The History of The Toronto Mission – now the Danforth Mennonite Church from 1907 to 2009, by Bill Bryson.
Among North American Mennonites in the second half of the nineteenth century there was a movement towards missionary emphasis. This led to the formation of groups known as the New Mennonites in western Ontario and Indiana. They joined together in 1874 to become the Reformed Mennonites.
When the Missionary-minded Mennonites of Markham area joined this group in 1875 they adopted the name United Mennonites.
In 1879 the inclusion of the Evangelical Mennonites of Pennsylvania created the Evangelical United Mennonites; and with the inclusion in 1883 of the Brethren in Christ from Ohio the group adopted the name the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.
The First Toronto Mennonite Mission
In 1897 Mennonite Brethren in Christ minister and evangelist Noah Detweiler came to Toronto. He set up a tent mission on Spadina Avenue and began his evangelical work. With success in this area he rented a hall at 450 Spadina Avenue, just south of College Street. This was the first Mennonite mission in the city. Its successor is the Banfield Memorial Church on Centre Avenue in Willowdale.
There was also a Mennonite Brethren in Christ mission known as Grace Chapel on Jones Avenue, south of the Danforth, which is now Grace Memorial Church on Broadlands Boulevard in North York.
To what extent these missions influenced the Ontario Conference to establish a mission in Toronto, I don’t know. However, in 1906 C.F. Coffman, I. A. Wambold, N. Stouffer, D. Bergey, and L. J. Burkholder were given the task of locating a mission in Toronto. They chose the area between Church Street and the Don River, south of Queen Street for mission work. Having failed to find a suitable hall, they rented an eight room house at 75 Tate Street. They obtained permission to remove some of the interior walls and created space for about 75 people. To distinguish it from other missions in the area they hung a sign over the front door announcing the Faith, Hope, Charity Mission. The first service was held on March 3rd, 1907.
The Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities secured Samuel Honderich and his wife of Goshen, Indiana as Superintendent. Lena Weber and Bernice Devitt of Waterloo County volunteered their services as mission workers. These four constituted the regular working force of the mission with Milton Bergey, who worked in the city, also helping out. All that they received for their services was a living, and a few times that was rather meager because the funds were low. They willingly forgo many ordinary comforts and often walked several miles in a day to save streetcar fare. A number of individuals and a few churches sent liberal contributions of money and other useful items.
In a Workers’ Report that first Spring they reported that: “The people are of the working class, mainly living from hand to mouth, but thus far we have found none who are really destitute. However, the children are left to run in the streets dirty, ragged and barefooted. Even two year old babies were seen out barefooted in April. A few expressions made to us by people of the city who ought to know, will give you an idea of what this part of Toronto is. “You are in the very worst hole in the City.” “Nearly all the women in that section drink.” “My brother was superintendent of the first mission attempted on Tate St. about fifteen years ago. The work was a failure. They were just run out.”
Unfortunately, the area was slated for demolition in the Fall of that year and many of those who had come to the Mission were moved to other parts of the city.
The Mission relocated in November to 461 King Street east, which was a store in a business section. Mission work continued there but was not as promising as Tate Street had been.
In 1909 the Honderichs resigned and John Byler took over as Superintendent. John Musselman was appointed business manager and Elizabeth Brown of Markham joined the workers.
The Danforth Mission Is Born
Also in 1909 there was an opportunity to rent a small hall on Danforth Avenue, east of Woodbine, which had been used for gospel work by the Methodist Church. Both works were continued for the year and in 1910 it was decided that the Danforth site had the greater promise so the downtown mission was closed and the property on the Danforth was purchased. A new building was built and named the Mennonite Gospel Mission.
At that time this area was still mainly farm country. Consequently, this new building looked like what it really was, a small frame country church.
In 1914, the Bylers left the mission and Elizabeth Brown took charge, with ministers from Markham coming in and conducting the preaching services.
S. M. Kanagy came to Toronto about this time and became involved with the mission work. A short time later he and Elizabeth Brown were married and he served as pastor till 1920.
Other workers then were Ada Burkholder, Emma Moyer, Lewis J. Burkholder.
1917 – property at 85 Gledhill was purchased and the Mission Home was built for the pastor and mission workers.
Throughout this time many families, mostly British immigrants, were buying property and building their own homes in the neighbourhood, especially in the area north of the Danforth. This area was growing quite rapidly because the land was cheap and it was out of the city, so there weren’t many building regulations.
Since the nearest mainline church was the Methodist church at Main Street, families in this area looked to the Mennonite mission to meet their spiritual needs and to find friendship in this new land.
Many immigrants from the British Isles found themselves warmly welcomed into this little church by these rural Mennonites of American and Swiss-German descent.
The workers at the mission were concerned with all aspects of human need – physical, spiritual and emotional. They offered Sunday school and Worship Services on Sundays, took the gospel message to their neighbours, inviting them to accept salvation through Christ, and showed their concern in whatever way indicated. The mission workers, both ordained clergy and the young women volunteering their time, came from a Mennonite background, while the people who living in the neighbourhood and attended Sunday School and the worship services didn’t. Mission workers wore the traditional bonnets for the women and the plain coat for the men. These were worn not just to Church, but at all times. When people in the neighbourhood became members of the mission it was mandatory that the women wear the bonnet, while the men had the option of wearing the plain coat or their regular clothing.
There were also many children who attended Sunday school, both those of members and many whose families were actually members of other denominations. Now, you may well ask, why didn’t the children whose parents were members of other denominations go to their own Sunday school? Well, back then, and right through into the fifties, this was known as ‘Toronto the Good’. One of the reasons for this was that nothing much was allowed by way of public entertainment on Sunday’s. No movies, no sports in the parks, no playing in school yards; about the only things kids were allowed to do was to go to Sunday school, play in the ravines ,or stay around home. So, they went to Sunday school, two or even three times on a Sunday.
In 1920, Nelson B. Martin and his wife Naomi came to serve as pastor. Tragically, within a few months Naomi had died, and after short time Nelson left this work. The other workers were Bertha Groh, Ferne Stutzman, Florence Payne, Mr and Mrs. Harvey Brown.
During 1921 there was a separate mission work going on Barker Ave. in the Woodbine Heights area, about a half mile north of the Danforth mission. This work lasted for about a decade, with the property being sold in 1932. In February of 1922, Lewis S. Weber and wife Edna took charge. Other workers were Mary Richer, Etta Perry.
Most of the churches in the area had their worship services in the morning, Sunday school in the afternoon, and another service in the evening. The Mennonite Gospel Mission had Sunday school in the morning, and just the one preaching service, which was in the evening. So instead of going to church in the morning, many youngsters went to the Mennonite mission in the morning, and in the afternoon went to their own Sunday school. Or if their parents only insisted they go to Sunday school once, then by coming to the Mennonite mission they had the afternoon off.
In 1931, Harold and Cora Groh take charge of the mission. They arrived with their young son David, who became the first child to live in 85 Gledhill. Shortly thereafter Mary was born, becoming the first child born at 85.
The mission workers at this time were Louida Bauman and Mary Reesor.
Toronto Mission Visitation Work
– Church & Mission News, May, 1944. sister Louida Bauman.
“At the request of the City Mission Committee I have prepared this report, covering six months of visitation work-from September to the end of February. This does not include visits made by the other workers at the Mission. Sometimes visitors to the Mission have the impression that only the homes represented in the attendance at the Mission services are contacted. This report is to give the readers some idea of the extent and type of visitation work conducted, although figures cannot measure true values. Usually I have four afternoons a week free for visitation work. Occasionally a few visits are made on other afternoons, and a few in the evenings in homes whose occupants are working during the day. The aim of each visit is to be of spiritual help. During the visit, spiritual conversation is engaged in. Usually a portion of Scripture is read and prayer is offered. Pray that God’s Spirit may lead and control in all these visits.
“During these months, 405 visits were made, and 184 homes were contacted. Some have had only one visit; others had two or more. From forty-nine of these one or more members of the family attend one or more services at the Mission regularly. Only a small number of these are Christians. Twenty-two of the homes visited have one or more members of the family connected with some other church. In the other 113 homes all the ‘members are indifferent. The children in these homes attend Sunday school irregularly, or not at all. Of the 405 visits made, 291 were in the homes or in the hospitals, and 114 were visits at the door. In some cases the people were not interested enough to invite me in, or were too busy at that particular time to visit. However, a chat at the door is an opportunity to witness also. Of the 291 visits, 105 were visits to the sick or shut-ins in their homes and in various hospitals.
“There are at least fifty more homes that were not visited in this period of time. Some of these have been visited since February. There are still others that one could follow up, if time permitted. In a city such as this there are always opportunities for extensive visitation work, as many people do not attend church at all, and one must take the Gospel to them. The visitation work at the Mission is only one phase of the work, but we feel it is important to have personal contact with the people and seek to lead them to realize their, need of a Saviour, and witness to His power to save them from sin, or to encourage them in their Christian belief.”
From the book Studies in Mennonite City Missions published in 1937 we read:
“Mission work in Toronto pays, as these miracles of the Holy Spirit show:
“It was ten o’clock Sunday morning and time for the devotional service to begin when Mrs. F(ord). arrived at the Mission hall with four of her children. Her presence there was a great surprise to the Mission workers, as she and her husband had been ardent followers of spiritism and were very much wrapped up in the things of the world. Besides this she had lost no opportunity to ridicule members of the Mission.
“It was less than a year later. Mr. and Mrs. F(ord). and their oldest son together with a number of others stood at the front of the Mission hall in the presence of the bishop and answered in clear and emphatic voices the questions for baptism, and sealed their vows with the Lord.
“What a change has come over the family! The Lord has indeed put a new song in their mouths. The Word of God. has become as much a part of their daily food as the rations supplied by the relief organization. Two more of their children have confessed Christ as their Savior and are waiting to follow in baptism.”
Dalton Jantzi sent me this story:
“One day during the mid 70’s, I was chatting with Ernie Ford about his involvement in the church. One comment which sticks in my mind is this:”
This is the first story told to Dalton by Ernie Ford:
“After my kids started going to the Danforth Mission, they wanted me to go with them. So, I went one Sunday night, and I got saved. The next Sunday morning we went as a family, and they didn’t have a teacher for the adult class, so they asked me to teach … and I did … and I’ve been teaching Sunday School ever since.”
Dalton goes on to say that on another occasion they were having a conversation about miracles, and one statement which Ernie made left a lasting impression on him. This is the quote as he recalls it:
“I don’t know if everything always happened the way the Bible describes it or not; like take miracles for example . . . . I don’t know whether Jesus really changed water into wine, and it actually doesn’t matter to me. What I really do know, and what has made a BIG DIFFERENCE is this . . . . in my family, he turned beer into bread. And that’s as great a miracle as I could ever hope for.”
And I imagine there are many more such stories that could be told regarding the mission here on the Danforth.
On average there were about 150 children in the Sunday school each week, but during the depression in the 1930’s that number sometimes grew to over two hundred. The younger children met in the basement, in age graded classes, while those that were older met upstairs. And it was a great occasion when you graduated “up the stairs”. Also, in the corner by the pulpit was the “Amen corner” where the adults held their class.
The highlight of the year was the annual Sunday school picnic. Two street cars would leave the Coxwell car barns, proceed east along the Danforth, clang their bells as they passed the mission, turn around at the Luttrell loop, and return westward. Stopping at the Mennonite mission they would take on their load of youngsters, families, and church workers. Filled to capacity they would deliver their load to the ferry for the trip across Toronto Bay to Centre Island. The day would consist of games, races, lots of food and lots of fun. The trip home for these tires souls was much quieter than the trip out.
There were women’s groups at the mission, which included women from the congregation, from other churches and even those without a church. One of these groups was charmingly known as the Pleasant Wednesday Afternoon group.
In 1937, Daisy and Leonard Brown, who were members at the mission, moved to Butterworth Avenue near Danforth and Warden Avenues. In the midst of a polio epidemic that Fall health officials banned public meetings, closed Schools, churches, and Sunday schools. The Brown children wanted to have Sunday school in their home, so their parents decided to teach them. Neighbouring children joined in as well. When the epidemic passed a decision was made to keep the Sunday school going, for it had grown to over 30 children.
The Warden Park Sunday school was held in the afternoon, making it possible for workers from the Danforth Mission to come and help. In 1952 this outreach work became the Warden Park Mennonite Church , and later, moving to Fir Valley Court, it became Warden Woods Mennonite Church and Community Centre.
In 1945 Harold Groh left to become Principal of Rockway High School in Kitchener and Emerson and Elsie McDowell took over. The workers at this time were Viola Good, Mary Baer, Salome Snyder
Church planting from the Danforth has also included the Morningside Mennonite Church, started in 1951. This church maintained a separate existence until 1972 when, due to the small number of members at both churches it merged with the Danforth church to form the Danforth-Morningside Mennonite Church, since renamed the Danforth Mennonite Church.
By the early 1950’s children from the Toronto churches were attending summer camp at Chesley Lake, near Owen Sound, where a number of Mennonites had summer cottages. However, the extreme distance discouraged making this a permanent arrangement; and besides, some city church folk felt that a more primitive camping experience was more desirable.
In the summer of 1955, under Emerson’s leadership, the three Mennonite ministers in the area arranged a camping experience at the farm of Elvon Burkholder at Fort Stewart, east of Bancroft. The first week saw 23 boys, and the second week 30 girls sleeping in tents on the front lawn of the Burkholder farm. The expressed purpose of the experience would be to help the children learn about nature, to develop good personal relationships, and to learn more about the love of God.
John Hess from Warden Park and Glen Brubacher from Morningside joined Emerson, along with Mission workers Salome Snyder and Helen Brenneman. Danforth member Al Smith and VS workers Carson Moyer and Harold Reesor joined this group to help plan and run the camps.
Activities at this new camp included climbing trees, playing with kittens in the barn, and watching the cows being milked. The Burkholder front yard was located about a mile from nearby Fraser Lake, so the children could hike to the lake for daily swimming or boating sessions.
When the youngsters returned to camp the following year they slept in tents near the shores of the lake and dined in a new dining hall, which, as yet, had neither electricity, water, nor plumbing. Also at the 1956 camp was a qualified life guard. Emerson had been persuaded to go for his lifeguard certificate, since having a life guard at camp was a legal necessity. I would guess the Danforth was the first and perhaps the only Mennonite church to have a soul saving Bishop who was also a registered Royal Lifeguard. Gradually over the years the camp has grown, both in the number of campers and in the facilities.
During 1969-70 a new work was started. This was Glenbrook Day Camp located on the Grove farm near Stouffville. Osiah Horst was in charge of the camp for the summer of 1970. Many of the children in the Danforth area went either to Glenbrook or Fraser Lake camp.
Danforth Becomes a Congregation
During Emerson’s time here the work changed from being a conference Mission to being a congregation, named the Danforth Mennonite Church.
In 1964 Emerson left on furlough and Osiah and Fern Horst moved into 85, with Osiah pastoring the congregation.
Over the next few years a number of young families arrived. These include those from the Morningside congregation, John and Cathy Lynshin, Dave and Ruth Martin, Jim and Kathy Wert, Vic and Mary Jane Guerin; Jim and Marg Beer got married; Roger and Carolyn Horst got married; in 1975/76 Barbara and Bill Bryson appeared on the scene; and a couple of years later Mike and Linda DeHaan arrived. And suddenly we had a whole bunch of children running around.
In the summer of 1979 we began sharing our building with a group of Chinese families who formed the base for the present day Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church. This sharing of the building continued for a whole decade, by which time each congregation had outgrown the building, let alone was it big enough for both of us. The Chinese currently own the Rogers Memorial Presbyterian Church building just around the corner on Woodbine Avenue.
The St. Clair O’Connor Community
Also in 1979 the first mention of the effort which was to give us the St. Clair O’Connor Community was recorded in the November Church Council minutes. After a year of searching for land that we could develop by ourselves, we joined with the Toronto United Mennonite Church to purchase nearly 2 acres at the St. Clair Avenue, O’Connor Drive intersection in East York. We put up a 112 unit seniors apartment building which also contains 16 family town houses, 8 apartments for the handicapped and a 25 bed nursing home.
When Osiah retired in 1984 we called Ken Bechtel, who was not immediately available, so we waited a year for his arrival. Three years later we welcomed his new bride, Audrey Mierau, into the congregation.
Over the next few years we worked on plans for our building renovation and expansion, which you are able to see today.
Following Ken’s departure we were pastored by Doris Weber for an interim 18 months and Tim Reimer joined us as our new pastor in 1999.
(We have been making history from 2000AD to the present – but we’ve been too busy to write it).
Here are two images which have yet to be placed into the appropriate pages or articles.
This is church1.jpg : . It is the front of the current building.
This is hist2.jpg : . On the far left is an earlier building; construction is in the centre; and the current building is on the right.