Eden Christian College: from Mennonite School to Alternative School

I mentioned Eden Christian College very briefly in an earlier post. Today I want to look more closely at its history.

In 1938 the still small Mennonite Brethren community around Virgil, Ontario began an evening Bible school. In 1944 the local society running the school expanded to include members from other Mennonite Brethren churches; it also purchased a nine-acre property called Locust Grove near Virgil.

First Eden students

First students in 1945. Henry Tiessen at right. Courtesy of Paul Tiessen

In the fall of 1945 the society decided to add a high school department to the program, and it invited Henry B. Tiessen, a public school teacher from Kitchener, to establish the program. Tiessen had come alone to Canada from Ukraine in 1926, and had attended teacher’s college in Stratford, Ontario, earning a first class teaching certificate that allowed him to teach up to grades nine and ten. He taught in various public schools for a number of years, and in 1945 was invited  to teach high school courses at the new Virgil school. Appropriately, the school began with grades nine and ten.

There were 36 students in attendance the first fall. Rapid growth the second year saw the addition of teachers Abram H. Redekop, Anne Wiebe, and David Boschman. Grade eleven was added in the second year and grade twelve in the third year. The school received provincial accreditation in late 1946. In 1948 twelve students formed the first graduating class. A number of the original faculty members, including Tiessen, resigned in 1950, just as the school began a period of enormous growth; enrollment grew from 87 students in 1950 to 183 in 1955.

Like most new faith ventures, the school struggled financially. The Virgil Society, with the encouragement of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference, began a building project in November 1946 to create additional space. Money was short, and large debts were incurred. In 1948 the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches agreed to take over the school as well as financial responsibility. The debt was liquidated by the end of 1950.

In 1955 the high school became known as Eden Christian College. Additional facilities were built in the mid-1950s, including an auditorium and more classrooms. During all these years some students stayed in campus dormitories—usually between twenty and thirty per year.

Eden’s enrollment ranged from 140 to 190 in the 1960s, though there was a bulge to 280 in 1972. The peak of 329 students came in 1975. During these years many United Mennonite (General Conference Mennonite) teenagers from the Niagara Peninsula also attended Eden, even though there was a United Mennonite high school in Leamington. Close proximity and a generally compatible cultural ethos with the Mennonite Brethren proved more attractive than the expense of boarding their children at a distance. The sudden enrollment bulge in the early 1970s led to construction of a new gym alongside the old gym and auditorium.

Eden Christian College dominated discussions at the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in the 1970s and 1980s because its finances consumed at least two-thirds of the conference’s budget. Some conference leaders preferred greater spending on home missions and argued that Eden increasingly served primarily the Mennonite Brethren churches located on the Niagara Peninsula. About half the students at Eden were Mennonite Brethren.

In the mid-1980s the dorm facilities were closed, since few Mennonite students from outside the Niagara Peninsula still attended. The Mennonite Brethren considered switching to an association model similar to those in place for Rockway Mennonite School (Kitchener) and United Mennonite Educational Institute (Leamington), but this idea was not accepted. Finally the conference explored cooperation with the public Lincoln County Board of Education.

Rudy Bartel, 1996

Rudy Bartel, 1996. Courtesy Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg)

This conversation was successful, and in September 1988 Eden Christian College became an “alternative school” under the public board on a trial basis. The response in the larger community to Eden’s changed status was immediate. Enrollment jumped from 170 in 1987 to 365 in 1991, partly because tuition costs were eliminated. Eden was administratively led through these dramatic changes by Rudy Bartel, who became principal in 1986. Bartel resigned the post in 1990 and retired as a teacher in 1994.

It soon became clear that government regulations sharply delineated what public taxes would pay for in an alternative school and what they would not. It also became clear that the original Eden campus near Virgil was not suitable for the rapidly expanding school. For a time the public board had no vacant properties to offer as an alternative, but in 1994, when student enrollment exceeded 440, the former Scottlea Senior Elementary School in St. Catharines became available, and Eden High School (the “Christian” was dropped by the public board in April 1992) moved to the site in 1995.

By this time about one-third of the student body was Mennonite. The conference sold the old property for $1.25 million in 1998. Even the Scottlea facility soon proved too small, so in 2000 Eden High School moved again to the Lakeport Secondary School, also in St. Catharines, where the public high school and the alternative high school shared facilities. Lakeport Secondary School was in decline and closed in summer 2011, and Eden took over the whole facility. By that time it had over 800 students.

Eden High School operated as a regular public school, but chapel and religion classes were held before and after regular school hours. An active Spiritual Life Center continued to receive some funding from the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference ($7500 in 2015).

Eden High School

Eden High School today. From their website. See also the Spiritual Life Center website

After 2000, with the much more limited financial obligation from the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference, Eden had less visibility in the larger Mennonite Brethren community, though Niagara Peninsula Mennonite Brethren were still involved in the spiritual life center and its programs. Not everyone was happy with the change. By 2015, with 850 students, the school seems to be more of an “alternative” school than a Christian school.

To learn more about Eden Christian College, read In Search of Promised Lands.

There are also blogs on United Mennonite Educational Institute (Leamington) and Rockway Mennonite Collegiate (Kitchener).

Has the Peak of Mennonite Institutions Passed?

Bethesda Home, with addition

The original Bethesda Home in Vineland, with an addition. One of the early Mennonite Brethren institutions in Ontario. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies.

In the mid-20th century there was an explosion of institutions created by assimilated Mennonites in Ontario and elsewhere—retirement homes, secondary schools, post-secondary schools, homes for persons with special needs, camps for young people, financial institutions, and Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. These institutions allowed Mennonites to conduct many of their life’s activities within the canopy of the larger church.

But by 2015, this denominational institutional activity seems to have changed—at least for assimilated denominational and district conferences. There are multiple reasons for this:

  1. The close government regulation of seniors’ and special care homes has pulled these institutions further from the congregations and conferences that founded them. Although existing “Mennonite” homes may upgrade and expand, it is hard to foresee new church-related homes being created. Government regulations mean seniors can no longer assume they can easily get a space in the nursing home of their choice. And homes cannot turn away potential non-Mennonite residents.
  2. The demand for greater size in order to achieve economies of scale has changed Mennonite financial institutions. The Niagara Credit Union, once led by Mennonites in the Niagara Peninsula, has disappeared into a series of mergers. The Mennonite Savings and Credit Union has loosened its requirements for membership to encourage increased growth, and appears to be considering a name change in order to maintain its viability in a highly competitive market. This need for size is true for any institution highly regulated by government.
  3. Denominations and area conferences are having financial problems. Revenues from congregations for denominational and area conference ministries continue to trend downward. The ability to dream expensive new dreams for denominational brick-and-mortar initiatives is not possible as present church programs have to rationalize program and staff.
  4. The primary allegiance for average church members has shifted further from the denomination and area conference and increasingly to the local congregation and the separate institutions that provide services to the individual. The denomination is seen as distant and increasingly less relevant. The church member will give money directly to an educational institution or senior’s facility that serves his or her child or parent.

Mennonite secondary schools have needed to attract more and more non-Mennonite students and international students in order to survive. Eden Christian College in the Niagara Peninsula was forced to shift into the public educational system.

Interestingly, the more conservative groups, like the Old Colony Mennonites or the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario still create educational institutions that include the secondary school level education, but I wonder how long the government will grant continued flexibility to secondary schools that cannot provide educational resources similar to the public system.

Conrad Grebel University College

Conrad Grebel University College in 2009. Courtesy Conrad Grebel University College

We also see the challenge for Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo. Conrad Grebel has always in an unusual position because most of its operating income has come through tuition, government grants and residence fees. The Mennonite constituency has paid for the buildings with modest additional sums to help with operating expenses for things like the chaplain or the Mennonite Archives of Ontario. The percentage of Conrad Grebel’s income from its “owning” conference is less than 3% of its operating budget.

Conrad Grebel, and almost all the other Mennonite institutions, now solicit funding directly from their users, Mennonite and non-Mennonite alike, and have much less accountability to the conference structures that brought them into being.

Are these changes simply a reflection of what is happening in the larger Canadian society? Do these trends reflect changes in the way assimilated Mennonites relate to society today that differs from the mid-20th century? Is this an opportunity for the church to relate to Canadian society differently today? Or do these changes symbolize a more ominous trend?

Mennonite Central Committee, a different kind of Mennonite institution, will be the subject of a later blog.

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

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the “leave a comment” button below.