A Brief History of Menno Singers

Historically whether a Mennonite congregation in Canada had a regular choir in Sunday worship told one much about the historical roots of the congregations. Amish congregations and Mennonites from Pennsylvania did not have choirs in churches, though Mennonite educational institutions like high schools and postsecondary institutions from early in their history had choirs that toured congregations with special musical programs on Sunday evenings or other times.

Mennonites whose roots were in the 1920s immigration from Russia brought the notion of regular choirs along with them; they had developed in Russia many decades before.

Below is a draft article for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that I drafted about Menno Singers, a non-professional choral group in the Region of Waterloo that has existed since 1955.  It is no longer a strictly Mennonite choir, but still has a majority of Mennonite choristers.

Menno Singers, a non-professional community choir, gave its first performance in December 1955. Abner Martin, Harold Good, Doris Moyer and Edith Shantz founded the choir. All of them had participated in a touring chorus of students from Goshen College in Indiana, and desired a similar choral opportunity in the Waterloo County area. They were also Rockway Mennonite School graduates who wanted to continue to sing classical choral music. Although it began as a Mennonite group, over time non-Mennonite choristers have also participated in Menno Singers.

In its early years, the choir followed the pattern of Mennonite college choirs from the United States, and sang only a cappella music, in English, and raised money only through free-will offerings. Finally in 1962 it hired an orchestra, charged admission for the first time, and sang a two-hour setting of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin. This marked a significant change in the aspirations of the Menno Singers.


Menno Singers in 1966. Abner Martin in suit at left of second row. David Hunsberger photo at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario

cdcover_winters_snowMenno Singers established an association with Conrad Grebel College in 1974; this extended into the 1980s. In 1975 Menno Singers began to apply for grants to support its programming, initially from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, and later from other foundations. It has produced three recordings – Rachmaninoff’s Vespers in 1992, See Amid the Winter’s Snow in 2000, and Cloths of Heaven (2009).

Mennonite Mass Choir, sponsored by Menno Singers, began in 1974, and provided opportunities for amateur singers to perform major choral works with professional soloists and orchestra. While participants were not auditioned, they needed to be able to read music and attend regular regional rehearsals. Initially held annually, mass choir events became more occasional in the 2000s.

Menno Singers established an Abner Martin Music Scholarship after Martin’s retirement as director. The first award was made in 1981. The annual scholarship has been given to deserving Mennonite music students.

In 1997 Menno Singers experienced a difficult period when the newly-appointed director, Wayne Gilpin, lost the confidence of the Menno Singers executive over differences in philosophy and spending, and was dismissed just prior to Christmas. The dispute received much coverage in the local press. Fortunately, Peter Nikiforuk was then appointed and served the next 20 years.

In the 2000s Menno Singers cooperated closely with the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir (founded in 1965 by Helen Martens at Conrad Grebel College) and the Menno Youth Singers (founded in 2004 by Judith Bean). Together these groups became known as the Menno Singers family of choirs.


Brandon Leis

Menno Singers directors have included Abner Martin (1955-1969, 1973-1979); Jan Overduin (1969-1973, 1979-1984); William Janzen (1984-1987, 1988-1995); Leonard Enns (Interim)(1987-1988); Robert Shuh (Interim, 1995-1997); Wayne Gilpin (1997); Peter Nikiforuk (1998-2017; Brandon Leis (2017-present). William Janzen and Robert Shantz also filled in on several occasions when Abner Martin was unable to direct because of illness.

Mennonites and the Blues

In my high school years in Ohio in the early 1960s, I became a fan of folk music, including Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and the Chad Mitchell Trio. It was not until I got to Goshen College in Indiana that I discovered the blues.

Paul-Butterfield-Blues-BandThe album that triggered the passion of a directionless university student was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and their “Chicago Blues” sound. This soon led to performers closer to the original, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dave van Ronk, Etta James and more. The blues seemed to connect with the pain of feeling disconnected from my roots while facing an uncertain future.

The Kitchener Blues Festival was held last weekend, and it lead me to wonder about Mennonites who have links to the blues.


Job (Mark McKechnie) refuses to be convinced by Sonny (Dan Bieman), the fundamentalist Christian, while the “High and Mighty” house band play in the background. Canadian Mennonite photo, November 21, 2012

I have two stories from Ontario. The first is about a Blues Opera, “Job’s Blues,” produced by Ross Muir, managing editor of the Canadian Mennonite since January 2005, and a member of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Muir wrote the lyrics in 1988, long before he had any connection with Mennonites (he has a Fellowship Baptist background), but the play was not produced until 2012 when it was performed by the Grey Wellington Theatre Guild, in conjunction with The Grand River Blues Society, in six performances at Harriston Town Hall Theatre north of Waterloo Region. The opera is set in a bar and features God, Satan, Job (a blues singer), and Job’s “friends” — Eric a “new age” Christian; Gregg a prosperity gospel Christian; and Sonny a fundamentalist Christian, who each chastise Job about his sin.

“Job’s Blues” is the best combination of faith and blues I’ve ever seen. Ross has had a few nibbles since 2012, but none have come to completion.

Scrap-Metal-BluesThe second story is about a Toronto-based blues singer named Diana Braithwaite, who performed at the Kitchener Blues Festival with her partner Chris Whitely, to a very appreciative audience. She is a direct descendant of an African-American slave who settled in Wellington County, Ontario, part of the Queen’s Bush settlement. Her mother, Rella Braithwaite, was born near Wallenstein, Ontario, and her grandparents lived near Mennonites in that community, and went to school with them. The farm families helped each other with threshing, and shared farm equipment.

In June 2013 Diana Braithwaite spoke to the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario about stories she had heard about her ancestors and their Mennonite neighbors. Although it doesn’t mention Mennonites, her song, “Wellington County,” on her Scrap Metal Blues album of 2013 honors the early African-American settlers. This link of Mennonites and blues may be thin, but blues are clearly rooted in the African-American experience. And Black-Mennonite links in Canada is a historical topic that Timothy Epp’s scholarly work has significantly advanced.

Finding Mennonite musicians who sing the blues has proved difficult for me. An internet search led to only two — The Good Friday Blues Band in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, which performs only occasionally, and Bush Wiebe and the Mennonite Blues Experiment, based in Steinbach, Manitoba.

The Mennofolk website lists 94 performers. A few of them mention blues along with a variety of other genres, e.g. folk, rock, and bluegrass. If some of them have recorded serious blues, I would be happy to learn about them. I’ll add them to this blog, and try out some of their music!

I also wondered about blues written “about” Mennonites. One interesting song is “Mennonite Blues” by James “Super Chikan” Johnson, a Mississippi blues singer who clearly encountered Mennonites in his journey, mostly as a laborer on their farms. Less interesting is “Mennonite Blues” by The Electric Amish on their Barn to be Wild album.

What is your experience with the blues? Do you still listen to them? Why or why not?

You’ll learn nothing about the blues in my book, In Search of Promised Lands.