Toronto United Mennonite Church tells many stories: the stories of the Scriptures, the stories of the people of God, the stories of Anabaptists, stories drawn from our collective memories, and the stories of our own humble little congregation. The walls of our meetinghouse may not speak aloud, but apply a little imagination and you’ll find many of the objects within it have their own stories to tell.
There’s a delightful history behind many of the beautiful, symbolic, and even utilitarian items found within our building. If you’re new(ish) to this congregation and building, you may find this a fun introduction to some of the things that TUMCers cherish –– and that we occasionally abuse a little, because after all, this is home!
Etched glass doors: These unique windows are the partial fruit of a generous bequest from former adherents Henry and Anne Peters. It was decided that some of it should go to the church’s bursary fund, the Mennonite centre in the Ukraine and future capital projects. The last 10 percent, set aside for something that would beautify our worship space, proved the most controversial. Some wanted to add stained glass, while others remembered the conscious decision to use clear glass in the church’s construction to symbolize openness. Others wondered whether any such project was good stewardship. Otto Tiessen, leading a small committee, spent many hours researching historical church and Mennonite art, gathering opinions about what should appear on the doors (text? abstract designs?), sources of specialty glass, and glass artisans. Somewhere along the way, the committee realized etched glass would create an intriguing “parable,” as artist Marc Chagall described it. Glass itself is invisible; what makes such windows seem alive is the refracted light that pours through them, the light of God. When it was pointed out that the thick art glass for the project would be both safer and more soundproof than the old plain glass doors, “it became the memorial project acceptable to both the Marys and the Marthas among us,” church treasurer Tobi Thiessen recalled at the unveiling, drawing chuckles. In the end, the doors seemed to delight both adults and youngsters in the congregation, who have enjoyed the tactile side of this work of art almost as much as the subtle beauty of its design. Created by Otto’s niece, artist Sharon Tiessen, and realized with amazing depth and subtlety in clear glass by Toronto master craftsman Tom Smylie, features familiar symbols of faith – including fish, doves, wheat and joyous human figures – in a lively, thoroughly contemporary design, with a flowing “ribbon” symbolizing the Spirit unifying the four separate doors. The theme can be interpreted in various ways, which is just as Tiessen hoped. In her comments accompanying the unveiling ceremony in spring 2007, she recalled the words of composer Anton Bruckner: “Art had its origin in God and therefore must lead back to God. Above all,” she said, “it is my most sincere prayer that this humble offering would in some way lead you to God.”
Stained glass window: Mennonite church buildings have been simple affairs traditionally, for theological reasons, with little in the way of iconography, art, or even colour. When our current building was erected in 1996, a conscious decision was made to stick with clear glass as a symbol of our openness and simplicity of worship. People walking by on Queen St. on a Sunday morning can easily peer in and see and hear us worshipping together. So how did we manage to get a lovely arched stained-glass window in the back corner? Well, that may represent other traditional Mennonite values such as frugality, good craftsmanship, and not wasting resources. At the time our building was in the works, architect Victor Heinrichs happened to be working on another project for a Mennonite group in Elmira that was purchasing a former Catholic church to convert into a chapel and apartments for seniors. Asked whether they wanted to keep the stained-glass windows, the priest in charge said no. So Victor proposed obtaining one of them for our sanctuary, thinking at first to put it on the Queen St. facade. In the end, the congregation voted to accept the window, but a less central position was chosen. The dedication at the bottom was left in place out of respect for the original donor. But the central medallion had a bird figure in it that some thought appeared a little too warlike, so it was arranged to have a stained-glass artist replace it with a more Anabaptist-looking dove. Voila! A Mennonite window with a Catholic donor, lending a discreet but colourful grace note to an otherwise simple interior.
Candle-stands and lecterns: The lovely set of hand-turned wooden pillars was a gift from the Warden Woods Mennonite Church when it disbanded, along with the small lectern carved with the Mennonite Church dove logo. For Warden Woods members who subsequently joined TUMC, both represent a continuation of their lives as part of that community. The less-ornate portable lectern was built by Henry Neufeld.
Ornate wooden bench: The small but fancy pew that sits in the lobby has a history longer than TUMC. Where it came from isn’t clear –– possibly an old church building that donated it to the Salvation Army store. It is the last survivor of a set of recycled pews used during TUMC’s years at 140 Victor St., the house the fledgling congregation purchased in the 1940s to serve as a combination meeting place and manse. Its ornate wrought-iron side pieces make it rather unique. Another set of pews was purchased when TUMC erected its first building at 1774 Queen East in 1956 –– the fruit of a special fundraising effort that involved a travelling choir. Those pews were sold off when the current building was erected, since the congregation had made the decision to go with more flexible chairs. (Some longtime church members regret the fact that none of those were kept.) The old pew, though, remains as a reminder of the earliest days of TUMC.
Quilts: A revolving display of gorgeous handmade quilts, with colours and themes that seem to reflect the church seasons, has long been a part of TUMC’s seasonal decor. Quilt-making is, of course, part of the tradition of longtime Mennonite communities in Canada, particularly those of Swiss/German-Anabaptist roots, where they have long been cherished as practical, utilitarian objects (of unique beauty), an outlet for artistic impulse and craftsmanship, community projects (providing a great excuse for women to get together) and, in more recent times, a way to raise money for worthy causes such as Mennonite Central Committee. Bob Tiessen started collecting these decades ago, and Anita joined him in this pursuit after their marriage, all of them purchased at MCC relief sales. Anita explains: “Many years ago, some people involved in church décor asked us to start displaying a quilt at the back of the sanctuary. So we did, and we change the quilt several times a year. We try to be seasonal, but our quilts are not purchased with seasons in mind, so mostly they don’t really reflect seasons. However, for Lent, we either completely remove the quilt, or put up a solid-colour quilt, usually white or cream. And then a bright and colourful one for Easter (and weeks/months following). And at Christmas, we try to put up a more Christmas-y one.”
Communion table: The table, carved with the words “Do This in Remembrance of Me,” was donated by the children of Isaak Lehn, one of TUMC’s founding fathers, in memory of their dad, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1957.
Large Bible: This central item on our Communion table, usually displayed opened to the main scripture of the day, was a gift from the late Lena and Jim Braden, founding members of TUMC.
Grand piano: Several professional musicians in our congregation, including Bob Loewen and Jenny Regehr, carefully chose this beautiful instrument, which was used in a series of fundraising concerts to help pay for it. Now very much at the centre of our musical life, it was purchased a couple of years before our old building came down and was stored for a time while the new church structure went up. It replaced the old upright specimen that sits in our basement, whose provenance is unclear but has probably been with us since the days of meeting at 140 Victor St. (One guess is that it came from the old Menno House, a residence set up to meet the needs of young men coming to Toronto for studies.)
Artworks in the sanctuary: All of these are the work of professional artists who have been part of our community.
• Pop-art Menno: Who’d have thought to bring an Andy Warhol sensibility to the 16th-century engraved image of Menno Simons, the Anabaptist leader for whom our spiritual forefathers were nicknamed? The colourful large-scale work, most often noticed while leaving the sanctuary, is by Harvey Braun, a former TUMC member who served for some time as the artist in residence at John Braun’s pottery works in Kitchener. Ironically perhaps, he donated his eye-popping Mennos to the church in the late ‘90s, after deciding to join the Quakers.
• String art piece in shades of blue and grey: This piece, on the theme of “inclusivity,” is the work of Marta Armin, a late member of TUMC, who also designed the logo for the St. Clair O’Connor Community.
• Forest landscape: This piece was painted Bill Huebert, a founding member of TUMC and lifelong professional artist.
• Floral painting: This piece is by the late Helen Sawatsky.
ITEMS THAT APPEAR OCCASIONALLY
Kneeling bench: Used primarily for baptisms, this handcrafted bench with the rich red upholstery was a parting gift from David Brubacher, our interim pastor in the years 2007-2009, whose second vocation is finish carpentry. When it was noted that we lacked small tables to use for Communion and other purposes in the sanctuary, he also knocked together some easily disassembled tables using screw-on legs and the tops of old school desks he happened to have in his basement.
Communion sets: TUMC has two of these, but one has a particularly interesting history. The slightly dented silver set, with a cross that’s just a titch off-kilter on top, has two inscriptions on it. One says: “Presented to the First Evangelical Lutheran Church By the Home Social Club Easter 1924.” The other: “Purchased by Toronto United Mennonite Church 1942 – Engraved on occasion of 25th Anniversary 1973-74.” The set is a legacy of the earliest years of the congregation, founded as the Toronto Mennonite Mission, when it was based in the congregational hall of the German-speaking Lutheran church on Bond St. (adjacent to the Ryerson University campus).
Communion cups: The colourful pottery chalices with an iris motif that we use on some occasions were crafted by Dorothy Martens of New Hamburg, a well-respected pottery artist.
Fabric art: A variety of banners made by members of the congregation, including in particular Denise Voth, make occasional appearances in our sanctuary. A cityscape made by Erna Huebert features the CN Tower and other images iconic to Toronto. A smaller fabric art piece that hangs in a niche next to the north door was made by Dawn Lambert, who attended TUMC with her husband, Herman Cornelsen, for some time when they lived in Toronto. Dawn has taught graphic design at Humber College for many years.
Peace Lamp: This simple handmade pottery oil lamp has counterparts in many Mennonite churches around North America and has been presented as a symbolic gift to many others, most recently to the archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in celebration of 25 years of Mennonite assistance to Christians in Syria. As the Iraq War began in 2003, congregations were encouraged to light one of these lamps each Sunday as a reminder to pray and work for peace.
International instruments: Many of the drums and rhythm instruments we use occasionally during services were purchased from Ten Thousand Villages, the fair-trade organization that TUMC supports, but others have more specific origins. A djembe (African drum) and calabash shakers were a gift from Ginny Lepp, on her return from five years’ service with Mennonite Central Committee in Burkina Faso. Others were a gift of the late Edith Kool.
ELSEWHERE IN THE BUILDING
Door signs: Many of the oak signs displaying room numbers and descriptions of their use throughout the building were made and installed by Greg Glista and his father-in-law, Bill DeFehr, who shared a fun story: “It was quite a project, but we enjoyed doing it,” Bill recalled. “However, at one point I noticed that one of the signs looked a little unusual. On closer look I noticed that Greg’s Catholic background was showing because the sign read: CONFESSIONAL AND PAPAL RELICS. I did my part and made the correction. I have to keep an eye on my Catholic sons-in-law!”
Cornerstones: You may have wondered about the two date-stones set into a small brick wall opposite the front entrance. This wall was one piece of the original 1956 building that was left in place when most of it was razed to be replaced by the new three-storey building in 1996. The early stone was donated by a Mennonite-owned memorial stones company in Kitchener-Waterloo. There’s a time capsule inside the wall –– what it might contain nobody seems to remember!
Utilitarian items: Our handy mail cart was built by former member Henry Pauls, who later transferred to Waterloo North Mennonite Church. The basement servery cupboards were salvaged from the original kitchen of the 1956 church; the new kitchen cabinetry was built by Don Willms, a regular attender at the time. The “cheese boards” that often appear under hot dishes at potlucks were made by TUMC members in the St. Clair O’Connor Community woodworking shop, with the intent of using them in the Good Friday suppers that began in the late 1980’s. The rolling tables in the lobby were made and donated by an instructor at Central Tech.
Upper Room sign: Though it now graces the entrance to the new building’s “upper room” – the third-floor home of the Mennonite New Life Church congregation –– this sign was originally made by Harvey Braun to designate an earlier “upper room,” a meeting room built in the 1970s above the sanctuary in the old church building. When New Life became our partner in the 1996 building, the Spanish-language congregation –– which included refugees who had suffered torture and detention in dark prisons –– wanted very much to worship in an uplifting place full of light. Hence the choice of the third floor! The suggestion to place the sign above the door to this new upper room was welcomed by founding pastors Adolfo and Betty Puricelli.
Anabaptist history chart: Placed in the main-floor office hallway, this mammoth chart was a gift from Otto Tiessen. Having experienced years away from the Mennonite world working as a diplomat, Otto felt it was important to connect with our spiritual and historical roots as a worldwide Christian movement –– and this chart portrays in graphic form the tangled interconnections between various strands of Anabaptists.
Table: This beautiful oak table, which can be expanded to seat 15 or so, was a gift from Shelley Lepp on the occasion of our renovation project in 2016. It encapsulates many of our congregation’s traditions and values of community, hospitality and mutuality. Currently occupying an area in the lower level main room, it’s a place to sit down together to eat, chat, and watch youngsters play.