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 Pre-History of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario – Part I

Rick Cober Bauman

Rick Cober Bauman, MCC Ontario Executive Director, speaking at rally for Syrian refugees at Kitchener City Hall. MCC Ontario photo

The refugee crisis in Syria has highlighted the refugee work of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCC Ontario) in the Mennonite and other communities in Ontario. Donations, including $10,000 from the City of Kitchener, are flowing in, and planning for the arrival of Syrian refugees is underway.

Mennonite Central Committee Ontario formally began in 1963, though MCC as a relief agency has existed in the United States since 1920. It has been the inter-Mennonite relief and service agency that has allowed almost all theological stripes of Mennonites to cooperate in helping to relieve suffering in the world.

The roots of MCC, however, go back much further than 1920. One could say inter-Mennonite cooperation began over 200 years ago in Upper Canada when Mennonites and Brethren in Christ leaders together petitioned the government for recognition of their pacifism prior to the War of 1812.

The Mennonites and the Amish Mennonites cooperated in the 1820s when the Amish began to settle in what became Wilmot Township of Waterloo Region. Mennonite leaders went with Christian Nafziger when he first approached the Upper Canadian authorities about the availability of land for potential Amish settlers. When they arrived many Amish families first lived with Mennonite families in Waterloo Township, while husbands and sons built the first pioneer buildings on their land.

But here I want to talk more about the “organized” cooperative efforts, where committees were established to work at projects that could not be carried out by one group alone. These cooperative ventures also included the full theological spectrum of Mennonites at the time the organization was required.

I will mention two of these organized efforts this week, and four others in the following two weeks.

Russian Aid Committee

The Russian Aid Committee was established in the 1870s to assist Mennonites from Russia who were immigrating to “reserves” established in Manitoba for them by the Canadian government. These Mennonites represented groups who feared the possible loss of privileges in Russia, both in the right to avoid military service and to control the education of their children.

Sarah and Jacob Y. Shantz

Sarah and Jacob Y. Shantz, ca. 1865. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Jacob Y. Shantz, shown here with his wife, Sarah, was the leader of this committee. He traveled numerous times to Manitoba to explore the situation, and later to Manitoba and further west to see how the settlements were faring. He was effectively the secretary-treasurer of the Russian Aid Committee that was established to find loans for immigrants who needed assistance, and to guarantee government loans that were extended to the immigrants.

Ironically, this committee functioned at the time when the Mennonite Conference of Ontario was experiencing a major division that resulted in the formation of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now called the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada).

Jacob Y. Shantz joined the new group in 1874 when the division occurred, but two months later he was working on a committee with Amish bishop John Gascho and conservative Mennonite businessman and newly ordained minister, Elias Schneider. Although they differed in their religious views, they were able to work together on a common cause. The committee managed loans of almost $100,000 from the government, along with another $33,000 in personal loans from Mennonites in Ontario to Mennonites in Manitoba.

World War I

Ella & S. F. Coffman

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

Samuel F. Coffman and his wife, Ella, came to Canada from Elkhart, Indiana where they both grew up. (See an earlier article of Ella here.) “S. F.” Coffman never became a Canadian citizen, though he lived in Vineland over 50 years. So it is interesting that during World War I he became the primary spokesman for Ontario Mennonites in addressing the Canadian government on the matter of exemption from military service for Mennonites.

When conscription came in 1917, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, the Amish Mennonites and the Old Order Mennonites sent a delegation to Ottawa to seek clarification on the position of the peace churches. After an relatively unsatisfactory meeting, the inter-Mennonite delegation appointed Coffman to carry on further correspondence with the governmental authorities. This he did, also providing assistance to the Old Order Amish, the Brethren in Christ and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ along the way.

This communication included direct correspondence with Prime Minister Borden, Deputy Minister Edmund Newcombe, local Members of Parliament and Justice Lyman Duff, who heard final appeals on Mennonite conscription cases. From his experience in World War I, Coffman remained surprisingly optimistic that nonresistance could be protected in Canada, even in time of war. And the somewhat unified Ontario Mennonite voice would soon lead to even greater inter-Mennonite cooperation on matters of relief, which will be discussed next week.

To learn more about Mennonite Central Committee and it earlier roots, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Read Part II

Read Part III

Ontario Mennonite Relief Sale

This past Saturday my wife, Sue, and I attended the 49th annual edition of the New Hamburg Relief Sale. Among other things we saw a quilt with African themes sell for $42,000, followed by a rousing rendition by the crowd singing “Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow.” This has not always been the universal response to Mennonite relief sales.

Relief Sale Quilting

Three women quilting for the Ontario Mennonite Relief Sale at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in St. Jacobs, Ontario, May 1967. Courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Relief sales on behalf of Mennonite Central Committee began in Pennsylvania in 1957.  By the time Ontario began its relief sale, seven others were in operation in North America. J. Winfield Fretz, the Conrad Grebel College president, proposed in 1966 that Ontario Mennonites also hold an “ethnic fund-raising festival.” Ward A. Shantz, a successful Waterloo County dairy farmer, accepted the challenge and chaired the committee for fifteen years until his death in 1982. A Mennonite ethnic festival implied food and handicrafts, especially quilts. It also meant the sale relied heavily on women volunteers who created the products to be sold. Fretz asked Margaret Brubacher to help. Brubacher had experience with the Women’s Missionary and Service Auxiliary (WMSA) cutting room, which interacted regularly with congregational women’s groups. She agreed to head the relief sale’s women’s activities committee, and by October 1966 she had arranged for nine congregations to help. Mennonite Disaster Service would erect tables, tents, and chairs. Mennonite women also helped with publicity for the first sale by donating a quilt to Ontario Premier John Robarts two weeks before the sale. On May 27, 1967, the first sale at the New Hamburg arena and fairgrounds attracted ten thousand visitors and raised over $31,000 for MCC. One hundred thirty-six full-size quilts and sixty crib quilts were auctioned that year, though the 1967 sale prices did not achieve the prices of later years. The average full-size quilt sold for just under sixty dollars and the average crib quilt for twelve dollars. The highest-priced quilt was $240.

Relief Sale Cheque

Giving cheque to MCC Ontario from Mennonite Relief Ssale. l-r:Doug Snyder, exec. sec. MCCO; Margaret Brubacher, chair Women’s Work Com.; Elven Shantz, Relief Sale Manager; Ward Shantz, Relief Sale chair, 1968. Courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Food also became a relief sale staple. By 1968 MCC Ontario chair Aaron Klassen reported sales of thirty-two hundred chicken legs, 260 strawberry pies, two thousand other pies, a smorgasbord for one thousand persons, as well as pancakes, apple fritters, zwieback, and other edible goods. Although the sale continued to grow through the years, it faced criticism. Some Mennonites believed the sale pandered to North American consumerism in the face of suffering in other parts of the world. This criticism returned when the More-With-Less Cookbook, which lauded reduced consumerism, was published in 1976. But the relief sale worked because of all the volunteer labor and donation of goods that would be sold, frequently to members of the Ontario Amish and Mennonite community. Other relief sales also emerged in Ontario, though New Hamburg remained the largest: the Black Creek Pioneer Village Relief Sale held near Toronto (1967), the Leamington-area sale and auction (1970), and eventually another in the Aylmer area (2001). In 1982 an Ontario Mennonite relief heifer sale was launched, following the pattern of the other sales.

John Drescher, the editor of the Mennonite Church’s weekly paper, Gospel Herald, raised concerns about relief sales in March 1968. He questioned the money required for preparation and holding the sales and wondered if the money should be given directly to relief. J. Winfield Fretz promptly responded, saying the sales were a “supplement” to regular charitable giving, not a substitute. Fretz also emphasized the opportunity for inter-Mennonite cooperation.

2015 relief sale

After the downpour at the 2015 New Hamburg relief sale. MCC Ontario photo.

In the last 49 years, the relief sale has changed dramatically. This year raised over $350,000 for Mennonite Central Committee despite being interrupted by a torrential rain storm early in the afternoon. The over 30 food venues included Hispanic pupusas, Hmong spring rolls, Laotian sausage and sticky rice, as well as traditional fare like fleish peroski, vereniki, strawberry pie, watermelon and rollkuchen, summer sausage and tea balls. Two hundred quilts and wall hangings were auctioned, and events included a “run for relief.”

To learn more about Mennonites and relief sales, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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