, where he became the first bishop in the new Alberta Mennonite Conference there. After the Mennonite Church of Canada silenced him for his controversial views on sanctification, he affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Thus this leader from Waterloo County, Ontario, traveled theologically from the Mennonite Church of Canada to the conservative Stauffer Mennonite Church, back to the Alberta Mennonite Conference, and finally to the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.


For the Ontario Amish, beginning in the late 1870s there were small emigrations to Nebraska, Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia, and Michigan. Other than Michigan, most of these communities failed over time, with settlers returning to Ontario or continuing on to other locations in the United States.

In about 1874, Erb, Jantzi, Ulrich and other Amish families from Waterloo County moved near Milford, Seward County, Nebraska. They joined other Amish from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois at a time when governments both in Canada and the United States were offering land in Manitoba, Kansas and Nebraska to settlers at low prices. This was at the same time such offers were being made to Mennonites from Russia.

In 1883/84 Gerber, Boshart, Schweitzer, and Kennel families moved to O’Neill, Holt County, Nebraska where a small Amish Mennonite community existed until the 1940s.


Magdalena Brenneman Gerber. Photo from Minnesota Meanderings

Another such settlement was in Nobles County, Minnesota. Bishop Joseph Gerber and his wife, Magdalena, went there from Ontario in March 1893 and ordained another minister and deacon before the end of the year. By 1894 the settlement included 12 families. Interestingly, even though Bishop Gerber had favored building a meetinghouse for Amish worship in Ontario, none was ever built in the Nobles County community. Consequently they were able to remain in fellowship with both house Amish and church Amish.

At least 35 Amish families lived in Nobles County by the time the settlement came to an end in 1910, due not to the failure of crops, which were generally good, but because of internal dissension. Already by 1903 some families (and ministers) began to leave. Bishop Gerber and half the community left for Oscoda County, Michigan, in 1908, where they founded an Old Order Amish settlement. Minister Valentine Gerber and deacon Joseph Gerber, the two remaining ordained men, returned to Ontario in 1910. Joseph Gerber joined the East Zorra congregation, and Valentine Gerber affiliated with the Blake (Huron County) congregation, but was a member of the Nafziger (Beachy Amish) congregation when he died.

What will happen to the Amish and Mennonite migrations to Prince Edward Island, remains to be seen. But their venture in search of cheaper land has antecedents going back more than 140 years.

I’m indebted to Bruce Jantzi, ed. Minnesota Meanderings: the Amish Mennonite Settlement in Nobles County, Minnesota 1891-1910 for some of this information.

To read more Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

The Amish on Prince Edward Island

In early 2016 I wrote about Ontario Old Order Mennonites and Amish who were considering establishing daughter settlements on Prince Edward Island. I quote some of it below:

This is not the first time these groups have considered Prince Edward Island as a destination because of its rural nature and relative isolation. In the late 1960s members of the Aylmer Amish community considered moving there in the wake of some of their conflicts with government officials. In the end a few went to Honduras, and the rest stayed in Ontario.

Today the primary motivation for these explorations seems to be good, cheap agricultural land. At least 10 families from the Milverton and Mount Elgin (near Woodstock) Amish communities have bought or contracted for farms in Kings County, eastern PEI near the town of Montague, according to an article in The Guardian (a Charlottetown newspaper). According to a local realtor, conversations with the Amish began in 2013. The Guardian editorialized in favor of welcoming the Amish already in October 2014. The cost per acre in PEI is 10-15% of the cost per acre in their part of Ontario. (See also a recent article in the Toronto Star.)

There is also real interest from Old Order Mennonites from Woolwich Township, Region of Waterloo, and from the Mount Forest Old Order Mennonite community. Another article in The Guardian suggests this exploration is not as far along, though two groups of over 20 persons have visited PEI to look at farms in Queens County and southern Kings County. More visits are planned for this spring.

Summer-SausageThis exploration became a reality later in 2016. Several weeks ago, my wife Sue and I had the opportunity to find two Old Order Amish settlements on PEI during a vacation there. We knew only general locations based on newspaper articles. We searched back roads north and east of Bridgetown, and had about given up that part of the search, when Sue spotted from Highway 4, just west of Bridgetown, a clothesline full of Amish-colored clothing. There was no mailbox, but a hand-painted sign advertised Summer Sausage and Maple Syrup. As I took a picture of the sign a horse and buggy turned in the lane, and across the road a young Amish lad was dealing with the truck delivering feed.

Harness-ShopThe next farm, identified as a Kuepfer family, advertised a harness shop and “free-range brown eggs.” This settlement, seemingly the smaller of the two on PEI, was composed of Amish from the Milverton area of Ontario.

We then explored between Montague and Summerville. On a sideroad west of Montague we found the first of many Miller families, again alerted by a clothesline of colorful wash.

BakeryWe soon found, east of Summerville on Highway 3, more Miller families, including a Miller bakery that unfortunately was not open on the day of our exploration. We did not linger to take more pictures, since a young Amish girl in a dark green dress was walking towards us on the side of the road, and we didn’t want to cause alarm, or invade their privacy by taking their picture.

This settlement appeared to be larger than the “Milverton Amish” settlement at Bridgetown. There was much evidence of new buildings being erected in this settlement, and it seemed relatively compact, which speaks well for its long term prospects. Besides the multiple Miller families, we also saw Byler and Troyer family names. The roots of this settlement are the Old Order Amish community around Norwich, Ontario. These Amish are somewhat more conservative than the Milverton Amish.

SignThe CBC in Prince Edward Island provided an “Amish 101” article in 2016 that is quite helpful in distinguishing the two groups. The PEI government has also begun to erect road signs near the Amish communities on the larger roads, though “evidence” of horses was not as easily spotted as on some Region of Waterloo roads!

After our return to Ontario, we learned that five Old Order Mennonite families have also moved to Prince Edward Island this summer (2017). They are located near Hunter River, where they have purchased an old church for their worship.

Many thanks to Sue for writing down clear details on names and images as we explored these settlements. Her own blog, A Nourished Spirit, will share more about our Maine/PEI vacation in coming weeks.

To learn more about the Ontario Old Order Amish and Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Harold Groh and Rockway Mennonite School

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

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


Cora and Harold Groh. Family photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rockway Mennonite School

We have previously written about two earlier Mennonite high schools begun at the end of World War II — Eden Christian College in Virgil, Ontario and the United Mennonite Educational Institute in Leamington, Ontario.

Unlike the immigrants of the 1920s, Ontario Mennonites with roots in Pennsylvania found high schools to be relatively new territory at the end of World War II, even though their Mennonite cousins in the United States were establishing and expanding high schools. In 1944 no more than 20 percent of the young people of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario went to high school, less than half the Ontario average.

But World War II, as well as increasing interaction with the larger society, and the technological demands of even agriculturally related professions pushed the conference to explore Mennonite secondary education.

The Mennonite Church schools in the United States were burgeoning at a time when nonconformity remained a strong emphasis within a denomination that nonetheless accepted the need for increased education. Similarly, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario leaders sought to safeguard their young people from the world and to bolster the principle of nonconformity. Some scholars have talked about this as an effort to “arrest the secularization process” through these private schools.


Rockway Mennonite School, March 1948. David Hunsburger photo

The Ontario Mennonite Bible School board, which had run its program at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener for almost forty years, initially discussed the concept of a Mennonite high school and even had conversations with the Ontario Department of Education. Ultimately, however, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario gave the task to a new high school committee. By early 1945 this committee, chaired by St. Jacobs pastor Roy Koch, recommended purchasing a fourteen-acre farm on the eastern edge of Kitchener, near Rockway Gardens.

They recommended a committee member—Harold D. Groh—as principal. Groh was one member of the conference who possessed a high school teaching certificate. His primary work before then had been to lead the conference’s Toronto mission; he had also taught part time several years at the Brethren in Christ high school. Groh served as Rockway’s principal until 1956. The board also hired one additional teacher in that first year: Salome Bauman, a grade one public school teacher with twelve years of experience. Bauman was a gifted, inspiring teacher who influenced many students in her twenty-five years of service to the school.


Rockway Mennonite School’s first graduating class, 1948 L to r: Lois Martin, Delford Zehr, J.C. Wenger (speaker at graduation), Harold Groh, Ellen Martin, Roy Steckley, Robert Witmer. Photo taken November 11, 1948. David Hunsberger photo

As was the case for the other new Mennonite high schools, Rockway’s first year (1945–46) took place in primitive circumstances. The hastily renovated farmhouse was used as a girls’ dorm and classroom building. When it became clear a new building could not be erected by fall 1946, the barn was renovated into an office, dining hall, and classroom facility. Thirty-eight students attended the first year—27 in grade nine and 11 in grade ten. These were similar to the opening numbers at the Mennonite Brethren high school in Virgil, and the United Mennonite school in Leamington.

In 1954 and 1959, Rockway added new classroom facilities. As happened at the two other schools, the vision for students living in a dorm did not survive; the farmhouse dorm closed in 1958. Ross T. Bender, later dean at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary), served as principal from 1956–60, when enrollment grew to 170 students, a level not reached again until the 1980s. Ross Bender’s years saw a marked shift in the school’s vision, from the safeguarding of youth to preparing them to live in the world “confidently and victoriously.”

The early 1960s brought dramatic changes to the way Ontario educated its high school students, introducing new specialized fields of training. The province introduced specialized curricular requirements to the high school system. This effectively required the Mennonite schools to focus on an arts and science curriculum, since none of them were large enough to launch vocational and technology courses or the full-fledged business and commerce courses included in the other streams. This forced some students to transfer to the public system if they wanted to take advantage of those programs. The government wanted students to choose their stream after grade nine. This created stress for the Mennonite schools and enrollment at Rockway dropped below 100.

Rockway went through a crisis of identity in the early 1970s. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario, which still owned the school, had accumulated significant debts. Furthermore, Rockway’s educational philosophy was pulled in two directions; some wanted an evangelical Christian school, others favored cutting-edge educational theories that encouraged student participation in shaping the program. The resulting conflict within the board and administration saw constituency confidence in the school shrink.

Finally the conference considered a variety of options that were then tested in a plebiscite in conference churches in May 1970. The options included keeping Rockway as a conference-owned school or turning it over to an independent association.

The decision was made to follow an association model. The Rockway Mennonite School Association was formed in 1971 and took over management of the school, while the conference continued to own the property. This did not end the educational philosophy debate, however, and for several years Rockway functioned as a small experimental school with mixed success. Administrative instability and financial concerns created so much chaos that a vote was held in 1972 within the association on whether to close the school. Finally the board turned to a leader experienced in working within an association model. Bill Kruger, who was serving as principal at Westgate, began duties at Rockway in the summer of 1972.

Kruger brought strong, steady leadership to the school, and the student body and program offerings gradually grew. When the school began to teach grade thirteen courses in 1980, it changed its name to Rockway Mennonite Collegiate. The decade following also saw the school grow dramatically in size, partly because of the addition of grades seven and eight in 1986.

As with the other Mennonite secondary schools, most of the growth came from outside the Mennonite community. By 1993–94 there were some 150 non-Mennonite Christian students, including over 50 international students (mostly from Hong Kong), along with over 150 Mennonite Church Eastern Canada students, for a total in the 320s. To accommodate the growth, several smaller additions were built, along with a large addition in 1993 that included a double gym. When Kruger left in 1991, the school was in a healthy state. His successor, Bert Lobe, introduced a China international exchange program in 1991 that made the school particularly attractive. A Rockway diploma program was established by Lobe’s successor, Terry Schellenberg. This diploma provided special recognition for additional community service and completion of a set of religious studies courses.

The growth continued, partly spurred by an acrimonious conflict between Ontario public school teachers and the province’s Conservative government, which led to a public teacher strike in 1997. Still, some troubling trends began to appear. By 2000, enrollment exceeded 400, but direct financial support from the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada had flattened, even as the number of MCEC students climbed to two hundred. In the 2000s enrollment declined. Three factors contributed to the slump: (1) the province eliminated grade 13, which removed a significant piece of Rockway’s program; (2) the tax regulations for church-run student aid programs became closely interpreted and strictly enforced (increasing the real cost of sending Mennonite students to Rockway); and (3) as in other Assimilated Mennonite groups, the demographics of reduced birth rates meant that fewer Mennonite students were available to enroll. By 2012 the student population ranged between 310 and 320, with about 35 percent coming from the Mennonite community. Tuition for MCEC students in 2011–12 was $7,300, while Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ students paid $10,400 and other Canadian students paid $11,500. International students paid $17,000.

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

United Mennonite Educational Institute — It’s Early History

At the end of World War II, all the (partly) assimilated Mennonite groups in Ontario launched their own private high schools. Partly this was related to changes in the Ontario high school system during the war, which renewed an emphasis on patriotic teaching. In the fall of 1944 a reinvigorated cadet training program for boys in high school became compulsory, complete with uniforms and drills. Mennonite boys could ordinarily request an alternative activity such as first aid training, but peer pressure to join the cadets was strong. All the more assimilated Mennonite denominations had seen a significant number of their young men enter active military service during World War II, so an alternative to Ontario’s British-oriented curriculum became attractive to Mennonite leaders.

In addition, the more culturally comfortable Mennonites, as well as the churches from the 1920s immigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union, believed more advanced education enhanced Christian service, particularly for those considering a Christian vocation. Increasing interest in overseas mission work only underscored the need for adequate preparation.

We talked earlier of the Mennonite Brethren high school in Virgil, Ontario, Eden Christian College, as it was known for most of its years. This week we’re look at United Mennonite Educational Institute, located in the Leamington Mennonite community.

The majority of Mennonites in the Leamington area were United Mennonites (also from the 1920s migration), so it was this group that had the resources and enrollment potential to envision a high school to serve that community. As in Virgil, first Bible school courses were taught at the Leamington United Mennonite Church in the 1930s, but those ended with the beginning of World War II.

Word reached Leamington that United Mennonite students in Niagara planned to attend the Brethren in Christ’s Ontario Bible School in fall 1943. After a visit to the Leamington community by Brethren in Christ bishop Ernest J. Swalm, during which he stayed with elder N. N. Driedger, Swalm successfully addressed concerns of the Leamington people. Thus twelve boys from Leamington joined those from Niagara who attended Ontario Bible School that fall. The following year twenty students from Leamington attended, including some girls.

By fall 1945, however, the Bible school in Leamington decided to add some high school courses to its curriculum. Jacob A. Dyck and John C. Neufeld taught the courses in the Leamington United Mennonite Church basement, with an attendance of twenty-five students in grades nine and ten.

In 1946 a building for the United Mennonite Bible School was erected on seven acres of land along Concession 6 north of Leamington. The school added grade eleven in 1946 and grade twelve in the following year. The first classes in the new building began in January 1947.


UMEI in 1990. UMEI Christian High School photo

The decision to build the school at the Leamington location was not a foregone conclusion. All the United Mennonite congregations in Ontario participated in the conversations about launching a school, and the association that was established to support the school included members from all geographic areas of the conference. The association model was chosen because a significant number of persons opposed the project, and this model placed financial responsibility only on committed supporters. Perhaps more importantly, the United Mennonites had no structural body in position to launch a high school. The United Mennonite Conference had only organized again in 1944 with four congregations, and the large Leamington congregation, with almost seven hundred members, had not yet formally joined the conference.

One reason Leamington was selected was that it was seen to have the greatest potential for providing students for the new school. The Essex County Mennonite settlement had grown rapidly into the 1940s, and it seemed likely this trend would continue. The school had 78 students in 1947–48, the first year that it offered grade twelve, and had a graduating class of ten students. In 1948 the school’s name was changed to United Mennonite Educational Institute, popularly known as UMEI. With the seeming growth potential, an auditorium and gymnasium was added in 1950–51. This facility became a Mennonite community center for numerous activities, including churchwide conferences. In 1950–51 the school added grade thirteen, but this proved too expensive to maintain and was dropped after two years.

Except for an upward enrollment blip in the two grade thirteen years, the student population remained in the seventy to ninety range until the 1960s. UMEI never achieved the student enrollment that Eden Christian College did in Virgil. One reason was the low number of students that came from outside the Essex County Mennonite community. United Mennonite students on the Niagara Peninsula often chose to commute to Eden rather than to live in a dormitory at Leamington. Over the years, use of the dormitory decreased until it was closed in 1970. In 1974 enrollment exceeded 120 for the first time, and the number of graduates topped 30.

In the next decades the school worked to attract more students from other Mennonite and non-Mennonite groups. Despite the influx of students from outside the core community, the decade of the 1980s, with its difficult economic times, created great stress for administration and staff. The graduating classes for 1989 and 1990 had only ten students each, and in 1988 enrollment dropped to 54 students, making the operation of the school financially unviable.


UMEI Christian High School students welcome a Syrian refugee family to Leamington, May 2017. UMEI Christian High School photo

The 1990s saw a revival for UMEI, but the numbers never returned to the levels of the early 1970s. The demographics of the supporting Mennonite community limited potential for growth, and the school’s size did not allow for academic specializations that were available in large public high schools. By 1995 over 40 percent of the students came from outside the sponsoring Mennonite community. Ultimately, the effort to expand the base of supporters led to a name change in 2006 to UMEI Christian High School. By fall 2012 total enrollment dropped to 42.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, UMEI Christian High School continued to play an important role within the Mennonite community. Many of its graduates became leaders in the churches and the community.

To learn more about Mennonite secondary education in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands. Next week we’ll look at Rockway Mennonite School.

Montreal River Alternative Service Work Camp – Part 2

Last week was the first of two parts on the Montreal River Alternative Work Camp in Northern Ontario during World War II.

Once launched in July 1941, there were often 150-200 men in the Montreal River camp. They worked six days a week with an eight-hour day, with an hour for lunch. The meals were basic starch-filled farm food—potatoes, beef, and beans, with homemade bread. Breakfast included porridge, sometimes a bit of beef. Sunday evenings featured pie for dessert. It was said that at least one CO gained 40 pounds during his time at Montreal River.


Christmas dinner at the Montreal River Alternative Service Camp, December, 1941. J. Harold Sherk, front right; C.E. Tench, the engineer and camp boss sits across from Sherk. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

The men cleared rocks, trees, and brush for extending the Trans-Canada Highway farther north. They also worked in gravel pits and did carpentry work and some surveying. Evenings were spent in letter writing, reading, singing, and sports or games.

Montreal River ASW Camp

J. Harold Sherk (light suit) leading Sunday school at Montreal River ASW Camp. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Sunday school, along with Sunday morning and evening church services, usually took place in the recreation hall. Since the Old Order Mennonites were not accustomed to Sunday school, they sought the advice of their ministers. The ministers advised them to attend Sunday school, but not to participate in the discussion. When a religious director was not present, one of the men would lead. Old Order Mennonite Noah W. Bearinger recalled a one-week visit by Bloomingdale pastor Howard Stevanus, who held a service every evening, with pre-announced topics. Talks on “peace and war” and “prophecy” got good attendance, but when he talked “in simple plain language” about “pure courtship [practices]” the hall was packed with the conscientious objectors (COs), along with some of the non-CO staff.

It soon became apparent to the COs that the government was not serious about building a highway, since most of the work was done by hand. Many men came to feel the work location mostly kept the conscientious objectors from the scrutiny of patriotic Canadians farther south. Wilson Hunsberger was part of the first group to go to Montreal River. He recalled Montreal River as a “make work” project that was just accepted as something one did for four months instead of taking military training. Years later it became clear to those who had served that much of the road work they did at Montreal River did not become part of the eventual Trans-Canada Highway, as the route was slightly altered.

Despite the questionable value of the work, the alternative service work camps had a profound impact on most men who served. Although Mennonites formed the vast majority of the COs, other denominations were also present. The diversity had a broadening impact as Mennonite campers rubbed shoulders with Christadelphians, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, Pentecostals, members of the Salvation Army, and pacifists from mainline denominations like the United Church of Canada. The range of denominations did sometimes hinder shared spiritual fellowship within the camp; while the Mennonite groups were able to fellowship together, the Seventh Day Adventists and Plymouth Brethren generally declined participation in public worship and in the small fellowship groups organized by the campers. The camps shaped friendships and mutual respect between Amish, Pennsylvania German Mennonites, and Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union. The adjustment to camp life was probably most difficult for young men from the Old Order groups. Old Order Mennonite Noah W. Bearinger noted that in early 1943, out of 215 men in the Montreal River camp, 30 were Old Order Mennonite. Years later he lamented that only 11 of those 30 men remained Old Order.

To learn more about Mennonites and World War II, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Montreal River Alternative Service Work Camp

This coming Saturday (June 17), the Theatre of the Beat will be putting on the play, “Yellow Bellies,” at Floradale Mennonite Church at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. It’s a fundraiser, sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, for placing a heritage plaque at the location of the Montreal River Alternative Service Work Camp north of Sault Ste. Marie. The play is an historical drama with live music, highlighting the experiences and public response to Mennonite conscientious objectors during World War II. Get more information on the play at http://mhso.org/content/yellow-bellies.

It’s cause to review the context for this ASW camp. Canada entered World War II in 1939, but initially operated only with volunteers. But by mid-1940, preparations for a possible draft of young men was underway.

The National Resources Mobilization Act in June 1940 forced Mennonite young men to make a decision. Previously they simply kept their heads down to avoid the war hysteria that began in the spring of 1940. Very few Mennonites volunteered for active military service prior to July 1940. But once the Canadian government called for registration, hard decisions were required. The Committee on Military Problems (CMP), a subcommittee of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches, served as a mediator between Amish and Mennonite young men and government officials.

In the first months of registration the CMP had to resist the temptation of many Mennonites in farming communities to simply seek agricultural exemptions. If a young man applied for and received this exemption without first registering as a conscientious objector, he was no longer eligible to apply for conscientious objector status if the agricultural exemption was lost.

The Conference of Historic Peace Churches coordinated conscientious objector registration in Ontario. This reduced the problem of confrontational and potentially confusing interrogations of young men by military officials, something that happened regularly in Western Canada. Many of these young Mennonite men had only a grade eight education.

Only rarely did a registered young man have to face the mobilization board. Each congregation submitted a list of names to the CHPC certifying a young man’s status as a conscientious objector. The secretary of the Committee on Military Problems added his signature and sent the list on to the district registrar. The CMP secretary also determined which young men would be sent to the alternative service work camp and which would be granted a postponements as farmers. Noah M. Bearinger, the CMP secretary, held this powerful role; he would ultimately have conflicts with some families since it allowed him to decide which young men were forced to leave home to serve and which could remain at home.

Jesse B. and Naomi Martin

Jesse B. and Naomi Martin, ca. 1950. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

On July 3, 1941, Jesse B. Martin, chair of the Committee on Military Problems, explained to the CHPC the work camp arrangements that had been negotiated:

The present arrangement is to open a Civilian Work Camp. On June 24 we (Swalm, Sherk, Martin) met with Justice T. C. Davies, Deputy War Minister at Ottawa. He told us the camp would be at Michipicoten and that it would be under the direction of Mr. J. N. Wardle…. Since, the location has been changed to Camp Montreal eighty miles [130 kilometers] north of Sault Ste. Marie on the Trans-Canada Highway. Mr. Wardle told us that the work will be in charge of the following personnel—a camp Superintendent who will have general oversight; a highway engineer; a number of foremen; a first aid director. It is the plan that the Historic Peace Churches will appoint a Religious Director…. The work will consist of highway building and first aid training. They will work eight hours a day. The period will be for four months and in the future it will depend on the war situation. The boys will be provided with housing, board and fifty cents per day. Medical and sickness will be taken care of by the government. The boys will be under the compensation law while working. Clothing has to be provided by the young men…. It is a beautiful location. Any one that loves God’s world with lakes, woods, rocks, etc. will say this is a fine location. The camp consists of a kitchen, dining hall, bunk rooms, wash room, recreation hall, staff hall, stable, etc.


The Montreal River Camp in 1941. Photo by J. Harold Sherk

Martin and J. Harold Sherk had visited the work camp site in late June. J. Harold Sherk was appointed as religious director for the camp by the CHPC on July 3, and he accompanied the first group of young men as they left on July 15, traveling by train to Toronto and then overnight by train to Sudbury. After finally arriving by train in Sault Ste. Marie in the afternoon of July 16th, they were taken 130 kilometers (eighty-one miles) in open trucks on a gravel road to the camp. When they arrived, the men were surprised by the large buildings, not knowing the site’s earlier use during the Depression as a lumber camp.

Next week we’ll discuss life in the Montreal River Camp.

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