The Detweiler Mennonite Meetinghouse

On Sunday, May 28, I participated in a “service of remembrance and cemetery walk” at the Detweiler Mennonite meetinghouse, just outside of Roseville, Ontario.

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The meetinghouse in the 19th century. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 92-1.30

The Detweiler Mennonite meetinghouse is the only surviving 19th century stone meetinghouse built by Mennonites in Ontario. The building was constructed in 1855, replacing an earlier log schoolhouse/meetinghouse built at this same location about 1830.

Mennonite pioneers began to settle Dumfries Township in 1822. A Mennonite farmer named Jacob Rosenberger is credited for giving his name to the nearby village of Roseville. He, his wife, and two children died in the cholera epidemic of 1834.

Jacob F. Detweiler was already ordained as a minister when he came to the Roseville area in 1822. Jacob H. Detweiler, possibly a third cousin of Jacob F., who was an ordained deacon in Pennsylvania, also came to the Blair area at that time.

These men had both been affiliated with the Christian Funk group in Eastern Pennsylvania that was not in fellowship with the larger Franconia Mennonite Conference. The Funkites, as they were popularly known, had been willing to pay taxes to the new American government at the time of the Revolutionary War in the U.S. in 1776. This led to division with the larger Franconia group. The fact that both Detweilers had come from the minority side of this Pennsylvania division may account for the fact that the Detweiler congregation was not listed in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario’s Calendar of Appointments until sometime after 1837.

In 1830 Samuel Snyder conveyed an acre of his land to three trustees for the Mennonite congregation for a church, school and cemetery, and a log building would have been erected here about this time.

The present meetinghouse was built in 1855, and was dedicated on December 2 of that year. As was the custom of the time, services were not held in the meetinghouse every Sunday. On “off” Sundays local families would either travel to a nearby meetinghouse where services were being held – such as Blenheim, or would use the day for visiting friends and relatives.

Roseville always remained a small congregation. In addition to suffering from internal dissension from time to time, its location on the edges of the larger Mennonite community inhibited its potential for growth. Although families were large, the congregation’s children needed to move some distance away to find affordable farms or employment in the larger settlements. The congregation also suffered losses to the New Mennonites about the time this meetinghouse was built. The New Mennonites met at the Blenheim Union Meetinghouse about 3 km southwest of Roseville.

At the time of the John S. Coffman revivals in Waterloo County in the 1890s, the Detweiler congregation had something of resurgence. Solomon Gehman was minister at the time, and brought a more dynamic style than some of the earlier leaders. Nonetheless, after his death in 1912 decline again set in when no local minister was available.

The Rural Mission Board of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario provided monthly services at Detweiler for a time, with a variety of visiting preachers. This approach was not conducive to growth. However the little congregation of 15 members in 1921 again tried to revive by adding a second Sunday service in each month – this one on Sunday afternoons. They also renovated the building by closing the side entrances and placing a door at the east end of the building. The walls and ceiling were plastered and papered, the pulpit was shortened and moved to the west wall, the benches were cut to a uniform length and provided with a full back. At this time the congregation began to be more popularly known as Roseville Mennonite Church, though the name did not change more formally until the 1960s.

The little congregation undertook another renovation project in 1956. They added an 18 x 20 foot annex to provide Sunday school rooms, an oil-fired furnace was installed, along with a new ceiling, electrical wiring, and chemical toilets. They also stuccoed  the exterior walls, covering the stone surfaces. The following year additional painting and new doors were installed. The renovated building was rededicated in November 1956.

After their pastor, Moses Bowman, died suddenly of a heart attack in August 1964, the congregation had to seriously consider its future. In late 1965 seventeen members voted to discontinue services at Roseville, and the last service was held January 9, 1966.

A cemetery board continued to look after the adjoining cemetery, and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario appointed a board to look after the building. Little maintenance was done to the building over the next 20 years and it gradually deteriorated – shingles loosened, window frames rotted and the stucco cracked. Three different groups of Mennonites from Mexico rented the facility for worship services, but none of the groups stayed because of the inadequate facilities.

An Old Colony Mennonite group offered to buy the building in 1979, but on the advice of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario that irreversible changes to the building might be made, the conference decided not to sell. As rumors continued that the building might be demolished, Historical Society member Allan Dettweiler began a campaign to preserve the building. He urged the North Dumfries Township Council to purchase the building a museum. Eventually in November 1987 the conference agreed to transfer ownership of the building to a non-profit organization with the stipulation that the property remain intact and unsevered. The formal transfer to the new Detweiler Meetinghouse Incorporated board took place on March 30, 1992.

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The restored meetinghouse. Photo by Sam Steiner

Detweiler-InteriorThe new board aimed to restore the meetinghouse as it appeared in 1855 – this meant “undoing” all the exterior and interior renovations that had taken place beginning in 1921. Stucco was removed, and the stone cleaned and repointed. The addition of 1956 was removed and the entry doors returned to their former location. Windows were replaced, and the chimneys restored. A “wood shed” was added to include modern washrooms to serve the meetinghouse and cemetery. Tiered benches following the design of the original benches were installed over a refurbished floor, and a ventilation system to reduce future damage was included. The restored meetinghouse was dedicated September 26, 1999, including a worship service following a mid-nineteenth century style.

For a detailed history of this meetinghouse see Reg Good. Detweiler: Detweiler’s Meetinghouse: a history of Mennonites near Roseville, Ontario. Roseville, Ont.: Detweiler Meetinghouse, Inc., 1999.

To learn more about 19th century Mennonites in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

Daniel Hoch, Cautious Innovator

Daniel Hoch was a religious innovator, who worked hard to maintain a core of Mennonite faith and tradition in the New Mennonite movement he helped to launch in the late 1840s as a defense against more radical movements.

Daniel and Margaret Hoch

Daniel and Margaret Hoch, 1870s. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Daniel Hoch was born in 1805 in Lincoln County, Ontario, in the middle of a family of six children. His parents had come to Canada in 1800 as part of the emerging Mennonite settlement at The Twenty (Vineland area).

His growing up years were not distinguished. He attended grade school, and was a farmer all his life. When he was 21 he married Margaret Kratz, the 18 year old daughter of one of the settlement’s ministers.

At age 26 (in 1831) he was chosen by lot to be a minister, after the early death of the bishop’s son, who was also a minister by that time.

Within a couple of years, the religious tranquility of the community was tested when the pietistic Evangelical Association (now part of the United Church of Canada) sent missionaries to the Niagara Peninsula to seek converts among German-speaking people who had not had a crisis conversion experience. This included most Mennonites.

Daniel was influenced by this movement, and ultimately had his own sense of conversion. He welcomed innovations like Sunday school, and encouraged practices like family worship, oral prayers before meals, and the holding of prayer meetings.

The ordained leaders at The Twenty were divided on these issues. The bishop, Jacob Gross, wanted to go even further, using highly emotional services to pressure potential converts. Hoch was not prepared to go that far, and took a more restrained view. However, the two other ministers at The Twenty wanted none of the innovations.

Finally in 1849 Daniel Hoch, Bishop Gross, and a deacon who agreed with Gross’s more flamboyant views, were “silenced” as ministers by the senior bishop from Waterloo, Benjamin Eby. Jacob Gross and the deacon led a third of the congregation to join the Evangelical Association.

Daniel Hoch led another third to form a “New Mennonite” congregation that consciously retained adherence to major points of Mennonite faith, including nonresistance, non-swearing of oaths, etc. The remaining third stayed with the Mennonite Church of Canada.

For the next 20 years he worked with other Mennonite renewal groups in Ontario, Pennsylvania and Ohio to seek unity on core values, with greater flexibility on things like dress and association with other evangelical Christian bodies.

Unfortunately, Daniel Hoch, although devoutly Mennonite, had a somewhat blunt, abrasive personality. He spurned numerous efforts to reconcile his “New Mennonites” with the Mennonite Church of Canada. His movement withered, and he died alone. His funeral was handled by a minister of the Evangelical Association, and the remaining New Mennonites eventually joined the movement that became the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada).

Not many years after Hoch’s death, the Mennonite Church of Canada came to theological positions that mirrored what Daniel Hoch had desired in 1849.

To learn more about Daniel Hoch and the New Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.