A Brief History of the Migration of Mennonites to Ontario and the Formation of the Old Colony Church

by Kerry Fast, Toronto

Anne Peters had this to say about her family’s first trip to Ontario from Mexico in 1954: crammed into a big truck “we were more than forty people, five families, each with seven or eight children, we were the only family with only five.  The truck box was completely full, from corner to corner.  Just a tarp tied over top.  That’s how we drove through the States.”1 The families on this truck—Cornelius F. and Anne Peters, the Jacob Ennses, the Cornelius Thiessens, the Peter Fehrs and one unidentified family—were of the very first Old Colony families to travel to Ontario from Mexico to work there for the agricultural season.  They travelled together for twelve days from Cuauhtémoc, Mexico to Port Rowan, Ontario. Things did not improve immediately upon arrival.  The man they had hired to transport them to Ontario was unscrupulous.  He had promised them housing upon arrival and when that didn’t materialize, they were forced to camp out on a property with an abandoned house on it.  When it rained, the driver and his family stayed dry in their truck and the other families were forced to enter the house and sleep there.  The families soon bought themselves a big house. In total they were forty-two people in that house.

After a few weeks they found work hoeing beets.  Their driver worked as the foreman and garnered their wages to pay for their travel.  He left them only enough money to buy bread.  Anne Peters continued, “[We] weren’t allowed to buy meat.  He said we were so poor that bread and jam, bread and butter was good enough for us.  We weren’t supposed to buy meat.  He paid us two dollars per day, right?”  The Peters had pre-paid their trip but even so, their earnings were withheld.  In this desperate situation, these families got in touch with the two other Mennonite families who were already in Ontario, the Abram Loewen family and the Dave Klassen family.  These two families were living in the Niagara Peninsula and were working for Ontario Mennonites.  They made known the plight of their fellow migrants and soon a General Conference Church collected household necessities, clothing and food for the newly arrived Old Colony Mennonites.  They soon found work among Mennonites in the Port Rowan area and were now paid a more equitable wage, forty cents an hour, although that was probably still below minimum wage.2 Mennonites from the Erie View United Mennonite Church near Port Rowan also assisted the Old Colony migrants with material donations.3

The coming of these families from Mexico marked the beginning of a migration to Ontario that has changed the landscape of southwestern region of the province.  There are now more than 10,000 Mennonites from Mexico in southern Ontario.4 Many, particularly recent migrants, work at seasonal agricultural jobs like the early migrants did. By now, however, these Mennonites have lived in Ontario for more than sixty years and have established themselves as a viable, permanent community. In this article I examine how this came about, or more specifically, I examine how the Old Colony Church in Ontario—one of the most important institutions for many of the Mennonites from Mexico in Ontario—began. Many other factors come into play in the history of Mennonites from Mexico in Ontario, nor is the Old Colony Church the only church of importance for Mennonites from Mexico. But it is a significant one and understanding its history is a necessity in the history of Mennonites from Mexico in Ontario.

The early years of this migration were marked by economic hardship and isolation for many of the migrants, and so one of the purposes of this article is to examine what the conditions on Mennonite colonies in Chihuahua State, Mexico were like, that motivated people to relocate.  The other trajectory of this article, which is closely related to the first, is to examine how these early migrants established themselves as a community in Ontario. In particular, I will examine the formation of the Old Colony church in Ontario, because this history reveals the forces, sometime conflicting, that were at play as the migrants sought to establish themselves.  But this article is not, strictly speaking, about the tensions within the community. Rather, it is about how their migration and the forces that shaped it were central to their identity as they formed a community.

Before I go on to describe the beginning years of the migration to Ontario by Old Colony Mennonites, I would like to say something about the sources that I am using for this article.  In 1979 the Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario and Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario, undertook an oral history project of Mennonite migration to Ontario.  Mennonites who had migrated from Russia in the twentieth century and Mennonites who had migrated from Mexico in the mid-twentieth century were interviewed. Ron Sawatsky was taken on to conduct the interviews with first-generation Mennonites from Mexico.  In total he conducted twenty-eight interviews with Mennonites from Mexico over the course of the summer.5 In his interviews Sawatsky focused on life in Mexico and the reasons for migrating to Ontario, the experience of migrating, working in Ontario, the beginnings of the Old Colony Church and the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference (EMMC) in Ontario.

A Jacob Fehr family from the Steinbach, Manitoba area can be credited with beginning this migration to Ontario.  They first arrived in Ontario in 1949. On a visit to Mexico in 1952—they had connections to Durango Colony6—their reports convinced the Abram Loewens, who ran a small store near Álvaro Obregón (Rubio), that Ontario held promise for the possibility of making a good living, and in 1952 the Loewens hired a driver to take them to Canada.  They went first to Manitoba because Abram Loewen wanted to return to his place of birth, which he had left as a boy.  The family spent two months there hoeing beets and then, after buying a car, they drove to Ontario.7 The following summer they were joined by another family, the Dave Klassens, who came to Ontario only for the summer.  The Klassens returned to Mexico for the winter but were back in Ontario again the following summer.  It was the following year, 1954, that Anne and Cornelius Peters and the other four families in the story at the outset of this article came to Ontario in the over-crowded truck.

Mennonites moved to Ontario for the most part because life in Mexico was economically challenging.  Every person interviewed in 1979 mentioned economic difficulties as the reason for their migration. The economic challenges that Mennonites on the colonies were facing in the mid-twentieth century become evident when we look at the conditions under which Mennonites were trying to make a living. In twenty-one of the twenty-six households represented in the interviews,8 the families left their natal colony seeking economic opportunities elsewhere. Sixteen of those twenty-one purchased land on Nord Colony (or in its vicinity), a daughter colony of Manitoba Colony; six of these also described working off the colony either renting land from Mexicans or working for Mexicans.9 One purchased land on La Honda Colony, a daughter colony of Durango.10 One family moved to the Mexican village of Juan Aldama (along with a few other Sommerfelder families) and farmed there.11 In most instances, these families had not owned land on their natal colonies, and while they were able to purchase land elsewhere, they were not able to establish themselves even as land owners. Repeated crop failures plagued them. Of the remaining three who left their natal colonies, one moved to Cuauhtémoc and was employed by the Redekop family,12 one moved to British Honduras,13 and one family moved to Madera, several hundred kilometers from the Mennonite colonies, to do custom work for Mexicans.14 Of the five households that did not relocate, all were landless; two families were abjectly poor.15 The combination of land shortage and repeated crop failures made life difficult for many Mennonites.

Mennonites had been returning from Mexico to Canada since they first moved to Mexico in 1922.  But up until 1952, they had gone to Manitoba or Saskatchewan.  They had been returning home to Old Colony communities that they were familiar with and where family ties remained.  But nothing like that existed in Ontario so these early migrants turned to Mennonites in Ontario and once there were a few families living there, they supported each other.  Abe Loewen, who was a teenager when his family moved to the province, described how his father Abram found a job in the Elmira area at a sawmill owned and operated by “Pennsylvania Dutch” Mennonites.[16. In all likelihood these were Markham-Waterloo Mennonites.  Loewen describes them thus: There’s one group that drives cars, painted black cars, black bumpers.] Not only did the Loewens work for these Markham-Waterloo Mennonites, they also “lived among” them and attended their church.  Following the first winter in Ontario, the Loewens moved to the Aylmer area where they spent a lot of time with the Jacob Fehr family.  After a few months they moved to the St. Catherines area in the Niagara Peninsula and again sought out a Mennonite church, this time a General Conference church.  But even though they shared a language, the Loewens did not feel comfortable among these Russländer.  Abe Loewen says of his parents, “they attended the General Conference church very regularly but that too was unfamiliar for my parents.  My parents weren’t able to feel comfortable there.”16

Nettie Friesen, who migrated to Ontario in 1957, described the isolation she and her family felt:  “there we met a family, they lived west of Thamesville, there we met a family, Jacob Fehrs from Durango, Mexico. We thought we had found life.  We were all alone, no other Dietsche, nobody whatsoever who spoke our language. It was very difficult to learn English.  I just about went crazy.  So we got together with them.  They wanted to move to this area [Wheatley] so we moved together to this area….Our biggest motivation was finding a church.  There had to be more than what we had which was nothing.”17

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I have already described how Cornelius and Anne Peters, the Ennses and the Thiessens sought out the few Old Colony families that lived in Ontario and how this in turn resulted in assistance from other Mennonites.  For the Peters, this connection proved important. For three years they attended the Erie View United Mennonite Church near Port Rowan and held the pastor, Rev. Braun, in high regard.  Rev. Braun offered to hold separate services for the Old Colony Mennonites in the area and his offer was accepted; about ten families attended the first service. But it proved to be a controversial service, and just the one was held. Anne Peters described the service: “and then they also held an evening service in which the minister preached about how God was watching us, God viewed us not on what was outside, but what was inside us. God wasn’t concerned about clothing, what kind of clothes we wear.”  Whether or not this pointed critique of Old Colony teaching about dress and nonconformity was intentional—and it is quite possible that it was—this sermon, with its evangelical bent, was not well received by some.  Several attendees were offended “because he [Rev. Braun] believed that it wasn’t the clothing God was concerned about, but rather the heart.  They [the offended attendees] believed God did take note of clothing, how we dressed was right, as we were accustomed to from Mexico.”18 Others, such as Anne and Cornelius Peters, welcomed this new perspective.

The fact that Rev. Braun’s sermon exposed differences among the Old Colony migrants is not surprising because these differences already existed on the Mennonite colonies in northern Mexico from where the Old Colony Mennonites had come. By mid-century Mennonites in northern Mexico had become increasingly fragmented.  In 1950 the General Conference Mennonite Church had started mission work on the colonies and Old Colonists looking for a more progressive, that is, evangelical, interpretation of Christian faith could join the General Conference Church. Even with the boldest of the dissatisfied Old Colony Mennonites becoming General Conference, however, the internal differences that existed within the Old Colony churches in Mexico were apparent. They came to a head in the mid-1960s when the Ältestas of Swift, Nord and Santa Clara colonies, along with large numbers of the colony members, moved to Bolivia to establish colonies there in an attempt to thwart the modernizing forces prevalent on Mexico’s colonies. If there were Old Colony Mennonites who were committed to remaining faithful to their traditional ways, there were also others who insisted that modernization was imperative for economic and cultural survival. The flashpoint of this divide was the use of rubber tires on tractors by some colonists, which they claimed were necessary, given the harsh agricultural climate of northern Mexico. Working off the colonies with and for Mexicans, which some also claimed was imperative for their economic survival, was also problematic, as was owning a vehicle and fraternizing with more progressive/evangelical groups that were missionizing Old Colony Mennonites. For Old Colony Mennonites who were inclined to be more progressive, the Old Colony Church was intractable. Several interviewees describe being excommunicated, whether for returning to Canada, owning a vehicle, using rubber tires on their tractors, or owning a vehicle. Most Old Colony Mennonites who came to Ontario in the early years expressed at least some discontent with the Old Colony Church in Mexico. Jacob Wiebe, who would later become an Old Colony minister in Ontario, was one of several migrants who expressed his frustration. On Nord Colony he had had three years of crop failures and therefore had been unable to make payments for his land. This daughter colony had initially been purchased by the Gemeinde (church), so his creditor was his own community. After the third year of not being able to make payments, the Vorsteher of the colony demanded that he pay for the land. This injustice, Wiebe claimed, put the idea of Canada into his head. But first he joined his brother-in-law, Dave Klassen, in farming for Mexicans off the colony for a share of the crop. He did well in this, but when the Mexican land owner moved, they were forced to end this arrangement. He said,

I wanted to be rid of them [the Fast05Old Colony]. I wouldn’t have been able to make it work. We weren’t supposed to work among the Mexicans—they were bad people—if you did, you were excommunicated. And of course we used their vehicles which we weren’t supposed to do. But to return to the [Mennonite] villages, the colony?  That wasn’t possible. They didn’t help, “you’re on your own.”…Those people who were doing alright, they received help, much more than those who needed it.19

Wiebe was not excommunicated but his frustration with the Old Colony Church in Mexico was shared by other early migrants. It is no wonder that they looked for a religious life in Ontario that differed from the Old Colony Church in Mexico. This is not to say, however, that they wanted to abandon the Old Colony. Although some left to join the evangelical church shortly after the Old Colony Church in Ontario had been formed, most migrants wanted to remain Old Colony, only not of the variety found in Mexico.20 They wanted a more tolerant form of Old Colony religiosity, one in which excommunication was not used to ensure people’s conformity as it had been in Mexico.21

The Mennonites who had migrated to Ontario understood the importance of establishing a church to foster their religious life and ensure that their way of life was maintained in the next generation. As Anne Peters said, “by then [a few years after they had arrived] there were a lot of Mennonites here and many had older children which we also had, old enough to want to get married and we agreed that we needed a church so that our children could get baptized and get married, etcetera.  We met, all us Dietsche, to discuss the possibility of starting a church.”22

Fast03

A group of Old Colony Mennonites first started meeting in the fall of 1958 near Port Burwell.23 Jacob Neudorf, who was an Old Colony minister from Manitoba, had come to southern Ontario to buy a car. He had heard that Mennonites from Mexico had come to that area and so he made contact and held a church service.  It is unclear whether Neudorf initiated this contact or whether he was sent by the Old Colony Church in Manitoba after it had received a letter from the group in Ontario asking for assistance. Neudorf continued to make periodic visits to Ontario to preach until 1965 when his evangelical intentions made him unwelcome in the Old Colony Church.24 Another minister sent by the Old Colony Church in Manitoba also proved to be unsatisfactory. Peter Harder had originally been chosen by the Manitoba church as a minister in the 1930s but had not accepted the responsibility and thus had never been ordained. He moved to Mexico, but in the late 1950s he contacted the Old Colony Church in Manitoba stating that he was prepared to take up the responsibility of ordination if there was a place for him. The Manitoba church offered Harder’s services as a minister to the Ontario group.  They accepted.  Harder, however, was a divisive force in the group and in 1960 he and about four families left southern Ontario for Rainy River to establish a church that would be free of the worldly influences of southern Ontario.25 The support of the Manitoba Old Colony Church was vital in the establishment of the church in Ontario, Harder notwithstanding. In 1959 the church had its first Fäajoasche Kjoakj26 and baptismal service for which the Ältesta of the Manitoba Old Colony Church, Jacob J. Froese, came to Ontario. The Ältesta and various ministers continued to visit Ontario to baptize and hold communion services until 1975 when the Ontario church elected its own Ältesta, Henry Reimer.27

People interviewed:

Banman, Henry and Anna (Klassen)

Banman, John and Neeta (Klassen)

Dyck, Cornelius and Sara (Dyck)

Dyck, Peter

Friesen, Corny

Friesen, Nettie

Giesbrecht, Peter

Hamm, Diedrich and Elizabeth (Klassen)

Harms, John B. and Elizabeth (Reimer)

Klassen, Isaac

Loewen, Abe

Penner, Martin and Elizabeth (Rempel)

Peters, Cornelius and Anna (Wiebe)

Peters, Cornelius K.

Peters, Heinrich F.

Peters, Jake and Christine (Klassen)

Quiring, Cornelius  Ältesta

Schroeder, Aaron and Margaret (Enns)

Voth, Heinrich and Maria (Dueck)

Voth, John D.

Wall, Aron S.

Wieb, Aaron N. and Sarah (Janzen)

Wiebe, Bernhard H. and Helena (Hiebert)

Wiebe, Jacob and Anna (Sawatsky)

Wiebe, Jacob D. and Anna (Klassen)

Wieb, Jacob Rev.

Wiebe, Ramon P.

Woelk, Peter and Helena (Klassen)

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While the group in Ontario had the support of the Old Colony Church in Manitoba, its leaders were hesitant to help organize it without first establishing to whose jurisdiction this fledgling group belonged. Because the group in Ontario had originated in Mexico, Ältesta Froese went to Mexico and discussed this with the Ältestas there who declined to be involved in the formation of a church in Ontario.28 According to other interviews, the group wrote to Ältesta Isaac Dyck of Manitoba Colony in Mexico asking for assistance but he had declined to get involved.  In 1960 the Ontario congregation elected Jacob Wiebe and Heinrich F. Peters as ministers and Peter Giesbrecht as a deacon.29

Institutionally, the Old Colony Church in Ontario was now established. But there was pressure from both sides—those Old Colony who wanted to withdraw from the worldly allures that southern Ontario offered, and those who wanted a more evangelical form of Christianity to dominate—through which the Old Colony Church in Ontario steered a course. These two forces were felt early on in the church. In 1958, even before the church was formally organized, twelve to fifteen families moved to Matheson in northern Ontario, with the intent of escaping the world.30 Two years later Peter Harder took his group to Rainy River.31 Then in 1977 the Old Colony Ältesta, Henry Reimer, took a group of about ten families to settle in Seminole, Texas, motivated largely by his fear that the world was encroaching on the Old Colony Church in Ontario.32 Equally divisive were those forces in the Old Colony Church that were pressing for evangelical reform.  From 1961 to1964 or 1965 the Old Colony Church in Ontario had a Sunday school which was run by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wiebe, who were Russländer, and who introduced choruses and teaching on being born again. Some members met for Bible study.33 These differences came to a head with the arrival of the EMMC in southern Ontario, and within a few years those Old Colony members who wanted evangelical reform had left the Old Colony Church; most joined the EMMC.34

It is not surprising that the beginning years of the Old Colony Church in Ontario were somewhat rocky. The Old Colony churches in Mexico were themselves undergoing significant transition and differences were bound to develop among its members. These differences existed also in the group of Mennonites who migrated to Ontario, even if they tended to be of the more progressive Old Colony Mennonites. But the group’s desire to establish itself as both connected to its roots in Mexico and yet steering a new course in a new land prevailed.

The following is a list of families who arrived in Ontario from 1949–1960. This information comes from the twenty-eight interviews I transcribed and translated. This list is undoubtedly incomplete and there may be errors. If anyone has additional names and dates of early migrants, I would love to hear from you. Please contact me at kerryfast@gmail.com

1949

Jacob Fehrs

1952

Abram Loewens

1953

Dave Klassens

1953?

Cornelius Walls

1954

Cornelius F. and Anne Peters

Cornelius Thiessens

Jacob Ennses

Jacob F. Peters

1956

Peter Giesbrechts

Jacob Klassens

Heinrich F. Peters

David F. Peters

Corny and Katarina Friesen

1957

Gerhard and Nettie Friesen

John Banman

John Schroeders

1958

John B. and Elizabeth Harms

1959

Henry and Anne Banman

1960

Isaac Thiessens

Cornelius S. and Sarah Dyck

Dave Friesen

Frank Klassens

Isaac Fehrs



Endnotes

  1.  The digital recordings of all interviews quoted in this article are part of an oral history project on Mennonite migration to Ontario, conducted in 1979 by the Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario and Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario.  The interviews are available at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario (MAO), Conrad Grebel University College.  English transcripts of these interviews are available at the MAO and at the D. F. Plett Historical Research Foundation offices, University of Winnipeg. Cornelius F. and Anne Peters interview.
  2.  This was probably less than minimum wage.  I was unable to find figures for the minimum wage in the Province of Ontario for 1954.  In 1957 in Manitoba, the minimum wage for men was 60 cents/hour and for women it was 54 cents/hour. (http://www.gov.mb.ca/labour/labmgt/wages/histmin.html).  In 1965 in Ontario, it was 95 cents/hour for women in rural Ontario and $1.00/hour for men (http://srv116.services.gc.ca/dimt-wid/sm-mw/rpt2.aspx?lang=eng).
  3.  Cornelius F. and Anne Peters interview.
  4.  Opening Doors, “An Overview of Migrations”, http://openingdoors.co/an-overview-of-migrations/.
  5.  In addition to the twenty-eight interviews with Mennonites from Mexico, Sawatsky also interviewed service providers who worked with the immigrant Mennonites and church leaders whose congregations were composed of Mennonites from Mexico.
  6.  Nettie Friesen interview.
  7.  Abe Loewen interview.
  8.  here were twenty-eight interviews in total which represent twenty-six households because two of the interviewees were teenagers when they moved to Ontario and as such, did not have their own household.  Their parents were also interviewed.
  9.  Henry and Anne Banman,* Cornelius and Anne Dyck,* Peter Dyck, Corny Friesen, Nettie Friesen,* Peter Giesbrecht,* Diedrich and Elizabeth Hamm, John B. and Elizabeth Harms, Martin and Elizabeth Penner, Cornelius F. and Anne Peters, Jakob F. Peters (son Cornelius K. Peters interviewed), Heinrich F. Peters, David F. Peters* (son Jake Peters interviewed), Ältesta Cornelius Quiring, Raymon Wiebe, Rev. Jacob Wiebe.*  The asterisk indicates those interviewees who worked for Mexicans or rented land from them.
  10.  Aaron Wall interview.
  11.  Heinrich and Maria Voth interview.
  12.  Jacob and Anna Wiebe interview.
  13.  Bernhard and Helen Wiebe interview.
  14.  Peter Klassen.  Son Isaac Klassen and daughter Christine Peters were interviewed.
  15.  Aaron and Margaret Schroeder, Peter and Helena Woelk, Jacob D. Wiebe, Abe Loewen and Aaron and Sarah Wiebe.
  16.  Abe Loewen interview.
  17.  Nettie Friesen interview.
  18.  Cornelius and Anne Peters interview.
  19.  Rev. Jacob Wiebe interview.
  20.  Ibid.
  21.  John and Neeta Banman interview.
  22.  Cornelius and Anne Peters interview.
  23.  Rev. Jacob Wiebe interview
  24.  Rev. Jacob Wiebe interview; Cornelius K. Peters interview. Rev. Neudorf was also later dismissed from the ministerial of the Old Colony Church in Manitoba.  He joined the EMMC.
  25.  Rev. Jacob Wiebe interview.
  26.  The service prior to baptism when the Catechism is recited by all those intending to be baptized.
  27.  Isaac Klassen interview.
  28.  Rev. Jacob Wiebe interview.
  29.  Rev. Jacob Wiebe interview.
  30.  Aron and Margaret Schroeder interview; Abe Loewen interview.
  31.  The community in Matheson lasted only a few years as farming was not viable that far north. Some returned to southern Ontario and others joined the group in Rainy River. In 1979, the community in Rainy River still existed but it had become Reinländer and was no longer Old Colony. (Peter Giesbrecht interview.)
  32.  Peter Dyck interview.
  33.  John and Neeta Banman interview; Abe Loewen interview; Cornelius and Anne Peters interview; Henry and Anne Banman interview, Cornelius K. Peters interview. For a discussion on the differences between evangelical and Old Colony religious belief, see Ältesta Cornelius Quiring interview.
  34.  Cornelius F. and Anne Peters interview; Cornelius K. Peters interview; John and Neeta Banman interview; Henry and Anna Banman interview; Corny Friesen interview; Abe Loewen interview.

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