Things moved fast 50 years ago. On May 14, 1963, East Zorra Mennonite Church near Tavistock decided that it needed to plant a daughter church to alleviate crowding in the mother church. A building committee met the next day to plan where the new congregation’s building would be and what it would look like. Members of East Zorra and daughter churches Cassel and Tavistock Mennonite were canvassed and funds gathered.
On Easter Sunday, March 29, 1964, just nine months later, the first service of Hillcrest Mennonite Church was held in its new building. The congregation began with 158 members and 243 in Sunday school. The congregation averages 140 adults and children these days.
Although the congregation had deep roots in the Amish Mennonite settlers in the area—later the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference—under the leadership of Pastor Henry Yantzi, it immediately began to consider how it would do things more effectively, always trying to serve God best.
From the first Sunday, families sat together, rather than the traditional seating of men and women on separate sides. Soon a discussion about the “prayer covering” worn by all baptized women led to that being discontinued.
Current members remember that a discussion about divorce and remarriage a few years later led some in the Mennonite community to remark, “Anything goes at Hillcrest.”
Fiftieth-anniversary events began in April with the musical It’s Cool in the Furnace, first performed by the youth and Sunday school in 1974. Other musicals have also been used over the years to teach the Bible and Christian life to younger members of the congregation.
An anniversary service project was the tying of 50 comforters by men and women, young and old.
A celebration weekend on May 24 and 25 included historical displays; an evening of music and video to dedicate a DVD of the stories of the congregation; a catered dinner; Sunday morning worship with Jeff Wright, a Mennonite pastor and urban mission strategist from California, preaching; and a potluck.
On Oct. 11, 2014, a concert featuring musicians who formerly attended the congregation and who have moved on in professional careers will be held. Included are Dan Lichti, Charlene Nafziger, Ben Bolt-Martin, Brandon Leis and Charla Nafziger.
Lay and pastoral leaders continue to think about where God is acting and how to join God in that work. While the original church was based on the 1960’s “build it and they will come” model, leaders now think about how to support members serving in the community, and how to be a presence of God in New Hamburg.
As a diverse group of people, Hillcrest’s congregants are united in taking time to listen to where and how God will lead them into the future. As the world around them changes, they do not want to panic, but rather trust in God, who is the foundation and head of the church.
In dedicating a new wall hanging on May 24, pastors Jan Steckley and Kevin Peters Unrau prayed: “May the deep roots sent out over the years continue to draw nourishment from your life-giving stream. And may we continue to be a people, attentive to your Spirit, open to innovative practice, and loving life together as we embody our faith here and in the world.”
--Posted June 4, 2014
Recent member Donna Bentz and founding member Ron Zehr look at photos from Hillcrest Mennonite’s 50 years at the anniversary celebration on May 24. Behind them are the 50 comforters knotted this year as an anniversary service project.
Founding member Earl Bender holds his great-grandson Jack at Hillcrest Mennonite’s 50th-anniversary celebration on May 24.
Hillcrest Mennonite Church’s present and former pastors pose at the 50th-anniversary celebration on May 24. Pictured from left to right, front row: Mary Schiedel, Maurice Martin, Jan Steckley and Glenn Zehr; and back row: Kevin Peters Unrau, Vernon Brubacher, Gerald Good and Harold Schlegel.