A Brief History of First Mennonite Church
In the late 1700’s a steady stream of Mennonites began migrating from Pennsylvania to Upper Canada. Establishing communities en route, this migration continued northward and by the early 1800’s reached the German Company Tract which is now part of Waterloo County.
Predominantly farmers and a few millers, these people known as Pennsylvania German, carved a settlement in the wilderness with a nucleus in what is now downtown Kitchener. This community was known as Eby’s Settlement, later Eby’s Town, Berlin and finally Kitchener.
These pioneer families met for worship in homes and later a schoolhouse. By 1813 more space was needed and a log building, known as Benjamin Eby’s Meeting House was erected. This church and an adjoining cemetery were the first in the area.
A larger frame church was built in 1834. An early directory states that the cost of this building was $800 and that it had seating accommodations for 700. The frame church was replaced by a brick ediface in 1902. This building remains the center section of the present day church, which has had additions, built on all sides over the years. It became known as First Mennonite Church in 1917.
Sunday School classes for children were begun as early as 1841 combining the teaching of the German language with Christian Education. In the early 1900’s the church became home to the Ontario Mennonite Bible School, which held classes for adults during winter months and attracted students from across North America. This program continued until the 1960’s. Under C. F. Derstine’s leadership, the first summer Bible School was held for the community in 1928 with an enrollment of 243.
Over the years groups of members from First Mennonite church left to form other congregations in the city. These include Bethany Missionary Church in 1875, Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in 1924, and Rockway Mennonite Church in the early 1960’s.
As the community changed dramatically over the years from rural to urban, from Pennsylvania German to multi-ethnic, the church reflected these changes. Following the sponsorship of several Southeast Asian refugee families in 1979, a group of Hmong from Laos began using the facility on Sunday afternoons for Worship and Sunday School in their own language. Several years ago they moved to their own building and named their congregation “First Hmong Mennonite Church”. Since 1986 some of the Hispanic refugees coming to K-W from Central and South America have become an integral part of First Mennonite Church.
This message appears in eight languages – English, Spanish, Hmong, French, German, Japanese, Russian and Cree – on the Peace Pole, dedicated on November 13, 1988.