The way Bill Goertz remembers it, every time it seemed that the building plan for Bethany Mennonite Church was settled, Victor Dyck would come to yet another caffeine-fuelled Founders Committee meeting and say, “Maybe we can do a little more.”
Eventually, rather than building only the education wing with a gymnasium, the entire building was completed for the congregation to move into in October 1965. A propitious wind storm on the day the decision to seed or sod the lawn settled that too: sod!
Fifty years later, Bethany is still worshipping in the largely unchanged building at the corner of Creek Road and the East/West Line on the edge of Virgil, Ont., now part of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Goertz and his wife Irene, together with Ted Wiens, a fellow founding member, saw the process of founding the English-language congregation out of the then German-language congregation of Niagara United Mennonite, as a smooth and congenial one. First, the English group met for 15 minutes in English before the German service, but soon the 144 people in 50 families desired more. Church council and the pastor, David Janzen, approved, and Janzen pastored both congregations for the first few years.
Over the weekend of Oct. 2 to 4, 2015, Bethany celebrated with a video of founders telling stories of the young church, a friendship lunch at Pleasant Manor Retirement Village, a free barbecue complete with indoor bouncy castle, and a choir program, finishing with worship and a potluck on Sunday.
Efforts to invite new families with children have proven successful, as Sunday school has grown from five elementary school students a few years ago to more than 20 currently. Average attendance is around 135 at worship.
Ted Wiens said that while most worship music utilizes a band, the committee planning worship tries to balance older and newer music. Heather Whitehouse, a community chaplain, said that recently a hymn sing has been added before worship, which has proven successful.
As leaders, including pastors Herb Sawatzky and Diane Pinnell, thought together about hopes and challenges going forward, they oscillated between “attraction” and “gathering” language in terms of having new people come to Bethany. Stories were told of new people invited and made welcome, who are now active members, and of a new digital sign on the lawn that will let the community know what is going on in the building.
Sawatzky noted that the torch is being passed from founders to the 30- to 40 year-old generation. Wiens added that this is being done deliberately.
Pinnell said that new congregants are finding the congregation a safe place to ask questions, rather than needing to have everything already put together when they show up. She also said that children are involved in worship weekly: a children’s offering box on the podium allows them to give to their own projects, and they do skits, read Scripture and are involved in music.
Weekly Bible studies and monthly fellowship lunches are also building community at Bethany.
All together, Bethany feels like a hopeful and growing place.
--Updated Nov. 4, 2015
Kaleigh Van Egmond paints the face of Ellery Sawatzky at the celebration of Bethany United Mennonite Church’s 50th anniversary. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Pastor Herb Sawatzky is pictured with his son Colton at Bethany United Mennonite Church’s 50th anniversary. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Nella Cameron, Marie Lepp and Anne Penner look at photos recounting Bethany United Mennonite Church’s history at its 50th anniversary celebration. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)