Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario 50th anniversary

In 2015 the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario had it 50th anniversary, though it did not explicitly celebrate the event. Perhaps the publication of In Search of Promised Lands could be seen as an anniversary project.

J. Winfield Fretz, the founding president of Conrad Grebel College, had moved to Waterloo in 1963 to undertake his role at the new college. One project he gave early attention to was the formation of a local Mennonite historical society.

MHSO Board, 1966

Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario Board of Directors, 1966. L-R: Dorothy Swartzentruber, secretary; Barbara Coffman; Herbert Enns, treasurer; Elven Shantz; J. Winfield Fretz, president; Wilson Hunsberger; Lorna Bergey; Harold Nigh; Orland Gingerich, vice-president. Missing: Henry Dueck, Earle Snyder. MHSO photo

On May 8, 1965, thirty-five people gathered to hear Orland Gingerich talk about the need for an historical society. Winfield Fretz then circulated copies of the constitution for the Mennonite Historical Society based in Goshen, Indiana. The group reviewed that document, and a month later approved a constitution along similar lines. It elected a nine-person board composed of J. Winfield Fretz, Orland Gingerich, Dorothy Swartzentruber, Barbara Coffman, Earle Snyder, Lorna Bergey, Henry Dueck, Wilson Hunsberger and Elven Shantz. The board was soon expanded to twelve.

The group, which had first-year expenses of sixty-three dollars, had ambitious dreams. It launched a series of bus trips, beginning with Vineland in 1966, with subsequent bus trips continuing into the 21st century. The society sponsored a 1967 centennial pageant titled The New Commandment, by Barbara Coffman. Later it mounted a stage play, adapted by Norma Rudy from Mabel Dunham’s Trail of the Conestoga, with performances in 1969, 1970, and 1973, and a film version in 1977.

Mennonites in Ontario booklet

Mennonites in Ontario by Marlene Epp, 2012 edition

The society published a popular booklet, The Mennonites in Ontario, by J. Winfield Fretz, in 1967, followed by updated editions by Fretz and later Marlene Epp. It  also sponsored two books by Lorraine Roth, and a reprint of Lewis J. Burkholder’s A brief history of Mennonites in Ontario. More recently it was the sponsor for In Search of Promised Lands.

The MHSO also played a key role in the preservation of two historical buildings. The first was the Brubacher House Museum , an 1850 stone farmhouse on the University of Waterloo campus. After a fire in 1968 gutted the house, restoration of the interior took several years. The society then furnished the main floor of the Brubacher house and developed the programming for the museum. Lorna Bergey coordinated the gathering of furnishings for Brubacher House which reflect the style of a 19th century Ontario Mennonite farm house.

Detweiler Meetinghouse

Detweiler Meetinghouse, 2003. Sam Steiner photo

The second preserved building was the Detweiler Meetinghouse located just west of the village of Roseville. This 1855 stone meetinghouse had been part of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario until services ended in 1966. It was rented for a time to other groups and  then remained empty for a time. The conference responded to appeals from local groups, including the historical society, and transferred ownership of the meetinghouse and the adjoining cemetery to a new board. Detweiler Meetinghouse, Inc. Three members of this board are appointed by the MHSO. The restoration to a 19th century meetinghouse interior was completed in 1999.

The society has been affiliated with Conrad Grebel University College since the beginning. It has encouraged donations to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, and to the historical library at the College.

MHSO also became an early partner in what became the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, joining with the Manitoba society in 1968 to help sponsor the writing of a history of Mennonites in Canada. The first two volumes of the Mennonites in Canada series were by Frank H. Epp, who joined the faculty at Conrad Grebel College in 1971.

Winfield Fretz served as the society’s president from its beginning until 1977. Lorna Bergey, another charter member, served as the society’s secretary from 1968 to 2000.

The Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario hosts a website at

Conrad Grebel University College

At the time of World War II, Ontario Mennonites were at somewhat different places in their approach to post-secondary education. Those who had immigrated from the Soviet Union (the Mennonite Brethren and United Mennonites) were part of larger Canadian denominational discussions that sought Canadian-based “higher Bible School[s]” that would provide university-level education. Previously, Canadian Mennonites of this background who desired post-secondary education in a denominational setting attended Mennonite colleges in Kansas—Bethel College in North Newton and Tabor College in Hillsboro. Since existing Mennonite Bible schools in Canada were taught only at the high school level, something new was required. Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) and Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC) began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1944 and 1947, respectively. These were the first Mennonite post-secondary schools in Canada.

However, Mennonites of Pennsylvania German and Amish Mennonite background who desired post-secondary education in a Mennonite context routinely went to Mennonite colleges in the United States into the 1960s–primarily Goshen College in Indiana and Eastern Mennonite College in Virginia, or were satisfied with non-Mennonite schools like Waterloo College (later Waterloo Lutheran University) or the Ontario Agricultural College (Guelph).

Norman High

Norman High. GAMEO photo

The University of Waterloo, soon after its founding in July 1957, invited a number of Christian denominations to establish affiliated residential schools. This proposed affiliation prompted Ontario Mennonite leaders to assess whether the number of Mennonite students attending secular universities in Ontario or Mennonite colleges in the United States warranted a local Mennonite-affiliated college. The specific vision for Conrad Grebel College emerged in 1959 from conversations within the Kitchener-Waterloo Inter-Mennonite Ministers’ Fellowship. A committee composed of Harvey Taves, Henry H. Epp, and Ross Bender prepared a report on “Mennonites and Higher Education at University of Waterloo”; this report shaped the emerging vision.

That vision anticipated a residential college with a minimal teaching program except for religious knowledge courses or specific courses contracted with the university. Norman High, soon to be the first Dean of Arts of the University of Waterloo, chaired the college’s first provisional board. Members came from five denominations: Mennonite Conference of Ontario, Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference, United Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ—plus the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church. In mid-1962 the Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ withdrew from the process at the time when serious fund-raising for the project began. One concern for these groups may have been their status as the smallest denominational groups within the proposed partnership. The Mennonite Brethren withdrawal, however, was heavily influenced by Frank C. Peters, who had served as pastor of the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church from 1949–54 and was now teaching at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg (where he was also the first academic dean). Peters negotiated an affiliation agreement between MBBC and Waterloo Lutheran University (later Wilfrid Laurier University [WLU]) in 1961. He believed this arrangement would be jeopardized by the Conrad Grebel College project, and persuaded Ontario Mennonite Brethren accordingly.

Conrad Grebel College Board, 1964

Conrad Grebel College Board of Governors, 1964. L-R: J. Winfield Fretz, Earle Snyder, David Bergey, Mahlon Leis, Arthur Harder, Jacob Fransen, Orland Gingerich, Harvey Taves, Milton R. Good, Henry H. Epp, Roy G. Snyder, Douglas Millar, John Snyder, Norman High, John Sawatsky, Ken Bender. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Conrad Grebel College received its provincial charter in 1961 and named its first board of governors. J. Winfield Fretz, a sociology professor at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, became the first president in July 1963, and the residence building for 106 students opened in fall 1964. The only other faculty member in 1964 was Walter Klaassen in religious studies; Helen Martens joined the faculty to teach music in 1965. By 1970 the faculty had expanded to six members.

This jointly owned project profoundly shaped the three conferences (and one congregation) that remained in the partnership. These partners eventually all became part of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, the result of merging their groups.

To learn more about Conrad Grebel University College read In Search of Promised Lands.

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