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Meet me at the Grand


A cairn erected at The First Mennonite Church in Vineland in 1986 marks the bicentennial celebrations of the Mennonites’ arrival in Canada

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Mennonite Church Canada
March 4, 2011
- by Maurice Martin

This summer, the congregations of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada will welcome visitors from across the country as they host the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Waterloo, Ont. Like most Mennonites of European ancestry,those who settled along the Grand River region, arrived with a history of purposeful migration, and a deep desire to be faithful. This is their story.

It is 1786. The first Swiss Mennonites have just arrived in Ontario, having travelled from Pennsylvania in Conestoga wagons. They crossed the mighty Niagara River by taking the wheels off their wagons, sealing the wagon boxes to make boats, and then floating across. Cattle and horses swam.

These immigrants initially settled along the north shore of Lake Erie and around Vineland in what today is called Niagara Region. Within twenty years other Mennonite immigrants settled further north on land that flanks the Grand River.

Around 1800, about the same time as the Dutch Mennonites were heading to Russia from northern Germany, more Swiss Mennonites came from Pennsylvania to what is now the Waterloo Region. They came in search of land. They also came to get away from the aftermath of the USA Revolutionary war of 1776. It may be overstating the case to say that they were United Empire Loyalists, but it certainly could be said that they trusted the Crown more than they trusted the revolutionary state.

Richard Beasley, a land agent, had been asked by Joseph Brant, a leader of the Six Nations Aboriginal people, to sell a portion of their treaty lands. Beasley helped the Mennonites negotiate this purchase, which later became known as the German Land Tract, an area surrounding present-day Kitchener-Waterloo that was first opened for settlement around 1800. By 1820, Woolwich Township to the north (Elmira and surrounding area) was also opened to Mennonite settlement.

Wilmot Township to the West (New Hamburg and vicinity) was opening up at this time as well. In the 1820s, Amish Mennonites led by Christian Nafziger came directly from Alsace-Lorraine, a region in France that is today bordered by Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland. The Amish settled on 22 farms in Wilmot Township. Part of the group remained Amish (Old Order Amish), and today they continue to worship in their homes and live a simple and plain life. They use horse and buggies for transport, and eschew tractors on their farms.

At the end of the 19th century, the majority of them decided to build meeting houses. They made changes in lifestyle and in expressions of worship.  Around 1920 they became the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference (later Western Ontario Mennonite Conference), which integrated into Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) in 1989.

Worry in Woolwich

Over a hundred years ago, in 1889, some Mennonites in Woolwich Township became concerned about certain trends in the Mennonite Church. They were suspicious of a strengthening Methodist style revivalism, the introduction of prayer meetings and evening worship, of Sunday School and the use of the English language in worship.

Led by preacher Abraham Martin, Woolwich Mennonites separated from the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. The dividing line seemed to follow Highway 85, which passed very near St. Jacobs.  Churches on one side of the highway remained with the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, joined selectively by some on the other side from St. Jacobs, Elmira, and Floradale.

From the parking lot of the Elmira Mennonite Church today, you can see an Old Order meeting house on the adjacent property. On one Sunday this parking lot will be filled with horses and buggies. On alternate Sundays, it is used by the Waterloo-Markham Mennonites, who also rejected revivalism and Sunday School, but drive only black cars instead of buggies.

In the 1960’s another division occurred when people again felt that we Mennonites were becoming too “worldly.” In this new Conservative Mennonite Church, men wore plain coats and women wore prayer veils. They rejected television, radio, and wedding bands and retained the use of the King James version of scripture.

Today there are at least 27 distinct Mennonite groups in Ontario. Their diversity is based mostly upon lifestyle, and varying degrees of acculturation among a people whose original “habit of the heart” has made them “a people apart.”

From Russia… with love

In 1924 the first major wave of Dutch Mennonites came from Russia to Ontario. Local Swiss Mennonite families met them at the train station in Waterloo and hosted them, but significant differences between the two groups soon became apparent. The Russian Mennonites did not wear prayer veils but they wore wedding rings. Their worship style also differed and permitted the use of musical instruments.

Many of these new arrivals settled in other parts of Ontario such as Essex County in the Leamington area, or migrated further west to Manitoba. Those who remained in the Waterloo Region formed their own congregations – Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church and Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church. Initially they also had small congregations in New Hamburg and Cambridge.

In 1989, after decades of living and working alongside each other in Southern Ontario, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to all of us that the three major Mennonite groups – Western Ontario Mennonite Conference, Conference of United Mennonite Churches in Ontario, and Mennonite Conference of Ontario & Quebec – should integrate into Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. After all, it was these three bodies, plus Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church (affiliated at the time with the General Conference), that had cooperated in 1963 to form what today is Conrad Grebel University College. They also worked together in Mennonite Central Committee relief work and other projects.

Surface expressions of faith and culture seemed less significant now.

Even newer Mennonites

Some of the newest Mennonites in Ontario share similar stories of migration. An influx of new immigrants began with the “boat people” of the 1970’s, who were assisted by local Mennonites. This refugee and immigrant resettlement work formed some important relationships. Along the way, many of the new arrivals were introduced to Anabaptism. Some of these Latin American and Asian groups formed new Mennonite congregations within MCEC.

We now worship each week in 17 different languages including English, German, Spanish, Hmong, Korean, Laotian, Chinese, and Chin.

Not the first

Any account of our life in this region needs to note our link, first of all to the Aboriginal peoples, then to others who settled alongside us almost from the beginning, and in increasing numbers in subsequent decades.

Much of the land on which Mennonites originally settled was part of the Native land grants by the British Crown which was to include six miles on each side of the Grand River. This was eventually reduced to the lands on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford.  The town was named after Joseph Brant, a key Aboriginal leader of the time who worked diligently on behalf of his people in the midst of changing times and supported the British in the Revolutionary War.

When Mennonites came to what is now called Kitchener, it was a small village called Sand Hills, surrounded by farms. Benjamin Eby, a key Mennonite leader and an entrepreneur came to the area to run a sawmill and a farm. He taught school and was also the pastor. Eventually he became bishop of the Mennonite church in Kitchener, now First Mennonite Church. Because of his influence, Sand Hills was renamed Eby Town.

Later, in the second quarter of the 1800s, many German people came to the area in search of new land and to escape the wars in Europe. German Lutherans and Catholics settled alongside the Mennonite settlers. They came from the Palatinate and spoke a dialect similar to the Pennsylvania German of Mennonites. Both my great-great-grandmother and great grandmother were German Lutheran.

Because of this strong German influence, Eby Town was renamed Berlin in the 1830s.  Much later, when World War I broke out, the German place name fell into disrepute, and the city was renamed Kitchener, after a British general in the Boor War. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to revert to the name Berlin, but without success. The local German culture is celebrated annually over the Thanksgiving weekend with Okterberfest activities.

In many ways Waterloo Region is a microcosm of the wider Mennonite Church represented by Mennonite Church Canada, with all its diversity, yet united as a people of God.

I invite you to Southern Ontario for the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2011 in Waterloo. Come, and meet me at the Grand!

Sidebar: Constant Reminders

I have been constantly reminded that First Nations people were in this area long before I arrived. One summer I worked on a farm and turned up a peculiar stone while digging a post hole. It was assessed by the archaeology department at the University of Waterloo to be an Aboriginal tool, possibly an axe or a skin scraper. My father would regularly turn up arrow heads as he walked behind the horse drawn plough. At one point, construction of a highway heading toward New Hamburg was halted so an archaeological dig could examine exposed remnants of an aboriginal long house estimated to be 800 years old.

Sidebar: When you come…

In addition to the usual Assembly activities, local organizers have planned a number of tours of the Waterloo region. Below is a sampling. More tours and more details can be found at

  • Historic Ebytown: Engage the historical Mennonite presence in downtown Kitchener over the past two centuries. Tour the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum, whose theme for that week is “Mennonite Foodways” (food that really “schmecks!”), the Woodside National Historic Site, the childhood home of William Lyon McKenzie King, and First Mennonite Church.
  • The Trail of the Conestoga: Family friendly tour of Doon Heritage Village and Waterloo Region Museum. Step back in time to 1914. Newly restored buildings, artifacts, farm animals, and more.
  • Up the Conestoga: An exploration of history and culture of the Old Order Mennonites beginning at the Visitor Centre in St. Jacobs, a visit to an Old Order Mennonite parochial school, and discussion with a teacher exploring the retention of a horse-and-buggy tradition while living in a modern world.
  • Up the Nith: Explore  the Nith River valley, learn about the original 1825 Amish Mennonite settlement, encounter various Amish Mennonite groups, and visit an Amish home, quilt store and buggy shop.
  • Mennonite Economic Development Associates Waterloo Chapter: Tour two businesses owned by local Mennonites; Leis Pet Distributing, a full line distributor of pet food and accessories, and Erb Group, a transportation company of 1200 employees and 1,000 power units servicing Canada and the USA.
  • Six Nations of the Grand River: Visit Aboriginal neighbours who offered the land to our Mennonite forebears. Enjoy the picturesque waters of the Grand River; visit the Woodland Cultural Centre depicting the life and work of the Anishinaabe and Onkwehon: we peoples, take a guided tour of a residential school, and see a reclamation site on the western edge of the town of Caledonia.

Discussion Questions

  1. Generations of Mennonites have moved in search of land where they could live out their beliefs in communities of peace. How aware are you of your family roots where you live? How important is this to your sense of identity, as an individual, family and church?
  2. Maurice notes that a Mennonite “habit of the heart” from our beginnings is to be “a people apart.”  He describes how various Mennonite groups in Waterloo Region “draw the line in the sand” at different places when it comes to nonconformity to the world (horse and buggy, black cars, etc.). Does it matter to you how we express our nonconformity to the world? Where do you draw the line (as an individual, family, church)?
  3. There are now more than twenty definable Mennonite groups in Ontario. Is this splintering of Mennonites a sign of vigour (they believed strongly enough about matters to debate them, and even divide over them)? Or is it a sign of decay (people sticking to tradition which is faith ‘gone to seed.’)?
  4. The story of Mennonite immigration to Waterloo Region has many parallels for Mennonites. How might this history help us better understand newer immigrant groups who have more recently joined us in Mennonite Church Canada from Asia, Latin America, Ethiopia and other places?
  5. When we meet in Assembly in July we will be on the German Land Tract which was originally the land of the Six Nations people. How aware are you that we in Canada truly live in “our home and native land?” When we arrived, our aboriginal neighbours were our “hosts,” and we came as “guests.” Have we been good guests?