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

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.

A brief history of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School

In my volunteer work at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario I’ve been working with the Ontario Mennonite Bible School collection. This week I’m sharing a historical sketch I’ve prepared in connection with that work.

The Ontario Mennonite Bible School (OMBS) began in 1907 with a four week class held in the Berlin Mennonite Church (now First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario). The school was known as the Bible Study Class until the 1920s. “Bible school” became more common by 1930, and a new constitution in 1933 formalized the name as Ontario Mennonite Bible School, sometimes referred to as the Kitchener Bible School. In 1951 a more advanced “Institute” was added, leading to the name Ontario Mennonite Bible School & Institute. The school closed in 1969.

Ontario Mennonite Bible School’s roots were in the Bible conference movement that influenced the Mennonite Church (MC) in the 1890s and early part of the 20th century. It was part of a general movement within the Mennonite Church (MC) to place more emphasis on correct doctrine, partly as a result of younger dynamic Mennonite leaders who studied at places like Toronto Bible College or Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

The Bible conferences focused on doctrinal teaching based on detailed scriptural exegesis. These three- or four-day conferences for lay people had the positive benefit of extending biblical knowledge among the laity, but also provided a forum for introducing theological influences from other bodies, since the teachers in these conferences were reading literature produced outside the Mennonite community. Thus these conferences introduced fundamentalism to the Mennonite Church.

The first Bible Conference within the Mennonite Church of Canada (the name of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario until 1909) took place in 1899 and addressed a wide range of topics, including: Non-resistance, Holy Spirit, Special Talk on Dress, Swearing of Oaths, Going to Law, Church Government, Prayer-Head Covering, and Home Missions.

In 1906 the Mennonite Church of Canada decided to establish a “course of Bible study” to be held immediately after a scheduled Bible conference at the Berlin Mennonite Church in January 1907. Samuel F. Coffman, who had studied at Moody Bible Institute, and Lewis J. Burkholder were the instructors for the first four-week course held from January 14 through February 8, 1907. They each taught two courses. A total of 65 students attended either the daytime or evening classes. The evening classes repeated two of the daytime classes.

No Bible study class was held in 1908 because S. F. Coffman was under discipline within the conference for at least part of a year. Several years earlier Coffman had baptized two young women even though they had not committed themselves to wear a uniform bonnet in public, and they had continued to wear hats in public.

Despite this blip, in January 1909 the Bible study class was again held, although it was cut short by a week because of a smallpox outbreak in the Berlin area. Coffman taught classes on “Methods of Study” and “Church History.” Burkholder taught “Doctrines of Salvation” and “Studies in Matthew.” Later that year the Mennonite Conference of Ontario established a three-person board to oversee the Bible class now scheduled to be held annually. Absalom B. Snyder, minister of the Wanner congregation served as chair; Isaiah Wismer, minister of the Strasburg (Pioneer Park) congregation was secretary, and Urias K. Weber , minister at the Berlin Mennonite Church, served as treasurer. Board members were elected for three year terms. Over time the board expanded to nine members.

Ella & S. F. Coffman

Ella & S. F. Coffman, ca. 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

From 1910 to 1918 S. F. Coffman was the only teacher of the Bible class, except for 1916 when John D. Brunk of Indiana taught a music course.  In 1912 a six-year rotation of courses was established, and in 1913 the course was expanded to six weeks in length. That same year Bible class students built a model of the Old Testament tabernacle, a teaching tool that was used for many years. Meals and lodging arrangements for students were also established during this time. For unknown reasons, classes for most of this decade were not held at the Berlin Church, but rather were held in various rented quarters in the town of Berlin. Finally in 1920, the school returned permanently to First Mennonite Church (renamed in 1917 when the city of Berlin changed its name to Kitchener).

In 1919 Oscar Burkholder (Breslau Mennonite Church) assisted Coffman in teaching. In 1921 he became the second regular faculty member, working along with Coffman, who continued as the principal of the school until 1947. Burkholder had attended Toronto Bible College, which also nudged him in a fundamentalist direction. He served as OMBS’s second principal, from 1948-54.

Clayton F. Derstine (First Mennonite Church) served on the faculty from 1929-1949. He was a widely known  evangelist, author and editor in the binational Mennonite Church. Derstine had come in 1925 to First Mennonite Church after the congregational division that had seen the formation of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church. Derstine was a flamboyant preacher who sometimes came into conflict with conservative co-workers because over the years he became more relaxed over issues of church discipline related to dress regulations.

OMBS faculty 1939

OMBS faculty in 1939. L-R: Jesse B. Martin, Clayton F. Derstine, Samuel F. Coffman, Oscar Burkholder. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Jesse B. Martin was the fourth OMBS pillar; he taught from 1932 to 1966 and served as principal from 1957-66. Although Martin had grown up in an Old Order Mennonite home, he attended Hesston College and briefly studied at Goshen College. He was deeply involved in peace issues in the Mennonite Church, and carried a prominent role in representing Ontario Mennonites to the Canadian government during World War II.

Coffman, Burkholder, Derstine and Martin were the “big four” at Ontario Mennonite Bible School during its years of greatest influence. Other longer term faculty included Merle Shantz (1939-1952), Roy Koch (1947-57; principal for 1955-57), Osiah Horst (1953-1964), and Newton Gingrich (1958-69; principal, 1966-69).

In the late 1920s the term was expanded to eight, then ten weeks in length. In 1930 the schedule and curriculum were altered to follow a three-year cycle with twelve week terms.

OMBS faculty and students, 1932

Ontario Mennonite Bible School faculty and students, 1932. Photo by Ernest Denton. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 

The peak of enrollment occurred during the late 1920s and 1930s, ranging between 107 and 244 students in attendance.  This was partially in response to an addition built at First Mennonite Church specifically to accommodate the Bible school. By the 1950s the enrollment in Ontario Mennonite Bible School dropped below 100, and in the 1960s below 50. Most assimilated Mennonite young people were now graduating from high school and many were considering university education, so the Bible school model lost much of its Ontario constituency. A higher percentage of students were attending from outside Ontario (most often Alberta and Pennsylvania), reducing the incentive for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario to continue support, even as it was undertaking financial support for Conrad Grebel College, a new Mennonite post-secondary venture in Ontario.

First Mennonite Church before 1950

First Mennonite Church (Kitchener) prior to 1950. Photo by Ernest Denton. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

In the fall of 1951 the Mennonite Conference of Ontario began an Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute for more advanced Bible study over two 10-week semesters. The faculty and administration was shared between OMBS and OMBI, but the target audience was persons who would become congregational leaders, including pastors. It included courses on homiletics and pastoral theology, and Christian education courses aimed more at female students. Newer faculty members in the 1950s and 1960s had more education, including college and seminary degrees. Eventually the Institute offered up to one year of credit accepted at some Mennonite colleges in the United States. Enrollment ranged from the 40s to the 50s during the life of the Institute, though in later years Ontario students were a small minority of the student body.

Both OMBS and OMBI closed in 1969 because of declining enrollment. During its six decades of operation OMBS was one of the oldest, and likely the most influential, Bible school in the Mennonite Church (MC). At least that was the assessment of Clarence Fretz in a 1942 Mennonite Quarterly Review article. Certainly Ontario Mennonite Bible College & Institute provided an educational opportunity for many young adults in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in an era when a low percentage attended high school.

Fully assimilated Mennonite denominations no longer have Bible schools, but more conservative Mennonite denominations like the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship still use this model to help train their young people.

To learn more about Mennonite Bible schools, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Most of this information comes from Newton Gingrich’s Mission Completed: History of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute, published ca. 1971 from funds remaining in the OMBS & I financial reserves.

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

In Part I and Part II of this topic, we reviewed  inter-Mennonite cooperative efforts in the years before Mennonite Central Committee Ontario was formed in the early 1960s. These included the Russian Aid Committee of the 1870s, cooperation in communicating with government during World War I, formation of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization, and cooperation in settling Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

In this last post of the series we’ll look at two projects related to World War II.

Conference of Historic Peace Churches

World War II was when Ontario inter-Mennonite cooperation really blossomed. In 1939 the  Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO), which had been founded in 1917, was satisfied to stick with raising funds for relief, and hesitated to push discussions with the government about possibilities for alternative service in the event of war. The NRRO’s leadership was the same as it had been in World War I, and thus was well-respected, but quite elderly.

Jesse B. and Naomi Martin

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

This passive approach did not suit younger leaders who were still in their 30s and 40s. These included J. Harold Sherk of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, E. J. Swalm of the Brethren in Christ, and Jesse B. Martin of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. They established a new organization called the Conference of Historic Peace Churches, which included all the Anabaptist groups as well as the Quakers.

After significant struggles they successfully negotiated, in cooperation with Mennonites in western Canada, the establishment of  alternative service work camps that were not under military administration.

The first camp in Ontario was at Montreal River in northern Ontario. The alternative service camps brought lay members of the various Mennonite groups together in a shared experience, and introduced them to a wide variety of non-Mennonite groups who had an aversion to war. Later, many Ontario men served in British Columbia as fire fighters and groomers of ski trails.

Montreal River ASW Camp

J. Harold Sherk (light suit), Religious Director for the Montreal River camp, leading Sunday school. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.


Material Aid in World War II

Cora Cressman, Marguerite Rempel and Clara Nafzigerworking in material aid at First Mennonite Church. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Meanwhile, back in Ontario, the women were producing material aid to be sent as relief to England, and later to the European continent. This was initiated by sewing circles, but became part of the larger relief effort organized by the U.S.-based Mennonite Central Committee. This effort included women from various of the Mennonite groups.

Mennonite Central Committee’s Canadian Office

Orie Miller, the executive director for the U.S.-based organization that began in 1920, decided at the end of 1943 that Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) needed a bi-lingual (English and German) Canadian office to handle material goods intended for relief,  do publicity and handle donations, serve as a clearance center for Canadian volunteer applications,  and serve as a liaison with the Canadian government. Office space was rented from a controversial doctor, who was also a spiritualist who held séances next to the MCC offices.

Cornelius J. Rempel

Cornelius J. Rempel, first director of MCC’s Canadian office. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Cornelius and Marguerite Rempel (Marguerite was pictured on the picture above) became the couple in charge of the office. Rempel was a banker by profession, and well suited to the role. Support staff came from both Ontario and western Canada, and many of the young women who served in this role went on to overseas service after the war.

Alice Snyder and Harvey Taves

Alice Snyder and Harvey Taves, 1963. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

The Rempels resigned in 1950, and after a couple years of interim leadership, a new young leader for the office from Manitoba was identified. This was Harvey Taves, who brought a vision for voluntary service and an expanded peace witness to the role. He initiated VS programs in Newfoundland, and in a number of Ontario psychiatric facilities. He also initiated the Ailsa Craig Boy’s Farm in 1955.

Harvey Taves shepherded the transition from Kitchener being MCC’s Canadian office to the formation of MCC Ontario, and the construction of the original building at 50 Kent Avenue in Kitchener in late 1963. He died two years later at the early age of 39.

For more information on Mennonite Central Committee, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Read Part I

Read Part II