A Burden for Missions: The Story of Mary Clemens Gross

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Written Winter of 2013
In the late 1940s there was a revival in this Souderton-Franconia community. “Kenneth Good spoke at Salford and was invited to speak at Towamencin,” recalls Mary Gross. Many lives were dedicated and re-dedicated to Christ, but more importantly they caught the fervor of wanting to spread the gospel. Mary, along with her husband Hiram, began to feel a “burden for mission work.” Mary had attended Towamencin Mennonite Church all her life, but remembers receiving a cold shoulder from other church members after her brother went into the military. “For Christmas, the church gave gifts to the conscientious objectors, but nothing for those that went into service.” Her brother didn’t know the Lord when he went into the military and Mary feared that this kind of treatment would never show him God’s love and mercy.

Mary Clemens Gross was one of 14 children born to John and Susie (Stauffer) Clemens, with only ten of the fourteen children surviving. Her mother was originally from the Reformed Church in Skippack, but her dad had grown up at Towamencin Mennonite Church. Mary was 4 years old when her home was tragically destroyed by fire. She recalls, “We went to church in the morning, then to Henry Benner’s house for lunch. Then we went to Lederach Chapel for Sunday school in the afternoon and while there, Dad was told that our house was on fire. When we got home, people were in our house throwing things out of windows. All our birth records were destroyed.”

Mary went to a one room school house in Mainland. The township line went through their house, but they went to Mainland School. Mary was only 16 when her mother died tragically from a blood clot that formed after stomach surgery. “My mother’s funeral and viewing were one of the largest at Towamencin. I remember how hard it was to sing ‘It is well with my Soul.’“ But even more difficult was a few weeks later when she had to walk down the aisle at the Kulpsville School (10th grade) graduation ceremonies without her mother. She even delivered the salutatorian speech. After graduation, she went on to Lansdale School of Business in order to join the family business, Pleasant Valley Packing Company, to take her mother’s place as company bookkeeper. Her brothers went on to establish more family businesses in the community, including Clemens Markets and Hatfield Packing Company.

In 1936, at the age of 19, Mary married Hiram Gross. “I was the first one at Towamencin Mennonite Church to wear a long white wedding gown. We were married on a Sunday morning at 9 am at my home and then went to Trainer’s for brunch. We had the reception a week later and then went on a honeymoon to the Poconos.”

Hiram and Mary’s first child, Bud, was born in 1937, followed by Pat in 1939, Betty Lou in 1942, David in 1943, and Mary Lynne in 1956. Hiram and Mary enjoyed their growing family immensely, but felt an even deeper calling in 1949 when Kenneth Good came to the Franconia area and they caught the excitement of missions. They were close to Bill Anders and his wife, Miriam, from their ties at Towamencin, so when Bill vocalized his calling to form a group of believers with the same passion for reaching out to people in the community, devoid of clothing requirements, Mary and her husband, Hiram joined the group. They met on Sunday nights at various homes, including the home of Robert and Alice Nase and on Tuesday evenings for Bible study at Dr. Nase’s upstairs garage apartment. “We went on a step of faith. We had small children at the time. But this became a very important decision in our lives.”

Calvary’s first service in March of 1950 was at Telford Town Hall with 102 persons in attendance from all over the Indian Valley community. “It stunned a lot of people” and was widely discussed, often with labels like “firehouse Mennonites” , “dissatisfied Mennonites,” or “TV Mennonites” but the group persisted to meet and the congregation grew. It reached many community people through their message of Christian assurance and less emphasis on tradition and avoiding “worldly” items, such as televisions, wedding bands, and musical instruments.

People were looking for a church that accepted them as they were and many began attending at Calvary over the past 63 years. Today, the two services on a typical Sunday morning include approximately 2400 persons. On the first Sunday of every month there is an offering for missions and evangelism is an important component of their congregational life, whether it’s through their own Mr. B’s coffeehouse or other ministries.

Mary has always been involved at Calvary. “I taught Sunday School, attended a woman’s prayer group, stuffed bulletins, sang in the choir and worked in the church library. There’s always something to do. I can’t always attend now, but I still remember them in prayer. ” Mary believes the reason Calvary was so successful is because the pastors kept preaching the Word, and the congregation continued to be actively involved in the community.

Hiram passed away in 1978, but Mary remains in her home in Souderton with the generous help of her 5 children and spouses who love and serve the Lord. Mary concludes, “I still want to be available to the Lord for whatever he has for me.”

Also read author’s response to this conflict in the Mennonite church at http://wp.me/p2kRFb-kC.

Agreeing to Disagree: Conflict in the Mennonite Church

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Written Winter of 2013
For the last few months I’ve been asking persons what it felt like to be alive during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when Calvary Church in Souderton was formed. I’m not sure I still understand the feelings connected with persons wanting to leave the Mennonite church which at that time insisted upon plain clothing and a lack of “worldly” things, such as wedding bands and television sets. Apparently, twice a year in each congregation there was a preparatory and communion service where the bishop of Franconia Conference presided, reading rules and regulations, such as the “Position of the Franconia Mennonite Conference on Dress” (see picture above). This was a solemn time when the bishop often gave strong admonitions to abide by the rules and persons were asked to make a public confession for any infractions.

To the persons starting Calvary Church in Souderton this felt like a strong emphasis on legalism that obscured many Biblical truths. They wanted to grow in their understanding of the Word, so they felt it was crucial to have trained ministers that were able to teach in more spiritual depth. They felt like their young people were especially at risk because of their desire to sing in quartets and choruses and did not think the Bishop telling these youngsters they could not participate in communion was a good approach to the issue. Through listening to Christian radio speakers and reading the Bible these former Mennonites began to see their faith as saved by grace, which lessened the importance of rules and regulations. The bottom line is that these founders of Calvary Church felt called by God to reach out to their community through missions and the congregation that developed grew by leaps and bounds.

I still can’t figure out the mood of these events and why this was not seen as a church planting. Finland and Ambler were mission churches of the 1940s, but this church was seen very differently. It must have been in how the process was carried out. I’m guessing that there were raw emotions and judgments on both sides and it boiled down to persons not feeling accepted and others feeling like their authority was being questioned. Actually, this polarization seems like a common societal issue . . . disagreement with persons in power and the corruption of power. In a church with a history of persecution and church splintering, my hope is that we can learn from the past and not continue to make the same mistakes connected with legalism and learn to be peacemakers that participate in collaboration, both as a Mennonite church and as a corporate church body. To me, church disagreements arise out of a lack of communal prayer in seeking God’s guidance and allowing judgment to override our desire to see and hear God speaking through each other.

Happy Birthday, Daddy!

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Written Fall of 2013

On this Nov 7th, I celebrate you, Daddy. Had you lived, you would be 95 today. I wish I could go back in time and enjoy being your daughter again. I loved your sense of humor. When you felt good, we all felt good. Whether it was a game of Dictionary or meeting an old friend, your smile lit up the room and your laughter was full-fledged, no holding back. Now, often you poked fun at others, like telling friends at the end of a visit that I looked like your aunt Lizzie when she was in her 70’s, but your off-handed humor always brought ripples of laughter. (I wish I had known your aunt Lizzie because I’m sure I really look like her now that I’m in my 50’s.)

But more than your laughter, I miss your travel lust and your sense of adventure. When you put on those 1950’s style sunglasses with an Hawaiian shirt, we knew we were in for the time of our lives. We would have followed you anywhere as exciting as you made it sound and as talkative as you were on the way there.

I also miss your sense of style. I see it when you were younger in your tie pins and your Fedora hats. Where did you ever get that flair for the unpredictable and the unknown in your protected Mennonite world?

Where are you, Daddy? I miss you.

“Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every,every minute?” Emily Webb, Our Town

Throwback Thursday

Left to right, front row: Kermit Styer holding son James, Edna Benner Styer, Irene Benner, Ruth Wismer, Elizabeth Souder, Doris Souder, Lois Ruth, Ruth Kolb (later Essick), Becky Yoder (later Weaver), Dorothy Benner (sister to Edna and Irene). Back row: Charles Yoder, Arlene Kolb (later Yoder), David Hostetler, Anna Pearl Longacre (later Hostetler), Ruth Hendricks, Gerald Souder, John Ruth, Enos Weaver, Ernest Hange.

Throwback Thursday

Effervescent June Morning

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Written June of 2013

Is there anything like an early morning in June? The cool air is not the heat-drenched air of mid-July and smells of freshness and purity. It smells of early morning boardwalk pitch and coffee on the deck. The leaves are blowing gently in the breeze with a promise of warm beauty in the afternoon. Problems evaporate with the effervescence of sunshine and contentment.

Musings of an Old Picture

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Written Spring of 2013

I never really knew my grandparents. My parents were nearing their mid-40s when I was born, so my grandfather Benner had already passed away. Through my life, I have often wondered what he was like. Was he really as stern as my dad and siblings tell me? Some say he never laughed. Well, recently when my uncle passed away, a picture resurfaced that I’d never seen before.

At the center with a big smile is my Grammy Benner, the woman that I supposedly resemble in appearance and demeanor. She looks very happy in this 1950’s picture. She looks like I remembered her…a small, rather tiny woman with a long narrow face. I was six when she died, but I remember her tight squeezes that took my breath away and the Blockhead game and cheese pretzels I enjoyed in her dining room. If I think hard, I can even faintly see this room where my relatives are gathered that is bedecked with round ivy on the window sill. It’s the dining room which is close to the adjoining kitchen. In this picture, my grammy appears to be reading a letter. I like to think it was a letter from Irene who attended Eastern Mennonite School /College to get a teaching degree. Whatever it is she is reading, she is laughing about it or about someone’s comments.

But there is Grandpop Benner, the man I never met, in the side lines, close to Grammy with a big smile on his face. Okay it might be more like a grin, but he looks noticeably amused. Everyone on the picture is amused by the action. I love the expression on Uncle Kermit’s face. The thing that sparked his humor must have been good. Behind him are my cousin Beatrice, my Aunt Margaret and I presume my Uncle Marvin. It’s kind of an odd assortment of people because they represent 3 different families, but they are all related to Benners. And at the moment, enjoying it.

This picture is now on my computer desktop and I can’t stop staring at it and enjoying it throughout the day. It’s like a glimpse of time that is long gone but shows so much more than a row of lined up people facing the camera. It shows fun and laughter. It shows my Grammy in very plain Mennonite attire, complete with black covering strings and white apron. Compared to her simple gray dress, my Grandpop is dressed impeccably and quite fashionably in his metal armbands and white dress shirt. His sense of style comes through even if sublimated in white and black. Yet there he is, resembling my dad in his well-manicured appearance and his ruddy skin. There he is in the flesh. And he’s laughing…what they said he never did.

Uncle Willard by Phil Benner

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Written May 2013 by my brother Phil

Uncle Willard was the first of my uncles to express love openly to his wife publicly.  I remember him calling Margarie hon or honey all the time when they spoke together. That impressed me at my age of probably 6 or 7. Marjorie and he had a special marriage I believe.

He was also a good father. Jumping into the deep water to save Wayne from drowning when he couldn’t swim proved it.

How he carried Cheryl around without complaining for all those years I’ll never forget.
He had a faith that ordered his life, making him humble when he could have been stuck on himself.  He expressed that faith in later life quite freely.  At the latest Benner reunion he had some comments about the Lord’s return that mirrored that.

Lastly he was a great hunter with more skill than probably any of his brothers and was usually quite successful. His son Dave has those same hunter instincts I believe.

May our dear Uncle rest in piece, he set a good example and gave the family a wonderful legacy.

Chestnut Street Memories by Dick Benner

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Written May 7, 2013 by my cousin, Dick Benner, on the passing of our Uncle Willard

Memorial services for my Uncle Willard Benner at Vincent Mennonite Church, Spring City, Pa., marks the end of an era—the last of a generation of Benner brothers—all five of them, including my father, Paul.  It also conjures up lots of good memories of the large Dutch gable patriarchal house on 240 Chestnut St., Souderton.

These are the “men” of my childhood, in order, Paul, my father the eldest, followed by uncles Edwin, Marvin, Merrill and Willard—all good-looking, slender types, all hard-working blue collar, all a little resentful of the lifestyle and demands of their bourgeois bosses, the Fenstermakers of Granite Hosiery Mill where they all, except Edwin, labored, in not a badly paid craft.  Oh my, the grumble sessions at Sunday gatherings; you would have thought they were all indentured serfs living under the merciless demands of the landed gentry.

The griping was offset, though, with the good and often loud humor of Uncle Merrill, who insisted we had “Indian blood” in our veins, making all of the men “hunters” and the women the “gatherers.”  My father would roll his eyes and grin; Uncle Marvin would always laugh it off and Uncle Willard, the youngest, was enamoured with the dramatic connection, even though it was more legend than genealogy.  Uncle Eddie, a little mentally challenged, thought it a silly joke, but joined the laughter to keep the peace.

But I was young, happy and far removed from the din of the workplace, so what stands out for me were the happy times—the joys of hunting season, complete with the baying of the beagles as they rounded up the rabbits in the fields, the large garden and grapevines of the big yard leading out to the garage, the swing set under the cherry tree.  And oh, those ground cherry pies.  And rabbit pie.  Yum!

Grandmom Benner was always cheery and happy to see us; Grandpop, a lot more stern, but with a slap-happy pat on the shoulder, would always fish for a quarter on our birthdays and both would chime the same words every time:  “My, my, how big you are getting.” 

If you could escape from the stories of drudgery in the living room, where the uncles gathered, you could always go to the parlor in the front of the house where the ornate piano with pedals would accompany the familiar hymns as we gathered round in wonderful four-part harmony.

I enjoyed the family stories my Dad would tell about how, in leaner times, the food had to be carefully divided so that each in this large family would get enough.  The boys would count the thumb indentures of the pie crust so that each one got exactly the same; Uncle Eddie would hide his piece under the table till everyone had consumed theirs, then bring it up to his plate and deliciously and loudly smack his lips while the others looked hungrily on—hugely annoyed with his antics.

Uncle Willard was only a year older than my brother, Ernest, who, had he lived beyond his 14 years, would now be 79, as Beatie has noted.  I never really thought of Willard as an uncle, but more as an older brother.  He was quiet, but really, really smart, having perhaps the most scientific brain of the bunch, capable of some type of engineering had he the opportunity and self-confidence to pursue such a career.

While I don’t know the details of his romance, he must have made an important connection with our family living in Spring City because he found the love of his life in Marjorie Bechtel, from one of the reputable and accomplished families of our church community.  And when he served his 1-W service in Brattleboro, Vermont, I thought he was the “coolest” uncle on earth.

His handwriting, always a standout in the family “circle letter,” was signature Benner calligraphy; his eye for beauty and the inspiration of nature captivating you from his camera lens.  His was more than amateur photography; it was a work of art.  In fact, he was gardener, artist, photographer, part engineer and scientist all wrapped up in one.

But you would never know it because he would never draw attention to himself.  An introvert, of course, he always deferred to those considered better and more talented than himself, but he was way too modest.  He seemed to suffer, far too much, from a poor self-image when he could have asserted himself as a multi-talented person—beyond his more aggressive peers.

May he rest in peace and in the arms of a loving Creator who gave him 80 good years of faith and family.  And may his passing mark the end of an era of the good and productive lives of the five sons of Charles and Leanna Benner.
Amen.