History: From Tabernacle to Land of Learning: The Story of the Pridham Library

This year, as we celebrate Emmanuel’s eightieth anniversary, we will be posting monthly articles on the history of the College.

June 11, 2020

In the 1920s, the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (MBC) purchased a piece of land in Kitchener to be used for camp meetings, which were large-scale multi-day Christian events featuring live music and preaching. On these grounds the MBC constructed a large “tabernacle,” a pavilion-like structure that provided shelter for the participants. The grounds were officially named Beulah Grove, and the tabernacle was accordingly called the Beulah Grove Tabernacle.

Most years from 1926 to 1955, Beulah Grove hosted a traditional camp meeting in the summer, with participants travelling from far distances and camping out on the land. Starting in 1956, by which time many families had cars, the Grove hosted more convenient drive-in meetings instead. This new approach was taken for several years before the Kitchener meetings were discontinued.[1]

In the early 1960s, the growing Emmanuel Bible College, located in an old mansion on Ahrens Street downtown, purchased the land. The College moved to the new grounds in 1964 and constructed a number of new buildings in close proximity to the Tabernacle. One such building was the Administration Building, which housed the College’s Library.

In the 1970s the Tabernacle was winterized and used for sports. Students nicknamed this modified structure the Barnatorium. In the same decade the school began working towards accreditation, and one of the steps taken in this process was the hiring of Gary Peters as the first full-time librarian. In 1982, with Ellis A. Lageer as president, the College officially achieved accreditation and saw a significant increase in enrollment.[2]

As the school grew into a major Ontario theological college, it needed a larger space to accommodate its Library. The Barnatorium was able to provide the required space, and the school decided to embark on a construction project to convert it into the new Library. When in 1988 President Lageer left the College, being replaced by Dr. Thomas Dow, the planning and fundraising was well underway. Dow later recounted the experience of seeing this project through to completion upon assuming his role as president:

We immediately made plans to begin the construction of EBC’s new library. A good deal of money had already been raised, architectural drawings were just about complete, so groundwork had been laid. Our task was to keep raising dollars, choose a building committee, hire a contractor and go to work. How great to watch it take shape right over the superstructure of the camp meeting tabernacle! Finally it was finished and we had to manually move all the books from the administration building to the new facility—what a job![3]

The new Library was named in honour of Edna Pridham, Emmanuel’s first missionary graduate, who had died in Nigeria.

Since then the Library has been a hub of activity and learning on campus. Many beloved staff members have worked there, including Hugh Hill, who passed away in 2007 and after whom a room in the Library is named. In the fall of 2018, change came to the Library when the College began holding its Chapel services there. Once again this building was filled with the sounds of Christian music and preaching as it had been during the 1920s.

Thus the Library building transformed from being a Tabernacle, a place where believers encountered the presence of God between hot, dusty travels, to being a permanent academic centre for the College, in some sense a land of milk and honey for the school in its determination to train people for effective service in the church.

[1] The Missionary Church, 100 Years of Camp Meetings 1881–1981 (n.p., n.d.), 11.

[2] See Kevin Oates, 60 Years of “God with Us” (n.p., n.d.), 57; Eileen Lageer, Common Bonds: The Story of the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada (Calgary: Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada, 2004), 96.

[3] Thomas Dow, “A President’s Reminiscences,” in 60 Years of “God with Us,” by Kevin Oates, 80.