United Mennonite Educational Institute — It’s Early History

At the end of World War II, all the (partly) assimilated Mennonite groups in Ontario launched their own private high schools. Partly this was related to changes in the Ontario high school system during the war, which renewed an emphasis on patriotic teaching. In the fall of 1944 a reinvigorated cadet training program for boys in high school became compulsory, complete with uniforms and drills. Mennonite boys could ordinarily request an alternative activity such as first aid training, but peer pressure to join the cadets was strong. All the more assimilated Mennonite denominations had seen a significant number of their young men enter active military service during World War II, so an alternative to Ontario’s British-oriented curriculum became attractive to Mennonite leaders.

In addition, the more culturally comfortable Mennonites, as well as the churches from the 1920s immigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union, believed more advanced education enhanced Christian service, particularly for those considering a Christian vocation. Increasing interest in overseas mission work only underscored the need for adequate preparation.

We talked earlier of the Mennonite Brethren high school in Virgil, Ontario, Eden Christian College, as it was known for most of its years. This week we’re look at United Mennonite Educational Institute, located in the Leamington Mennonite community.

The majority of Mennonites in the Leamington area were United Mennonites (also from the 1920s migration), so it was this group that had the resources and enrollment potential to envision a high school to serve that community. As in Virgil, first Bible school courses were taught at the Leamington United Mennonite Church in the 1930s, but those ended with the beginning of World War II.

Word reached Leamington that United Mennonite students in Niagara planned to attend the Brethren in Christ’s Ontario Bible School in fall 1943. After a visit to the Leamington community by Brethren in Christ bishop Ernest J. Swalm, during which he stayed with elder N. N. Driedger, Swalm successfully addressed concerns of the Leamington people. Thus twelve boys from Leamington joined those from Niagara who attended Ontario Bible School that fall. The following year twenty students from Leamington attended, including some girls.

By fall 1945, however, the Bible school in Leamington decided to add some high school courses to its curriculum. Jacob A. Dyck and John C. Neufeld taught the courses in the Leamington United Mennonite Church basement, with an attendance of twenty-five students in grades nine and ten.

In 1946 a building for the United Mennonite Bible School was erected on seven acres of land along Concession 6 north of Leamington. The school added grade eleven in 1946 and grade twelve in the following year. The first classes in the new building began in January 1947.

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UMEI in 1990. UMEI Christian High School photo

The decision to build the school at the Leamington location was not a foregone conclusion. All the United Mennonite congregations in Ontario participated in the conversations about launching a school, and the association that was established to support the school included members from all geographic areas of the conference. The association model was chosen because a significant number of persons opposed the project, and this model placed financial responsibility only on committed supporters. Perhaps more importantly, the United Mennonites had no structural body in position to launch a high school. The United Mennonite Conference had only organized again in 1944 with four congregations, and the large Leamington congregation, with almost seven hundred members, had not yet formally joined the conference.

One reason Leamington was selected was that it was seen to have the greatest potential for providing students for the new school. The Essex County Mennonite settlement had grown rapidly into the 1940s, and it seemed likely this trend would continue. The school had 78 students in 1947–48, the first year that it offered grade twelve, and had a graduating class of ten students. In 1948 the school’s name was changed to United Mennonite Educational Institute, popularly known as UMEI. With the seeming growth potential, an auditorium and gymnasium was added in 1950–51. This facility became a Mennonite community center for numerous activities, including churchwide conferences. In 1950–51 the school added grade thirteen, but this proved too expensive to maintain and was dropped after two years.

Except for an upward enrollment blip in the two grade thirteen years, the student population remained in the seventy to ninety range until the 1960s. UMEI never achieved the student enrollment that Eden Christian College did in Virgil. One reason was the low number of students that came from outside the Essex County Mennonite community. United Mennonite students on the Niagara Peninsula often chose to commute to Eden rather than to live in a dormitory at Leamington. Over the years, use of the dormitory decreased until it was closed in 1970. In 1974 enrollment exceeded 120 for the first time, and the number of graduates topped 30.

In the next decades the school worked to attract more students from other Mennonite and non-Mennonite groups. Despite the influx of students from outside the core community, the decade of the 1980s, with its difficult economic times, created great stress for administration and staff. The graduating classes for 1989 and 1990 had only ten students each, and in 1988 enrollment dropped to 54 students, making the operation of the school financially unviable.

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UMEI Christian High School students welcome a Syrian refugee family to Leamington, May 2017. UMEI Christian High School photo

The 1990s saw a revival for UMEI, but the numbers never returned to the levels of the early 1970s. The demographics of the supporting Mennonite community limited potential for growth, and the school’s size did not allow for academic specializations that were available in large public high schools. By 1995 over 40 percent of the students came from outside the sponsoring Mennonite community. Ultimately, the effort to expand the base of supporters led to a name change in 2006 to UMEI Christian High School. By fall 2012 total enrollment dropped to 42.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, UMEI Christian High School continued to play an important role within the Mennonite community. Many of its graduates became leaders in the churches and the community.

To learn more about Mennonite secondary education in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands. Next week we’ll look at Rockway Mennonite School.

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada–a Synopsis of its History

This past weekend (April 28-29, 2017), Mennonite Church Eastern Canada held its 30th annual meeting. It seemed appropriate to reflect on the history of this assimilated Mennonite regional body affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada. I reflected earlier on how this conference differed from its counterparts in the United States.

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The moderators and secretaries signing the merger documents, 1987. Seated (L-R): Robert Snyder (lawyer); Roy Scheerer (WOMC secretary), Ed Epp (UMC secretary), David Kroeker (MCOQ secretary); Standing (L-R): Gerald Good (WOMC moderator), John Cornies (UMC moderator), Lester Kehl, MCOQ moderator). Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 1992-1-42.

In 1988 three assimilated conferences (Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (WOMC), United Mennonite Churches in Ontario (UMC), and Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ)) merged to form the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (later Mennonite Church Eastern Canada). At one level this was a logical progression, as the three largest assimilated Mennonite groups in Ontario overlapped geographically and each had lost its distinctive symbols of separation from the larger Canadian society. The boundaries between the Ontario Amish Mennonites and the Mennonites who originated in Pennsylvania had always been porous, even in the 19th century, as they shared many religious and cultural values, cooperated in petitioning government on matters of joint concern, and frequently intermarried. The Mennonites who immigrated in the 1920s had been hosted by these earlier groups for varying periods of time when they arrived in Canada, but their variant historical and cultural experience led them to soon establish their own churches and social communities.

World War II had brought a measure of cooperation among all the Ontario Mennonite groups through the Non-Resistant Relief Organization and the Conference of Historic Peace Churches. Certainly this experience served as a bridge to the cooperation that followed. Four other factors brought these three assimilated groups together. One was the increasing urbanization that sprinkled Mennonites into urban settings that were often disconnected from their traditional communities. Mennonite communities in Kitchener-Waterloo and St. Catharines were still compact enough for members to locate their particular group there. But Mennonites living in Toronto, Hamilton, London, or other urban areas had to commute long distances to find faith compatriots.

The second factor was the emergence of Conrad Grebel University College. The decision of the Mennonite Brethren and the Brethren in Christ to opt out of this project in 1962 left the three conferences that would eventually merge working together on a highly visible and symbolic cooperative project.

The third and most important factor was the renewed emphasis on urban missions. The Valleyview Mennonite congregation in London, Ontario, emerged from cooperation between the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. By 1963 the mission boards of these two conferences had worked out a “policy on cooperative church extension” that also included the United Mennonites. It emphasized mutual respect and acceptance in cases where practice or doctrinal details differed. In 1965 they established an inter-Mennonite mission committee that in 1967 became the Mennonite Mission and Service Board, which had already sponsored a joint service project in Sudbury.

A fourth factor was Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener. This congregation had emerged out of the 1924 division at First Mennonite Church. It joined the U.S.-based Eastern District of the binational General Conference Mennonite Church in 1946. By the late 1960s it seemed more appropriate to nurture Mennonite connections closer to home. It became an early dual-conference congregation by joining both the United Mennonites and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1969. Perhaps as much as anything, this initiative stirred discussion on the possible union of some of the Mennonite conferences.

By 1974 an Inter-Mennonite Executive Council (IEC) formed, composed of the three conference moderators and secretaries, the Conrad Grebel College board chair, the chair of the (by then named) Inter-Mennonite Mission and Service Board, and chairs of the joint education committees. Although this group never had independent authority, it attempted to become a clearinghouse for inter-Mennonite activity, sometimes including the Mennonite Brethren.

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Newton Gingrich (standing right), talks with Jesse B. Martin, at the time that Gingrich became moderator of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1961. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 1984-1-229

The individual working hardest for this cooperation was Newton Gingrich, who was moderator of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario from 1961 to 1970 even while he pastored a congregation in the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference beginning in 1966. Despite limited education (he left school at age 13, but eventually completed junior college-level studies at Eastern Mennonite College), he had enormous organizational skills. He chaired the Inter-Mennonite Mission and Service Board beginning in 1970, which put him on the Inter-Mennonite Executive Council. At the time of his sudden death in 1979 he was the strongest advocate for formally merging the three conferences, and he chaired a committee exploring that possibility. His death slowed the merger process since most other conference leaders were more cautious and preferred what came to be called “organic growth” in cooperation.

The path to merger was not smooth. The Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario began to share staff positions (conference minister and office staff) and began to hold their annual meetings at the same time and place. This distanced them from the United Mennonite Conference, which had less shared history and was seen by the other two conferences as more independent in its polity and more aggressive in asserting its positions.

This ambivalent state continued until the United Mennonite Conference’s moderator, Ed Janzen, prepared a study paper called “Blowing of the Wind,” which suggested that new urban congregations be permitted to join the joint (unincorporated) Inter-Mennonite Conference (Ontario), which formed in 1974, without having to join one of the three existing conferences. The paper caused a stir among the conference leadership with its suggestion of a fourth super conference, but its recommendations were ultimately dropped.

This seeming retreat from merger outraged the church planting leaders of the three conferences, who felt they were left with unwieldy structures that forced new Mennonites to make unnecessary choices between three similar conferences. In 1984 the three conference executives agreed to take another look, and at a meeting on December 19, 1984, they agreed to move toward an integrated conference that would be launched in 1987.

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The first Executive Secretary and first Conference Minister for MCEC were Peter H. Janzen (left) and Herb Schultz (right). Sam Steiner photo.

Delegates from all three conferences overwhelmingly approved an integration proposal in March 1986. A formal structure was approved in fall 1987, and the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (MCEC) came into formal existence in February 1988. Congregations were given a six-year period of associate membership in the North American denominations in which they were not already a member, whether the Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, or the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. It was understood they would become full members of the denominations after the associate period. Thus MCEC became the first “dual-conference” regional conference, as discussions began on merging and realigning the denominations, which would take place a little over a decade later.

There were glitches and tensions in the early years of the merger as historical polity differences generated concerns and reactions. The former smaller Western Ontario Mennonite Conference sometimes felt its voice was lost in the larger conference and that its family ethos had been taken away. United Mennonites sometimes believed their congregational autonomy emphasis was threatened by a top-down administrative structure. Also, individual leaders from the United Mennonite background sometimes articulated their views in confrontational language, which was not the style of communication among most of those of Mennonite Church background. A large $6.3 million fund drive for building expansions at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate and Conrad Grebel University College, and for the missions program, fell well short of its goal. But despite these limitations, pastors began serving in congregations without regard to the denominational “lineage” of the pastor or of the congregation. This cultivated a sense of comfort in the new structure.

As Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (as it became known in October 2001) exists in 2017, it has maintained relative health, albeit with a reduced number of program staff and tightening budgetary concerns. Some new congregations emerged, especially in urban settings and non-English contexts. Some church plants provided alternatives to traditional congregational styles, usually without the Mennonite name.

To learn more about Ontario’s 30-plus Mennonite denominations, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Ordination of Women in Ontario

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Ontario ministering sisters ca. 1900. Photo courtesy Missionary Church Historical Trust.

In an earlier post, we noted that the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) had women pastoral leaders already in the 1880s. They were called ministering sisters, and often led congregations in small cities like Owen Sound or St. Thomas, or mission congregations in places like Toronto. Although these women participated in annual conference meetings with other pastors, they were never ordained for ministry. Ordination of Mennonite women for ministry did not come to Ontario until the last quarter of the 20th century. There were anomalous exceptions in the case of some overseas missionaries, like Leona Cressman of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, but in most cases the ordination for mission service did not have the same status in North America.

The objection to women in congregational leadership focused on biblical passages that appeared to circumscribe the role of women in the church, such as 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2. Some commentators, like Mennonite Brethren leader, Henry H. Janzen, also suggested that women were more susceptible to emotion in teaching and that “sexual appeal” was an additional negative factor. In contrast, other biblical interpreters based acceptance of women in ministry on passages like Galatians 3:28 (“There is … neither male nor female …”) and numerous references to the apostle Paul’s female coworkers in Romans 1.

The first woman in Ontario to serve as a co-pastor was Doris Yantzi Weber, who served with her husband, Rod, at the Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford. At that time Avon was part of the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference, a regional conference of the Mennonite Church. Weber had grown up in the Ontario Amish Mennonite community west of Kitchener. When she was about ten her parents took her to a neighboring non-Mennonite church for a musical event. The musicians were introduced by a female pastor. Doris asked her mother the next day if she would ever be able to be a pastor. Although her mother honestly answered, “No,” Doris’s inner call to ministry never died. She attended Ontario Mennonite Bible School, where she met her husband. After bearing six children, she returned to school to obtain her BA and MDiv degrees. In June 1974 Rod and Doris began to serve the church at Avon. Although they functioned together as a team, Rod Weber was licensed for ministry in July 1974, and Doris was not. However, in February 1979 they were both “commissioned” to pastoral ministry, and this was later understood to be equivalent to ordination.

The commissioning language reflected a brief period in binational Mennonite Church history when the “recovery of the Anabaptist Vision” movement stimulated by Harold S. Bender emphasized the “priesthood of all believers.” This sixteenth-century Anabaptist precept caused some Mennonite academics and congregational leaders to reject the hierarchy they perceived in the rite of ordination, which invested leaders with a special office. Some young male pastors sought commissioning instead of ordination, believing this fostered a flatter power structure, and it was not assumed to be lifelong in the way Mennonites had previously understood ordination. John Howard Yoder, the prominent Mennonite theologian, was one academic who argued against the practice of ordination, saying it detracted from the vision of universal ministry and had little biblical foundation. Since a few women were just entering congregational leadership, this change in language from ordination to commissioning led some women to believe commissioning was a lower status that diminished their authority in the congregation. Thus while young male pastors reacted against traditional ordination language, emerging female pastors preferred ordination to undergird their authority in an unfamiliar role. Ironically, within a decade or so, most of the Ontario Mennonite male pastors in congregational leadership also abandoned commissioning language for traditional ordination.

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Doreen Neufeld preparing communion soon after her ordination in 1980. Photo by Hugo Neufeld.

Doreen and Hugo Neufeld moved to Hamilton in July 1971 to direct the Welcome Inn Community Centre. Hugo, a social worker, had grown up in the Niagara United Mennonite Church in Virgil, where his father, Cornelius K. Neufeld, was an early leader. Doreen (née Dueck) grew up in British Columbia and was an elementary school teacher by training. The Neufelds worked cooperatively in their leadership of the Welcome Inn Community Centre activities and its large voluntary service program. Gradually, when their work included more church-like events, including worship services, the Hamilton Mennonite Church was no longer able to accommodate all the activity. Hugo and Doreen were both ordained as ministers on October 19, 1980, at the request of the Hamilton Mennonite Church, with Peter H. Janzen officiating. Janzen was the moderator of the Conference of United Mennonite Churches in Ontario, a regional conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. As with the case of Rod and Doris Weber, the fact that Doreen’s ordination was for a co-pastorate with her husband likely reduced concerns about the appropriateness of women in leadership.

Martha Smith Good

Martha Smith Good in 1982. Photo courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Martha Smith joined the pastoral team at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener in November 1977 and was commissioned in January 1978. In March 1979 she married Gerald Good, a widower with four children who was pastor at the Hillcrest Mennonite Church in New Hamburg. After her wedding Martha worked half time, and she left Stirling Avenue in September 1979. In summer 1981 she became the pastor of the new Guelph Mennonite Church. The congregation requested ordination for Smith Good, but the leadership of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ), also part of the Mennonite Church, hesitated. There were several reasons for this hesitation. First, the Guelph congregation’s affiliation also with the Ontario United Mennonite Conference necessitated conversation between the two conferences because of their different procedures for recognizing pastoral leaders. Second, MCOQ remained uncertain whether it wanted to promote commissioning as a replacement for ordination. The conference’s ambivalence and delay in response to the ordination request caused Martha Smith Good much pain, but she was ordained in April 1982 and went on to serve in a number of locations in Ontario and the United States. She was the first ordained woman to serve as the sole pastor of a Mennonite congregation in Ontario.

Eventually these three conferences, composed of highly assimilated Mennonites, merged in 1988 to form Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), a regional conference of Mennonite Church Canada. Other Ontario Mennonite groups resisted ordaining women into the 21st century.

To learn more about ordination of pastors among Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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