The Diversity of Mennonites in Ontario

In my presentations on May 5 and 8 to the “Annual Networking Conference for Service Providers to Low German Speaking Families” in Leamington and Aylmer, Ontario. I talked about the diversity of Mennonites in Ontario. I said there were over 30 different Mennonite groups in Ontario, and tried to explain it in 25 minutes.

David Martin Mennonites working the fields

David Martin Mennonites working the fields. Photo by Mark Burr

Since the audience was half or more non-Mennonite, I first gave a little historical background, and talked about four Mennonite characteristics upon which almost all Mennonites in Ontario agree: 1) Adult baptism; 2) Rejection of participating in war; 3) Refusing to swear oaths; and 4) A call to live a Christian life consistent with the teachings of Jesus that sometimes means a simpler lifestyle. The last characteristic has led some groups to embrace visible symbols of separation from the world in dress, technology, education and vocation.

I then said that most Ontario Mennonites descend from one of six migrations to Canada, though there have been new voices added to the Mennonite mix over the years, from intermarriage,  from conversion, and most recently from incorporation of refugee groups into the Mennonite community. These migrations explained some of the Mennonite diversity; division on theological issues within the individual migrations has also contributed to the diversity.

The six migrations I reviewed were:

  1. Pennsylvania Mennonites from 1786 to the 1830s, primarily in search of cheaper land, and encompassing some 2,000 people over the years.
  2. Amish Mennonites from Europe (with a few from Pennsylvania) beginning in the 1820s, in order to escape the economic problems of post-Napoleonic Europe and to find cheaper land. These folks numbered less than 1,000.
  3. Mennonites from Russia in the 1870s who feared the loss of their privileges of self-government, freedom from military service, and control of the education of their youth. Seven thousand of these Mennonites came to Manitoba, with the assistance of the Ontario Mennonites, who provided loans, guaranteed a government loan, and housed over winter those who arrived in the fall. Some of these Mennonites left for Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s when the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments tried to force acculturation through the public school system. Some of these folks returned as part of migration 6 below.
  4. Twenty thousand Mennonites from the Soviet Union came to Canada in the 1920s in
    Refugees walking up Erb Street.

    Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union approaching Erb Street Mennonite Church, July, 1924. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

    the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the beginning of communist domination. Fifteen percent of these folks settled in Ontario, and brought different customs, different foods, different names, and a very different history to the Ontario Mennonite world. They had little to do with the descendants of migrations 1 & 2 until World War II.

  5. The fifth immigration included Mennonites from the Soviet Union who had been displaced by the World War II, and had retreated with the German army when it left the Soviet Union.  There were only 12,000 out of 100,000 Mennonites remaining in the Soviet Union who were able to leave for Canada or to South America. About 1300 of these people came to Ontario between 1947 and 1952.
  6. The sixth migration was that of Low German Mennonites from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, beginning in the 1950s. The largest group among them were the Old Colony Mennonites. These \were the descendants of the Mennonites who moved from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s. This was the largest Mennonite migration to Ontario that has ever occurred. Canada became an attractive alternative to economic difficulties in Latin America, because many Low German Mennonites still had Canadian citizenship, or were able to reclaim citizenship because their parents or grandparents were Canadian citizens.By the mid-1990s the Low German Mennonite population in Ontario was between 25,000 and 30,000. By 2011, Mennonite Central Committee Ontario was using a number of “over 40,000.”  There has been no Mennonite immigration to Ontario quite like it. In 2012 Low German Mennonites made up at least 25 percent of the Mennonite population in Ontario.

I then talked about the theological variants among the Mennonites that I used in my book, In Search of Promised Lands: 1) Assimilated; 2) Separatist Conservatives; 3) Evangelical Conservatives; and 4) Old Order Amish and Mennonites. That’s a complex discussion I’m not sure worked very well in the presentation, or would work in a short blog.

If I do this kind of presentation again, I would likely add a seventh migration: the non-English economic and refugee migrant groups that have joined the assimilated Mennonite world since the late 1970s. Probably 15-20 languages are used in assimilated Ontario Mennonite churches on Sunday mornings.

To learn more, read In Search of Promised Lands.

The Old Colony Mennonites move to Mexico in the 1920s

On May 5 and 8, I spoke to the “Annual Networking Conference for Service Providers on Low German Speaking Families” in Leamington and Aylmer, Ontario. I gave presentations on the diversity of Mennonites in Ontario. The experience led me to focus today’s blog on a piece of the Low German Mennonite story — the departure of these Low German Mennonites from Canada in the 1920s.

The Mennonites from Russia who immigrated to Manitoba in the 1870s successfully sought assured exemption from compulsory military service from the Canadian government. They also welcomed the Canadian government’s promise that Mennonites could maintain and control their own educational system “without any molestation or restriction whatever.”

The fact that education in Canada was under provincial, not federal, control unsurprisingly escaped the attention of the new immigrants. This oversight led to major problems for these Mennonites fifty years later.

During and after World War I the provincial governments in Manitoba, and later Saskatchewan, began to supervise more strictly their public educational systems, in which many Mennonites participated.

As long as Mennonite-background school inspectors like Henry H. Ewert in Manitoba did the supervision this worked well. But in the first quarter of the twentieth century provincial educational priorities changed. World War I prompted governments to emphasize patriotism and to anglicize the school curriculum. As a result, more conservative parts of the Mennonite community began private schools for their children.


Old Colony Mennonite couple leaving for Bolivia, 1968. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo, 92-14-3973

A clear majority of the 1870s immigrants in Manitoba and Saskatchewan still preferred a separatist response to the surrounding culture. Conservative Mennonite groups, including the Reinländer (popularly called “Old Colony”), Chortitzer, and Sommerfelder, comprised 80 percent of the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Mennonite population in 1901.

During World War I both Manitoba and Saskatchewan eliminated the bilingual public schools that had helped Mennonites to retain their German language. In 1918, as some Mennonite communities were shifting to private schools, the provinces began to impose public schools on the Mennonite communities. They arbitrarily reopened public schools in Mennonite areas that had utilized only private schools for years, and they built new school buildings and hired teachers over the objections of the local community. The provinces also demanded that the private schools use provincially recognized teachers and textbooks, and that instruction be in English.

The boards of Mennonite private schools that did not meet these new standards could be prosecuted. The postwar anti-German sentiment also fueled these provincial initiatives. The Mennonites pursued legal appeals, but ultimately the Privy Council in England in 1920 refused to hear them.

As provincial enforcement of the stringent new laws increased, the more separated groups planned for emigration, even as their French and Ukrainian neighbors, and many of the more assimilated Mennonites, accommodated themselves to the new educational policies. The large Reinländer church explored Argentina, Mississippi, and even the province of Quebec as settlement options before ultimately focusing on Mexico. They signed a Privilegium (a document outlining any special privileges accorded the immigrants) with the Mexican authorities in early 1921 and began purchasing land in the state of Chihuahua. Emigration started in March 1922.


Leaving Canada by Rosabel Fast, a Plett Foundation publication for use in Low German Mennonite schools.

By 1926 almost two-thirds of the Manitoba Reinländer, almost 6,000, had emigrated. Additionally, and for similar reasons, about 1,800 Chortitzer and Sommerfelder Mennonites went to Paraguay and formed Menno Colony.

Life was not easy in Mexico, and the Old Colony Mennonites’ determination to retain separation through language created tensions with the indigenous Mexican population. Political unrest and the unfamiliar climate, combined with different soils and crops, also impeded their settlement. Full Mexican citizenship did not appear to be an option even if desired.

Nonetheless, some Mennonites prospered in Mexico, while others remained on the economic margins. Internal unrest led some to migrate to other Latin American countries like Honduras and Bolivia while others wanted to return to Canada.

Further unrest resulted from the arrival of evangelical Mennonite missionaries by the 1940s. The missionaries sought to improve local educational, medical, and spiritual life. The latter goal especially offended Old Colony leaders, and they excommunicated an increasing number of persons who identified with evangelical Mennonite groups. As the population grew it became more difficult to purchase land, especially for those with limited financial means. By 1975 the Mennonite population in Mexico was estimated to be 40,000, about a third of whom did not own property.

Old Colony theology contained some similarities to that of Old Order groups among the North American Amish and Mennonites, in part because their theology did not include 19th- and 20th-century evangelical theology. David Schroeder, a Canadian Mennonite theologian who grew up in a conservative Sommerfelder family, described the Old Colony and Sommerfelder view of salvation as future oriented: “I trust I will be saved,” while the view of evangelical Mennonites was past tense: “I have been saved.”

The demand for assurance of salvation and a particular conversion experience led many evangelical Christians (including many Mennonites) to intensely criticize the salvation understanding of these pre-evangelical Mennonite groups. The Old Colony and Sommerfelder Mennonites, like their Old Order religious cousins, emphasized Christian “formation” rather than conversion or education. According to Schroeder, formation meant induction into the Old Colony world.

A high level of separation from the surrounding culture was required for this approach to work successfully. The conservative groups emphasized character formation through teaching the catechism and through the telling of stories of both exemplary behavior and human folly. The church defined the boundaries of the community of faith and determined the lifestyle of its members as well as their economic, educational, and social standards. According to Schroeder, the conservative groups usually maintained the use of Low German to separate them from the surrounding culture.

The story of the Old Colony has continued to the present, with many returning to Canada (including Ontario) in the second half of the 20th century.

To learn more about the Old Colony Mennonites and other Low German Mennonite groups, read In Search of Promised Lands.

CBC, the Fifth Estate and the Mennonite Mob

If you want to watch relatively balanced investigative journalism on the Mennonite Mob you need look no further than the CBC’s Fifth Estate. Unfortunately it’s the Fifth Estate program from March 10, 1992, not the self-promoting show from February 24, 2017.

The 1992 episode was hosted by Hannah Gartner. She provided a (very) brief history of the Old Colony Mennonites and their move to Mexico in the 1920s. Although she over-generalized  (“almost all Mennonites in Manitoba and Ontario have relatives in Mexico”), she did better than many journalists, particularly with the more limited scholarly resources available on Low German Mennonites in 1992.


Helen Dyck, an original Old Colony immigrant to Mexico, interviewed by Hannah Gartner

In addition to border officials in Texas and Windsor, Gartner (or CBC researchers) interviewed undercover police in Windsor,  an Old Colony community leader in Mexico and 90-year-old Helen Dyck, one of the original Old Colony settlers in Mexico. She also talked directly to Abe Harms, the “godfather” of the Mennonite Mob, his son Enrique, and Abe Froese, a Mennonite farmer from Manitoba that helped to smuggle drugs. Finally she talked to a former mayor of Cuauhtémoc, Mexico and two Loewen brothers who were described as the “brains behind the operation” of the Mennonite Mob. (Abe Harms was described as “in position number 2 or 3” of the Mob.) Finally, it was clearly stated near the end of the program by a Canadian border official that the drug dealers were “a very small element of the overall Mennonite community, and I don’t know if they [the community] realize how much impact it has in this particular area.”

The 1992 Fifth Estate had its problems, but it represented significant and thorough journalistic effort.

In contrast, the 2017 Fifth Estate program, narrated by Bob McKeown, did very limited “investigation.” CBC’s researchers appeared to travel no further south than Oklahoma. They interviewed no Mennonites from the Old Colony community either in Mexico or Ontario and no academics (like Royden Loewen or Kerry Fast or Luann Good Gingrich or many others) who have studied Low German Mennonites, including the Old Colony, very extensively in the past two decades. The show also reflected little evidence researchers had read any analysis beyond their 1992 show.

Their sources of information were three: Ryan Cortez, an undercover drug agent in Oklahoma, Cindy Cunningham, an agent in Oklahoma drug enforcement, and Sam Quinones, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Quinones writes books about Mexico and colorful Mexicans. His knowledge about Low German Mennonites is narrow, based on the last chapter in his book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration (2007) that described his 1999 encounter with Enrique Harms, the son of Abe Harms, who by then was apparently the head of the Mennonite Mob. Quinones admitted in his book that “by the time it was over, I couldn’t say I’d gotten to know Mennonites well.” Quinones’ major book on Mexico and the drug trade, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (2015), makes no mention of Mennonites.

The 2017 show opened with a re-enactment of Abraham Wiebe’s 1999 arrest in Oklahoma for drunk driving, and Wiebe’s willingness to become a paid police informant in their drug investigations to avoid losing his driver’s license. We later learn that Wiebe soon disappeared and was probably killed by the Mennonite Mob.

Then McKeown provided a quick explanation about Mennonites, “many of whom lead lives as if it were a century ago,” against a backdrop of images of Old Order Mennonites in Elmira, Ontario. Then we met R. J. Peters, a former Mennonite and playwright, whose claim to authority for this show was that he’s written a musical about the Mennonite Mafia and Abe Harms.


Old Order Mennonites illustrating the Mennonite Mob in Fifth Estate’s 2017 show

After a break we got a number of scenes from “Pure,” while McKeown intoned “CBC’s new hit drama, ‘Pure’ is art imitating life.” McKeown than suggested the Fifth Estate knew this story well. He informed us that Mennonites came to Canada from Europe in the 19th century, and many have remained cloistered in farming communities in Ontario and Manitoba. (All this against a backdrop of Old Order Mennonites in Waterloo Region riding a buggy down a snowy road.) We learned that many Mennonites shunned modern conveniences like automobiles and electricity. He said they (the Mennonites) all spoke Low German. We saw a map of where the Mennonites moved in Mexico, with Cuauhtémoc misspelled. Then Quinones became the expert explaining the Mennonites in Mexico

None of this reflected any serious research, and revealed no attempt to understand the complexity of the Canadian Mennonite community, and continued the generalizations so evident in “Pure.”

The show then launched into extensive cherry-picking from the 1992 program, with none of the context provided by the earlier show. It added innuendos that Enrique Harms killed his father, Abe, who died in a single-car crash in Mexico in 1994. The 2004 Saturday Night article on the Mennonite Mob had speculated Harms might have been killed by the Mexican police. Nonetheless, McKeown suggested 22-year-old Enrique Harms took over the mob after his father’s death. The program concluded with Quinones describing his 1999 encounter with Enrique Harms, and Ryan Cortez speculating about the current state of the Mennonite Mob.

There is no denying that a “Mennonite Mob” that has its roots in the Old Colony Mennonite community in Mexico is a reality. Like any ethnic/cultural group, there is a dark side to the Mennonite community, and not just the Old Colony Mennonites.

It is also true that the Mennonite Mob has no connection to the Old Colony Mennonite Church, unlike the implications of the “Pure” series for which the Fifth Estate saw fit to provide free advertising. It is true that in the early 1990s people like Abe Harms were still members of the Old Colony church since church leaders were unsure what to do.

The Old Colony Mennonite world in Mexico has changed dramatically in the last quarter century. Educational practices have begun to change, and leadership is more aware of the issues faced by the community.  In Ontario the Old Colony Mennonite Church does not tolerate this kind of activity.

When I watch CBC journalism, I expect to see context and evidence of research. Neither was in evidence on February 24. It felt more like a program quickly slapped together to take advantage of the publicity created by “Pure.” It’s a shame. A real update on the 1992 program would have been nice.

See my comments on “Pure” at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5 and Episode 6.

If you are interested in a more accurate historical account of Mennonites in Ontario, see In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

“Pure” — the CBC Drama – Episode 2

Last week I commented after the first episode of “Pure.”

I said it succeeded as a crime drama, though I had a number of issues with the presentation in terms of Mennonites.


Source: CBC TV

This morning I watched episode 2. I’m much less certain about the quality of drama. Too many things don’t make sense — why would you make the Ontario drug “boss” someone as highly visible and slow moving as a farmer-preacher with no criminal experience? It boggles the mind.

The visual portrayal of the group is closer to Amish this week, though the women’s dresses do look somewhat “Old Colony.” The bonnets are definitely Amish. The Saturday night “sing” had an Amish feel.

Most Old Order Mennonites and even Old Order Amish use cell phones at time. They are not as ignorant about technology as Noah Funk was. Old Orders draw the line at smart phones, but have used cell phones for business for many years. Low German Mennonites also have no issues with cell phones.

Women do not say “amen” at the end of family prayer before a meal. That’s the role of the head of the family, who is male. Certainly if he is sitting there, the prayer does not end until he says so.

Noah Funk’s “sermon” was wrong on many levels. It must always be tied to scripture, even if trying to make the point about God living within us that he did.

The women working in the drug distribution shop (or whatever it was) is not possible. Married women don’t work away from home. They might operate a business from home, but that scene was strictly for looks.

The young peoples’ singing was nice, and seemed to follow the Amish pattern.

For now let’s change our assessment to an over-the-top crime drama, with limited relationship to any previous “true story.”

See also my comments after Episode 1,  Episode 3,  Episode 4,  Episode 5 and Episode 6.

The Old Colony Mennonite School System in Ontario

My blogs will begin to appear somewhat less frequently than in the past, as I try to give more time to some other projects.

This past week I read an interesting article by Rosabel Fast in the 2015 issue of Preservings: a Journal of the D.F. Plett Research Foundation. It was entitled “All in God’s time: the Establishment of Old Colony Private Schools in Southern Ontario.” It includes some updated information on Old Colony Mennonite Schools in Ontario that I thought worthy of note.

An earlier blog discussed the growth of the Old Colony or Low German Mennonite community in Ontario.

New Reinland Fellowship Mennonite Church

An early Old Colony church near Aylmer, Ontario. When the Old Colony church split, the New Reinland Fellowship kept this building. It has since been replaced with a new building. Photo by Abe Harms.

Although Low German Mennonites began to arrive in Ontario in 1952, they did not begin their own schools until 1989. Prior to that time a few attended Old Order Amish or Old Order Mennonite private schools, but most attended the public school system at least sporadically. Their experience was mixed — some public schools tried very hard to make a safe place for the Low Germans,  who often suffered discrimination and ridicule from fellow students. But some students came to dread school because they were picked on, and were expected to take part in activities like gym classes that were uncomfortable and unfamiliar to them.

Even with the more positive experiences, however, parents were concerned about having their children turned into English speaking, secular thinking Canadians.  An Inter-Mennonite Parents Association, that included Low German Mennonites, did some effective work with the public system.

In one case, in the Dresden area, a Peter Dyck family began home schooling in 1988 using materials produced by Pathway Publishers, an Old Order Amish publisher in Aylmer. As more families from Mexico moved to the area they joined the Dyck children in the upstairs of their home.  This formed the core of a school that was eventually established in 1990.

Earlier efforts to start an Old Colony private school failed, but efforts late in the 1980s succeeded. Minister Peter Dyck of Wheatley was involved in meeting with Education Department officials who were already familiar with, and respected, existing Old Order Mennonite and Amish private schools. Dyck and others visited some of these schools in Waterloo Region, and believed they could operate something similar.

Several Low German leaders from Manitoba encouraged the Ontario Old Colony Mennonites to use the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) program. ACE had a strong fundamentalist edge to it, however, and did not teach about some of the boundaries of separation from secular society that were important to the Old Colony.

Consequently, the Ontario Old Colony Mennonites elected to use the Christian Light Education (CLE) curriculum produced by conservative Mennonites in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Part of the planning included taking a short course with a CLE director named Peter Peters in Michigan.

Schools in Wheatley and Aylmer opened in 1989, followed by two more in Dresden and Glen Myer in 1990.  Particularly in the Wheatley school, the assistance of Peter Sawatsky, a retired teacher from the public system, was particularly helpful. By 2015 the Wheatley school had grown and was being held in a former public school purchased in 2000.

The Dresden school purchased an old Jehovah’s Witness church building for its school.  Henry Dueck, who had pastored in Paraguay, Leamington (the Leamington United Mennonite Church), and Mexico, taught at the Dresden school for three years as it was becoming established. He was a mentor for the early Low German leaders in the school.

Old Colony Christian Academy at Cottam.

Old Colony Christian Academy at Cottam. Source: Wikimapia

In 2015 there were 11 Old Colony Mennonite private schools in Ontario. The largest, at Wheatley, had 275 students. Three other schools also had over 200 students. They all used CLE curriculum. Rev. Abram Dyck and Rev. Jacob Neudorf provided administrative to the “East Side” and “West Side” school districts. These districts correspond to the two Ältester or bishop districts of the Old Colony Mennonite Church of Ontario. The larger schools offer a full high school program.

Old Colony Christian Acadmey Kingsville

Old Colony Christian Academy, Kingsville. Photo by Sam Steiner

The “East side” included Aylmer, Walsingham, Glen Myer, Tilsonburg, Brussels and Virgil. The “West side” included Wheatley, Kingsville, Cottam, Dresden and Charing Cross.

To learn more about Old Colony Mennonites in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands.




The Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference in Ontario

The Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference descended from the immigration of Mennonites from Russia to Manitoba in the 1870s, These immigrants had been assisted by Ontario Mennonites on their arrival, but there had been little contact since that time.

This specific group resulted from a division within the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church in 1937. The Sommerfeld Mennonites had themselves begun in 1890 as the result of a division within the Bergthal Mennonite Church, one of the large groups in the 1870s migration. A minority of the Bergthal Mennonites accepted English education in their schools, and had interest in higher education and foreign missions. They accepted evangelical theology. The more conservative majority resisted these changes and were named after the village, Sommerfeld, in which their bishop lived.


An early Rudnerweider Mennonite Church (Rosenbach, Manitoba) from 1942. GAMEO photo.

By  1937 a portion of the Sommerfeld group was also attracted to evangelical theology, Bible schools, and mission outreach. When they were still German-speaking, they called themselves the Rudnerweider Mennonite Church. They were exclusively located in Southern Manitoba

In 1959 they changed their name to  the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference (EMMC). In the 1950s this group was in the midst of a shift from German to English, and its members were gradually moving from Manitoba’s rural areas into towns. In the 1940s they had dealt with various internal theological controversies ranging from Pentecostalism to universalism. They developed into a mainline evangelical denomination.

The EMMC had a shared history with Old Colony Mennonites who had lived in southern Manitoba from the 1870s to the 1920s when the Old Colony had left for Mexico.

The EMMC became interested in reaching out to Old Colony Mennonites returning to Canada beginning in the 1950s because of their desire to see the Old Colony accept the same evangelical salvation understanding they had embraced. EMMC missionaries had served in Mexico under the General Conference Mennonite Church in the 1960s.

Already in 1958 John G. Froese of Manitoba, the EMMC Reiseprediger (traveling minister) serving isolated Mennonites descended from the 1870s immigration, held evangelistic services in the Vineland area and encouraged the EMMC to send a permanent worker to Ontario.

EMMC Church, Aylmer

The Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church at Summers Corners near Aylmer, ca. 2003. The church was built in 1966. The initial building was the lower portion on the right and about 2/3 the length. The back 1/3 was added in 1968. The main sanctuary and the canopy at the front were added 1979-80. Photo courtesy Abe Harms.

In 1965, the Low German radio program The Gospel Message, began to be broadcast on a Tillsonburg (Ontario) station. John D. Friesen, the radio preacher, visited the Aylmer area in early 1965, leading meetings in homes. That summer he returned with his brother, David D. Friesen, and held services in an old United Church building. David and Helen Friesen returned to Ontario in December 1965 to provide leadership to a new EMMC congregation that had emerged from the earlier meetings. The congregation erected a new building in the summer of 1966 at Sommer’s Corners, a little east of Aylmer. Within five years it expanded to seat up to three hundred persons.

By 1970 three other EMMC congregations started in southern Ontario. Other new churches were established in the 1980s as the Low German Mennonite immigration to Ontario continued.

Abe Harms and Eva Reimer

Abe Harms and Eva Reimer at the Aylmer Bible School in 1989. Abe was the long time principal of the school. Photo courtesy Abe Harms.

The EMMC began a Bible School in January 1976 in a former United Church building at Summers Corners under the leadership of EMMC conference minister Ben W. Sawatsky. Sawatsky taught Bible courses while local leaders taught English as a second language and other courses. Daytime courses were mostly in English, while evening courses were in German. Thirty-five students were registered that first term. After the first year it formally took the name Aylmer Bible School.

By 1993 financial difficulties threatened the school as the student population had dropped. Immigrant children who grew up in Canada now completed high school and attended more conventional Bible colleges or public universities. By summer 1997 the EMMC annual conference decided to close the school in spring 1998.

By 2015 three EMMC congregations remained in Ontario — in Aylmer, Leamington and the Chatham area. Although not a large group, they had a significant impact on Ontario Mennonites, especially during the era of the Aylmer Bible School.

To learn more about the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference in Ontario read In Search of Promised Lands.

The Ongoing March of Historical Writing

The task of historical writing never comes to an end. This is not only because new historical events keep taking place, but also because new research and writing sheds better light and new perspectives on events of the past.

This week I’d like to highlight a recent important article by Kerry Fast, a scholar who has done extensive work on the Low German Mennonites in Ontario. Her article on “A Brief History of the Migration of Mennonites to Ontario and the Formation of the Old Colony Church” appeared in the latest issue of Preservings, a historical journal published by the D. F. Plett Foundation in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Old Colony Church, Aylmer, Ontario

Old Colony Mennonite Church in Aylmer, Ontario. Photo by Sam Steiner.

Fast made use of oral history interviews available at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario that were also accessible to me. But she explored them at much greater depth than I was able to do for a survey history. From these interviews she created a narrative that I wish had been available to me for my writing.

This is by no means the only new piece of historical writing on Ontario Mennonites that I wish had been available to me. Among others, some of Royden Loewen’s writing on Low German Mennonites was published too late in my process. Roy is the Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. And there was an interesting genealogical publication about Pennsylvania Germans in York County, Ontario (Pioneer Footprints in York County: Pennsylvania German Families who arrived in York County in the early 1800s compiled by Ruth Burkholder) that would have shed greater light on early settlement there. I could name others.

These are not causes for mourning, but rather are good reminders that no historical monograph is definitive or final. I’m grateful for the new light of each of these publications.

Nonetheless, for setting the larger context of Ontario Mennonites, you will want to read In Search of Promised Lands!

The Explosive Growth of the Old Colony Mennonites

New Reinland Fellowship Mennonite Church

An early Old Colony church near Aylmer, Ontario.  When the Old Colony church split the New Reinland Fellowship kept the building.  It was torn down about 2009 and replaced with a new building. Photo by Abe Harms.

The largest Mennonite migration to Ontario has been that of the Old Colony, or more generally, the Low German Mennonites from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Although this has gone on for over 50 years, it has been hard to pin down numbers because of the elastic nature of this migration.

According to some sources the first Old Colony Mennonites to permanently settle in Ontario came to Tillsonburg in 1952. It was over a decade until a first church building was purchased near Aylmer for the Old Colony Mennonite congregation. Gradually the Low German settlement expanded, especially westward into Kent and Essex counties.

Some of these Low German Mennonites joined newly forming Old Colony churches, or other churches with a Low German background, like the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, the Sommerfelder, etc. But the largest percentage of those who came from the 1950s to the 1970s chose not to affiliate with any church. In 2004 one historian suggested that 60 per cent of Low German immigrants to Canada chose to have no religious affiliation. Despite this, the Old Colony Mennonite Church in Ontario is the second largest Mennonite denomination in Ontario, following only Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. This means they exceed the Old Order Mennonites, the Old Order Amish, and all the other more “visible” Mennonite groups in Ontario.

George Rempel

George Rempel of the Ontario Mennonite Immigrant Assistance Committee. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Early on Mennonite Central Committee Ontario set up programs to assist the Low German newcomers with immigration and language issues, and to serve as a link between the newcomers and the public school systems and governmental social service agencies. George Rempel directed this program in Aylmer beginning in the late 1970s.

Sign for the current Old Colony Mennonite church near Aylmer. Photo by Sam Steiner

Sign for the current Old Colony Mennonite church near Aylmer. Photo by Sam Steiner

By the mid-1990s the Low German Mennonite population in Ontario was between 25,000 and 30,000. By 2011, Mennonite Central Committee was using a number of “over 40,000.”  Some years up to 250 families came to settle in Ontario from Mexico, Bolivia, Belize, Paraguay and elsewhere.  There has been no Mennonite immigration to Ontario quite like it. In 2012 Low German Mennonites made up at least 25% of the Mennonite population in Ontario.

To learn more about Ontario’s Old Colony and Low German Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.

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