5 min

Mennonite high school fully funded

The game of political hot potato surrounding Eden

No one wants to talk about it, but Ontario taxpayers are funding a St Catharine’s school run by Mennonites. Eden Christian College operated as a private school from 1945-1987, when it joined Lincoln County Board of Education. But it never gave up teaching religion (daily to Grade 9s, with services three times a week for older students).

“Over the years, Eden has grown in population to around 780 students. With so many students, there are so many different needs and situations represented. Often, students can get overwhelmed and wonder whether or not there is even a purpose to living and if there is any hope for them at all. We, as a department and as a school, believe that hope can be found in Christ alone. We believe that He desperately wants us to know Him and to follow Him,” boasts the school’s website.

“The Spiritual Life Department exists to ‘Lead students to learn of Christ and to live for Christ.’ We desire to see students, from all walks of life, become deeply and firmly rooted in the truth of who Jesus Christ is and to experience this same Christ in their everyday lives.”

According to the website, the school requires students to pass Bible classes, although it apparently doesn’t require them to excel at it.

“Eden High School has a Bible teaching program for all Grade 9 students which runs from 8:25 to 8:50am on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays before the official start of the school day. Grade 9 students will attend chapel on Mondays and Tuesdays. The Bible course is a survey of the main themes and content of the life of Christ, the book of Acts and an overview of the main themes of the Old Testament.

“Students must earn an overall mark of greater than 50 percent to earn the privilege of attending chapel in Grade 10. Students who are not successful will be required to repeat either the entire course or part of the course the following year.”

The website doesn’t go into details of how the arrangement between the school and the school board came into effect.

“Eden operated as a Christian private school, Eden Christian College, from 1945 to 1987 in historic Niagara-On-The-Lake,” it begins. “In 1988, Eden joined the Lincoln County Board Of Education as an alternative secondary school. After a period of rapid growth, the school moved to its present facility.”

Darrell Gillespie, the principal of Eden, did not return repeated phone calls requesting information about how the school’s status came about and exactly what the school teaches.

The Niagara District School Board was only slightly more helpful. Tara Hall, the board’s director of communications confirms the fact that Eden was operating as a Christian school under the board’s aegis, but failed to produce anyone willing to be interviewed on how the arrangement came about, exactly how much authority the board has over what the school teaches and what kind of precedent the arrangement might set for other religious groups.

The ministry of education was even less helpful than the board. Patricia MacNeil is not even aware of Eden’s special status.

“Eden is no different from any other public school,” she says.

When told that the school’s own website made it clear that it was different, MacNeil says only, “I don’t know that.” She adds that she will look into the school, but has subsequently failed to provide any further information.

But while nobody will talk about the school’s teachings on religious matters, the website makes it clear what its religious affiliations are.

“While all final authority in the operation of the school rests with the District School Board Of Niagara, the elected representatives of the Ontario Conference Of Mennonite Brethren Churches, through the Eden Advisory Board, continue to have a major voice in the running of the school.”

The Mennonite Brethren Churches are not exactly gay-friendly, according to the website of the Canadian Conference Of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

A position paper on the website, entitled “Homosexuality: A Compassionate Yet Firm Response” makes that clear: “Where does the church stand on the issue of homosexuality? Historically, it has proclaimed that the only legitimate intimate relationships are heterosexual, and these only within the bounds of marriage. This is also the position of the Mennonite Brethren Church…

“First, man and woman together are made in the image of God… The biblical argument against same-sex relationships and sexual intercourse is that it is un-natural and violates the complementary image of God as expressed in the maleness of man and the femaleness of woman. It is for this reason that it is expressly forbidden in the Old Testament Scriptures…

“What about sexual orientation?… The Scriptures forbid adultery, sexual relations outside of marriage; fornication, sexual relations as unmarried persons; bestiality, sexual relations with animals; and homosexuality, sexual relations with partners of the same sex…

“The homosexual lifestyle. While it can be argued that some homosexuals maintain one intimate relationship with a person of the same sex, homosexuality has been largely very permissive and characterized by overt promiscuity… We ought not, however, sell short the grace of God. God can free persons from oppressive addictions, and history is full of examples of such acts of liberation. However, for those who cannot overcome their orientation, the answer to their homosexuality is abstinence…

“The church and declared homosexuals… it may be possible to have a homosexual orientation, but it is also possible to live a chaste and celibate life. To argue that a disposition towards homosexuality gives a person the right to homosexual practice and intercourse is as wrong as to argue that the heterosexual person has the right to be sexually active heterosexually outside of marriage.”

But despite these beliefs, Eden has nonetheless been adopted by those opposed to a private school tax credit as a prime example of the direction in which the Ontario public school system should be moving.

Jim Bradley, the former Liberal MPP for the St Catharines area, happily lined up with the school in a 2003 legislative debate over the tax credit.

“It is a strong, vibrant school that encompasses people,” Bradley is quoted as saying in Hansard. “It is a special kind of school with special consideration within the publicly funded system. The people who are on the board of directors at Eden Christian College made a presentation strongly against what the government was proposing and in favour of the model that they represented within the system.”

And in a 2002 legislative committee presentation, Craig Brockwell of the Niagara OSSTF, was more than happy to get into bed with Eden to oppose the tax credit.

“A number of years ago, Eden Christian School was seeking a new home, probably for reasons of economic viability,” Hansard quotes Brockwell saying. “Perhaps it saw, as many other citizens do, that the public system could be its saviour. After some deliberation, the public system, as it does with all, opened its doors to Eden. That is key, because the public school system provides for the needs of all. It can also provide for the spiritual needs of a specific community within the umbrella of a publicly funded school curriculum offered by certified teachers.

“It is a publicly funded school that provides a religious flavour. Within the legislated hours of instruction, our certified teachers provide the curriculum mandated by the government and the Ministry Of Education. Beyond these hours, the school provides the spiritual enrichment that Eden’s parent community wishes… It deals with spiritual insight, spiritual sensitivity and personal reflections. It has a daily chapel program that’s provided in advance of the school day where students go to gather and listen, to recognize that God’s presence touches all areas of their lives, everything they would want in their religious education.”