The Pre-History of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario – Part II

Last week in Part I we looked at two early examples of inter-Mennonite cooperation in Ontario — in the Russian Aid Committee that assisted Russian Mennonite immigrants to Manitoba in the 1870s, and the cooperation in communicating with the Canadian government about Mennonite pacifism in World War I.

This week we’ll look at a cooperative relief effort that began at the end of World War I, and later, the assistance provided to Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

Non-Resistant Relief Organization

NRRO Minutes

Minutes of the first meeting of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization, 1917. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

At the end of 1917, the Mennonites in Ontario thought they had achieved a breakthrough with the government, and that Ontario Mennonites had the same status as Manitoba Mennonites who came in the 1870s and were “excepted” from military service, meaning they had no military obligations at all.

Unfortunately their understanding was wrong,  but this view influenced S. F. Coffman of Vineland, Ontario and L. J. Burkholder, a Mennonite leader in Markham, Ontario to discuss the possibility that Mennonites as a group make a contribution to the relief of war sufferers.

Samuel and Jane Goudie.

Samuel and Jane Goudie. Missionary Church Historical Trust.

An exploratory meeting was held on November 17, 1917 and included participants from the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, the Old Order Mennonites and the Brethren in Christ.  Samuel Goudie, a Mennonite Brethren in Christ elder (similar to bishop) was elected chair.

The Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO), as it became known, formally organized in 1918, and included all the groups from the November meeting plus the Amish Mennonites. It did not include the Old Order Amish or the Reformed Mennonites. This group chose S. F. Coffman as the primary contact with government officials, because of his experience in communicating with the government about Mennonites and non-resistant views.

In addition to raising over $75,000 for war relief, the NRRO advised their congregations about purchase of war bonds, and worked with sympathetic Members of Parliament to help with difficult cases of individual men who were detained in military camps. Ernest J. Swalm, later a Brethren in Christ bishop who became very well known in Mennonite Central Committee circles, spent a brief time in prison during the war.

The Non-Resistant Relief Organization almost disbanded in 1920, but then stayed in place until 1924 when the first Mennonites from the Soviet Union began to come to Ontario. It then went dormant until 1937 when the threat of war began again.

Mennonite Immigrants from the Soviet Union

Because of S. F. Coffman’s earlier work with the NRRO and his familiarity government officials, in 1921 he joined a small delegation of Mennonites from western Canada and the Soviet Union seeking to meet with the new Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen. They failed in that attempt, but did meet with the Liberal opposition leader, Mackenzie King.

King pledged, if he became Prime Minister, to remove a ban against Mennonite immigration that had come in after the end of the war.  Coffman and Samuel Goudie were part of another delegation in 1922 that finally saw the ban lifted in June 1922.

Immigration from the Soviet Union began in 1923, though these refugees all went to western Canada. The immigration to Ontario began in 1924.  The work of matching immigrants to host families in Ontario was done by a four person committee at the Erb Street Mennonite Church chaired by Ira Bauman.

Refugees walking up Erb Street.

Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union approaching Erb Street Mennonite Church, July, 1924. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

The number of immigrants who arrived in July 1924, shown walking up Erb Street here, was 40% larger than anticipated (850 persons instead of 600), which meant some families took extra immigrants, and additional families were solicited.

All Mennonite groups participated in hosting, from Old Order Mennonites to Amish Mennonites to Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The Bethany Mennonite Brethren in Christ church in Kitchener alone took about 100 persons.

Next week we’ll look at Mennonite immigrants after World War II, and the Canadian office of Mennonite Central Committee which began during that war.

To learn more about the pre-history of Mennonite Central Committee read In Search of Promised Lands.

Read Part I

Read Part III

The Clash of Cultures

When Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union immigrated to Ontario beginning in 1924, they forever changed the character of the Mennonite community. Although Ontario Mennonites had briefly hosted and otherwise assisted Mennonite immigrants on their way to Manitoba from Russia in the 1870s, most Ontario Mennonites had lost touch with these religious “cousins.”

Prior to 1924, almost all Mennonites in Ontario still had their cultural roots either in Pennsylvania or the Amish communities arriving from Europe or parts of the United States. Their customs and religious lives were quite settled. The Old Order Mennonites and Amish and the more assimilated Mennonites understood each other, even if they disagreed on theological and lifestyle issues.

Refugees walking up Erb Street.

Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union approaching Erb Street Mennonite Church, July, 1924. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Over a thousand Mennonite immigrants arrived in Ontario in July 1924, many more than their Mennonite hosts expected. These hosts knew little of the trauma their guests had suffered in the previous decade of the Russian Revolution and the following famine. They found their guests’ customs and worship styles strange, and were likely surprised that their guests had more formal education than they did. They found their guests were unaccustomed to the mixed farming culture of southern Ontario. The cultural differences showed up immediately.

Eight hundred fifty immigrants arrived by train in downtown Waterloo on July 19, 1924. They walked up the street to the Erb Street Mennonite Church where they met their hosts and were served sandwiches, coffee, doughnuts, and dessert squares in the driving sheds located behind the church. They were not accustomed to sandwiches, or to pie, or other staples of North American culture. This was only the beginning of education for both groups.

The hosts and guests even had some difficulty communicating. Most host families spoke no High German, and their Pennsylvania German was difficult for the guests to understand. This sometimes led to conflict. Nicholas Fehderau, who was initially hosted on a Mennonite minister’s farm, on one occasion misunderstood his host’s direction. The host became angry and shouted, “Kannscht du nett Deutsch versteh”? [Can’t you understand German?]. Fehderau, who had trouble understanding his host’s Pennsylvania German, replied “O, ich wuerde schon verstehen wenn du Deutsch sprechen wuerdest.” [Oh, if you would speak to me in German I am sure I would understand].

Jacob H. Janzen

Jacob H. Janzen at the time of his immigration to Canada. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

The problems with language extended to worship. It soon became clear the immigrants were not comfortable worshipping with their English-speaking hosts. They soon began their own services. Their differing languages were not the only issues in worship. One time, Jacob H. Janzen, an immigrant minister, hitched a ride one winter day into town with an Old Order Mennonite man.  Their conversation included the subject of music in the church. When Jacob noted that their congregations in Russia used pianos or organs to assist in worship, the driver ordered him out of the sleigh, and he had to walk the rest of the way. Most Mennonites in Ontario in the 1920s did not allow musical instruments in their churches.

Some of the relationships between hosts and guests were very positive, and led to long time friendships. But the nostalgic memories of half a century later often omitted the real difficulties experienced when the two cultures first met.

Learn more about this transforming relationship in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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