Schantz, Irwin Gehman (1907-1985)

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Irwin and Susan Schantz.
Photo courtesy of Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville, Pennsylvania

Irwin Gehman Shantz: missionary and founder of Northern Light Gospel Mission, was born 15 August 1907 near Bally, Berks County, Pennsylvania to Daniel Schantz (19 February 1878-5 April 1941) and Katie Gehman Schantz (25 June 1876-1 March 1936). Irwin was the oldest son and second child in a family of four sons and three daughters. He grew up on his parents’ farm and obtained a grade eight education. On 21 February 1931 he married Susan Benner (17 November 1910-1 December 1994), daughter of Wilson K. Benner and Katie Lewis Benner. Irwin and Susan had five children: Dorothea, Sylvia, Christian, Dennis and Merle. Irwin died 23 September 1985 in Red Lake, Ontario, Canada. Irwin and Susan Schantz are buried in the Woodland Cemetery, Balmertown, Kenora District, Ontario.

After their marriage, Irwin and Susan Schantz became actively involved in the Rocky Ridge Mennonite Mission near Quakertown, Pennsylvania. As a mission station, Rocky Ridge included persons from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The Schantz’s experience at Rocky Ridge, combined with calls for workers in more remote North American places from visiting missionaries, led them to consider mission service.

In spring 1938, Irwin and Susan Schantz, together with Llewellyn and Edith Groff, moved to Rousseau, Minnesota. Linford and Ada Hackman, also from the Franconia Mennonite Conference in eastern Pennsylvania, soon joined them. The workers organized summer Bible schools and then Sunday schools. As the work expanded it became known as the Northern Light Gospel Mission. Their work eventually extended to the White Earth Reservation of the Ojibwe (Anishinabe)/Chippewa people.

In 1939 the Shantz family moved to Loman, Minnesota, virtually on the Canadian border. In November 1939 all the workers from eastern Pennsylvania were received as mission workers in the new Dakota-Montana district conference. On 10 June 1943 both Irwin Schantz and Llewellyn Groff were ordained as ministers at the annual meeting of the Dakota-Montana Conference.

By 1952 oversight of the Minnesota mission congregations had been turned over to the North Central Mennonite Conference (the Dakota-Montana Conference changed its name in 1945). Irwin Schantz looked across the Canadian border and began exploring mission possibilities in the Red Lake, Ontario area among First Nations communities.

Because many First Nations settlements were not accessible by car, Schantz returned to Pennsylvania for flying lessons, and obtained his pilot’s license as well the donation of a small two-seater plane. Thus 1953 marked the beginning of the Northern Light Gospel Mission in Ontario, with headquarters in an old mine office in Red Lake, though Irwin and Susan Shantz continued to live in Loman, Minnesota until about 1961.

The first mission stations were at Pikangikum and Poplar Hill, followed in 1955 by Deer Lake. Five other stations were opened in the next few years. Day schools were operated at Poplar Hill, Grassy Narrows and North Spirit Lake, though all closed when government schools were established. The Poplar Hill Development School, a residential school, began in 1962 when the government invited the Mennonites to establish the school. Decades later this school was among those involved in the residential school settlement between the Canadian government and former First Nations students who attended these schools.

In 1960 the mission was incorporated, and in 1965 the Northern Light Gospel Mission Conference was established with 12 congregations and 179 members. Irwin Schantz was also ordained as a bishop in 1965.

Irwin Schantz provided leadership of the Northern Light Gospel Mission until November 1982, when his youngest son, Merle Schantz, became the General Director of the mission. In 1982 the conference had 20 small congregations, with 17 in Ontario and three in northern Minnesota.

Irwin and Susan Schantz were pioneering missionaries—searching for new fields of outreach when they believed former projects had matured enough to turn over to others. This independent spirit also inclined them to maintain a distance from denominational mission boards, and to operate as a faith mission. In other ways the message of the Northern Light Gospel Mission was a traditional evangelical gospel. Over the years it encountered difficulty in responding to the growing First Nations desire to recover and maintain traditional native culture and spirituality.

The Northern Light Gospel Mission attracted many volunteers and short-term workers from eastern United States and Ontario Mennonite communities, exposing many of these people to First Nations life in Canada. Irwin Schantz’s life and work impacted the many persons who served the mission in diverse ways.


“Bro. Irwin Schantz.” Gospel Herald (10 February 1953): 133.

Grant, Robert S. “Mennonite air force in the Canadian Shield.” Gospel Herald (9 October 1979): 793-795.

"Hockman Clan." RootsWeb's WorldConnect Project. Web. 15 March 2010.

Horst, Mary. A brief history of Northern Light Gospel Mission. Red Lake, Ontario: Northern Light Gospel Mission, 1977.

"Irwin (Gehman) Schantz." SAGA (Swiss Anabaptist Genealogical Association) Genealogical Website. Web. 2 March 2018.

Mast, I. S. “The work in the Dakota-Montana field.” Gospel Herald (22 February 1940): 996-997.

“Ordination services at Wolford.” Gospel Herald (24 June 1943): 257.

Ropp, Debby. “On wings of faith.” In On Wings of Faith: a tribute in memory of Irwin G. Schantz. Red Lake, Ontario: Northern Light Gospel Missions, 1986.

"Schantz, G. Irwin [sic].” Gospel Herald 79, no. 51 (17 December 1985). Reproduced in MennObits. “Gospel Herald Obituary – December 1955." Web. 2 March 2018.

Schantz, Irwin. Northern Lights Gospel Mission newsletter (November 1982): 4.

Author(s) Samuel J Steiner
Date Published April 2018

Cite This Article

MLA style

Steiner, Samuel J. "Schantz, Irwin Gehman (1907-1985)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. April 2018. Web. 1 Oct 2023.,_Irwin_Gehman_(1907-1985)&oldid=175417.

APA style

Steiner, Samuel J. (April 2018). Schantz, Irwin Gehman (1907-1985). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 October 2023, from,_Irwin_Gehman_(1907-1985)&oldid=175417.

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