OPINION

A history of the Aurora Mennonite Church

by John Kudley
The first meeting house of the Aurora Mennonite Church was a vacant one-room schoolhouse located near the junction of Bartlett and Elliman roads.

In the early years of the 1800s, Aurora’s first settlers from New England came to the Western Reserve seeking new lands upon which they could improve their economic futures. They brought with them strong Christian beliefs. One hundred years later, another group of settlers came into the community seeking economic opportunity and the belief in the continuation of the ministry of Christ. Members of this immigrant group came from various parts of the country including Nebraska and Missouri as well as from parts of Ohio, especially Holmes County. Many traveled overland by wagon while others came via railroad. In 1911, Sam and Mary Yoder loaded their family belongings, “four horses, one cow and some chickens on a railroad car.” Sam traveled with the belongings from Missouri to Aurora. Upon arrival he wired Mary to bring the rest of the family. The first immigrants arrived as early as 1893. By 1903 the Mennonites had established a “community of like-minded people” in the southern portion of Aurora. Over the years since their arrival, the Mennonites have been vital contributors to Aurora’s economic, social and political development.

Aurora’s early economic success was focused on the cheese industry. By the turn of the 19th century, improvements in transportation and the introduction of refrigerated train cars brought about a change in the dairy industry. With the construction of the Erie Railroad, it became more profitable to ship milk to Cleveland and Pittsburgh for processing. This economic shift and the availability of inexpensive farm land attracted Mennonites to the area. Historically Mennonite farmers were constantly “land scouting” in search of tracts that were suitable for family farms. Aurora provided both farm land and easy access to the railroad.

This photo of the Aurora Mennonite Church was taken in 1912. Members had a “plain view” of the surrounding fields. The original meeting house is visible in the background.

While tending to their dairy herds, the Mennonites also tend to their religious needs. The first few Mennonite families that settled in Aurora met in the homes of members for religious services and were periodically visited by itinerant pastors. It was reported in the Gospel Herald, the weekly publication of the Mennonite Church from 1908-1998, that the small contingent of followers was a “shepherdless flock.” According to an unidentified source, it wasn’t until May 1906 that a “….church and Sunday school with six or eight members” was organized. A.A. Miller was elected as superintendent of the school, with A.J. Stutzman as assistant superintendent and Mary Stutzman as secretary-treasurer. The meeting took place in a vacant schoolhouse located on the southeast border of Aurora with Mantua on the corner of Bartlett and Elliman roads. The schoolhouse was made available as the result of the community’s consolidation of students with the opening of the area’s first centralized schools (now city hall). The schoolhouse was leased from the board of education.

The organization of the church’s first ministerial team began with the assignment of Elias B. Stoltzfus by the Mennonite Mission Board to Aurora in March 1909. He was ordained as bishop of the Aurora congregation in 1916 and served until his death in 1942. As was the custom, at that period of time, a “single ministry” was not very common within the Mennonite Church. As a result Stoltzfus was joined in 1910 with the ordination of Alex Stutzman as a deacon who served in that capacity until his death in 1943. Daniel Raber joined the ministerial team in 1911 and remained with the church until the death of his wife in 1922. The final member of the team was Abram W. Hershberger. He joined the congregation in 1912 and served as a minister until the death of his wife in 1920. Within three years after its organization the Aurora Mennonites had a “full bench.”

Starting with a membership of “six or eight” in 1906, the church rapidly grew with a membership of 38 in 1909, 100 by 1912 with a peak membership of 190 in 1939, drawing members from Portage, Geauga and Summit counties. Today the church, according to Pastor David Martino, is a “small church with a mix of children, youth and families, middle-age and elderly empty nesters, singles and married men and women.”

Elias B. Stoltzfus and family – Seated are Ella and Elias, standing left to right are the children Clara, Gladys, Elmer, and Molly. Elias served the congregation for the Aurora Mennonite Church from 1909-1942.

The Mennonites have found a home in the southern part of Aurora meeting in available one-room schoolhouses until the construction of a permanent church. The 1906 school house was used by the congregation for approximately one year. It then moved to a second school house located on the northwest corner of Route 43 and West Mennonite Road, across the road from the church’s present location. Elias Stoltzfus described the meeting house as being one room, having “a variety of seating,” few windows, a low ceiling, a leaky roof, and only one door. The congregation once again moved back into the first schoolhouse which had been purchased and moved onto a parcel of land donated by Alex Stutzman at the corner of Route 43 and East Mennonite Road, the site of the present church. The congregation soon determined that the school was too small and considered the options of adding on to the existing building or to construct a new church. At a business meeting on July 30, 1912, a unanimous decision was made to build new. Subscriptions were solicited from the members with 39 pledges being made ranging from $1 to $150. The 1909 meeting house was moved behind the site of where the new church was to be constructed. It was later sold to A.J. Stutzman for $250 and moved to his property after the completion of the new church. The new church was dedicated on Nov. 17, 1912. Over the years there have been numerous additions.

During its 115-year history, the congregation has had several homes and has also experienced changes in the name of the church. Early names included the term “Amish” in conjunction with “Mennonite.” When the new church was built in 1912, the term “Plainview” became part of the name. It was recorded in the history of the church that when the building was nearing completion, several of the members working on the project stood in the doorway which faced southward over an expanse of unobstructed farm land. One of the men was said to have commented of the “plain view” of the countryside. From that point the congregation came to be called the Plainview Mennonite Church. In 1972, the church officially became known as the Aurora Mennonite Church.

While the name of the church has changed with time, the beliefs and practices of the members of the church have held steadfast. In writing this history I referred to the book Pathways to Portage, which is an extensive history of the Aurora Mennonite Church published by the church in 2005 as part of its centennial celebration. I am also indebted to Pastor David Martino who helped me to gain a better understanding of the Mennonites. Like many unfamiliar with the Mennonite Church, my first question to him was how the Mennonites differ from the Amish. While he told me that was a relevant question, he explained that that question “frames the conversation in a way that often links Mennonites too closely with a closed-culture group like the Amish.” He said it is more helpful to understand “how are Mennonites different than Catholics/Baptists/Presbyterians?” For a clear understanding of the Christian beliefs of the Mennonites the reader should refer to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.