Trailblazer, pioneer, role model and mentor. Inquisitive, passionate, open-minded.
This is how Doris Gascho was described by family, friends, fellow church members and colleagues at a legacy and 87th-birthday celebration in her honour at Waterloo North Mennonite Church on March 1, that featured hymns, special music and many tributes recognizing her “unexpected journey.”
Despite heart-wrenching discouragements and frustrations, Gascho “never let anything stifle her ambition,” according to the program notes describing her life. “There was no stopping Doris.”
Married with three children, she was determined to get an education. She started with correspondence courses, then college courses in early childhood education, and eventually seminary, often working in a related field alongside her studies.
Wondering why “all the important positions were held by men,” she began to take on church leadership—and eventually pastoral—roles by the late 1980s. She was often the first woman in the position, and used her skills, diplomacy and good listening to change people’s minds about women in leadership.
In 1994, she became the first female conference minister of what was then the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (now Mennonite Church Eastern Canada). As a spiritual guide and pastor to the pastors, she travelled by car, bus and train to visit all 96 churches.
She also became “a voice for minority groups,” serving as a pastor for three decades, starting in 1987, to a group of Mennonite parents of LGBTQ+ children who had suffered pastoral condemnation. She dared to have some of them share their stories in a worship service at Shantz Mennonite Church in Baden, Ont., where she was pastoring, which seemed revolutionary at the time. She faced some backlash for that choice, but Morio Ogasawara, in a written tribute that was shared at the celebration, said it helped others “fearlessly follow [their] convictions.”
Don Penner, who currently pastors at Shantz Mennonite, said she “helped to change the DNA of the church.”
Pastor Fred Lichti recalled how Gascho could be an “agent for change” during difficult meetings by offering her trademark comment, “But I was just wondering . . . ,” which had a way of turning a discussion “upside down and inside out,” so that a new path forward could be found.
Gascho was honoured as a beloved mentor and role model by pastors Melissa Miller, who facilitated the celebratory program, and Marilyn Rudy-Froese, who now serves as MC Eastern Canada’s church leadership minister. Rudy-Froese, who was ordained by Gascho, said she “opened the way for those of us to follow.”
Given the last word, Gascho quipped that the legacy celebration was “a rehearsal for my funeral,” but that no corpse had ever had so much fun! She thanked her family, friends and mentors for the “delicious” celebration, which included refreshments and birthday cake.
People had the opportunity to create a video card, reflecting on the question, “What seeds did Doris plant that bore fruit in you?”
Donations in Gascho’s honour went to the Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre in Kitchener, Ont.
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Eastern Canada? Send it to Janet Bauman at email@example.com.
Doris Gascho, front row second from left, was one of the first women to serve on the Executive Committee of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec. In 1978, the committee included, from left to right, front row: Laverne Brubacher, Gascho, Isaac High, Elsie Horst and Vernon Leis; and back row: Joe Nighswander, Abner Martin, Glenn Brubacher, Edward Kauffman and Ralph Lebold. (Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo)
Doris Gascho, right greets Anna Mary Brubacher, who offered a tribute at the legacy and birthday celebration in Gascho’s honour. (Photo by Janet Bauman)
Doris Gascho expresses gratitude for what she called a ‘delicious’ program at a legacy and birthday celebration in honour of her life’s ‘unexpected journey.’ (Photo by Janet Bauman)