First Mennonite Church and Cemetery
Welcome to the WRX Property Group website and blog. As we continue our exploration of the Heritage Properties scattered throughout Kitchener and Waterloo (particularly around the Downtown and Uptown cores), we find ourselves at a rather significant site today. It’s significant for several reasons, but to highlight one in particular: it’s the oldest entry on our list. Today’s Heritage Property is the First Mennonite Church Cemetery in Kitchener (and the adjacent First Mennonite Church), located at 800 King Street East, near Downtown Kitchener.
A Brief Overview
Many of our more historical-leaning articles have touched on the important history of Mennonites in the Waterloo Region, and their role as founders of many of the places we know and love today. We’ll give another brief overview of that history, and their founding of Berlin, before getting into the Cemetery and Church (after all, there needed to be a community before there could be a community church).
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The Mennonites of Pennsylvania
In the early nineteenth century, a group of German-speaking (Pennsylvania German, or Pennsylvania Dutch, to be specific) Mennonites from Pennsylvania made the trek north into Canada to find new homes in what was called the German Company Tract, making use of Conestoga wagons. Figures like the brothers John and Abraham Erb would go on to found Preston (northwest Cambridge today) and Waterloo.
Benjamin Eby, born in 1785, was one of the first wave of Pennsylvania Mennonites to arrive in the German Company Tract, and he quickly came to prominence in the community that would go on to become Kitchener. Indeed, before Kitchener was Kitchener, it was called Berlin; before it was called Berlin, it was called Eby’s Town (or Ebytown).
As the population slowly rose, from 1806 onward, the need arose for a central meeting place, and the community sought local religious leadership. In 1809, Benjamin Eby was ordained as Minister; four years later, in 1813, he was ordained as Bishop. His brother Peter (also a Bishop) came up from Pennsylvania to preside over the ceremonies, presumably moving diagonally along the way.
The First Mennonite Church
The first dedicated meeting place was built in 1813, and it was appropriately named Benjamin Eby’s Meeting House. It was built entirely of logs on Benjamin Eby’s property. Eby also had a schoolhouse built two years later.
The small community of Ebytown continued to grow, and the early 1830s saw a couple significant changes. By this time, there were not only settlers from Pennsylvania living here – immigrants from Germany and Switzerland in particular were choosing to call the fledgling Waterloo Region home. This trend contributed to the community’s decision to adopt a new name in 1833: it was to become the village of Berlin.
The second change regarded Benjamin Eby’s Meeting House. A much larger frame church was built to replace it; it was called Christian Eby Church, and it could now fit up to 700 at a time. Also built wholly of wood, this initial frame can’t be seen today. However, in 1902, it was again replaced by a brick building. Although you can’t see this from the outside, it remains the First Mennonite Church’s centre section to this day.
To wrap things up with Eby: like many of the first settlers to the area, his first trade was as a farmer. However, he took his responsibilities as a community leader and Bishop incredibly seriously. He also strove to promote and preserve the German, Mennonite culture in Ontario, and published several written works in his life (including Kurzgefasste Kirchen Geschichte, German for ‘Concise Church history,’ which was an overview of the Mennonite church and beliefs).
Benjamin Eby passed away in 1853, which was, incidentally, the year Berlin was elevated from village to town status, and became the county seat for Waterloo County. Eby did much to establish the community that would go on to become Kitchener,
The First Mennonite Church Cemetery
And now, at last, we circle back to the primary Heritage Property for today: the First Mennonite Church Cemetery. As you can see with the brief overview above, it is an apt name; just as Benjamin Eby was the community’s first minister and bishop, his log buildings were its first churches. Not only that: the 1813 building was the first Mennonite Church in all of western Upper Canada (Ontario).
The First Mennonite Church Cemetery was established in 1808, on a segment of Benjamin Eby’s land, when a man by the name of George Smith died after being thrown from his horse. There are quite a few notable things about the cemetery, aside from the fact that it’s the oldest cemetery still in use in Kitchener (the gravesites near Pioneer Tower in Doon, southern Kitchener, are slightly older, and the cemetery in Blair [Cambridge] is older still).
One of the remarkable things about the First Mennonite Church Cemetery is the unique designs of its earliest gravestones. Uniquely Pennsylvania Dutch carvings adorn many of the stones, including tulips and hearts, and the lettering bears a distinctly Germanic feel. Although some of the gravestones are more weathered than others, it is a truly worthwhile experience walking through the cemetery grounds, peering back at a distant (and locally important) era and getting a sense of their community.
Speaking of ‘locally important,’ the First Mennonite Church Cemetery is practically a “who’s who” of early settlers to Kitchener. There is, of course, Benjamin Eby himself, as well as his first wife Maria Eby (née Brubacher), and eight of his eleven children (including his son Christian Eby, who succeeded him as Minister). There are Joseph and Barbara Schneider, famous former residents of what is now the Schneider Haus Museum.
Many of the Heritage Properties we’ve covered are private property, whether they be residential homes, farmsteads, or businesses closed to the public (or, as in the case of the two [semi-converted] hotels, open to paying customers). The First Mennonite Church Cemetery is unique in a few ways. For one, it’s open to the public. Provided you’re being respectful, you’re free to walk contemplatively through the 5 acres of land. Secondly, it’s still in use today, and serving the same function that it was first intended for, way back in 1808.
The Mennonites from Pennsylvania served a fundamental role in settling the area that was to become the Waterloo Region. And with the Township of Woolwich being home to the largest number of Old Order Mennonites in all of Canada, and Kitchener-Waterloo still bearing strong ties to its German heritage (see: Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest, the Christkindl Markt, etc.), their influence can be felt to this day. The First Mennonite Church Cemetery is a great way to look back at who these people were.
Written by Will Kummer