My Canada, 62/150: Plain and not so simple

It took many years for me to realize, growing up, that not everyone had horse-drawn buggies clomp-clomping by their home.

Those buggies were, and are, transportation for the Old Order Mennonites who immigrated to Waterloo County in the early 19th century, whose ancestors came from Europe and who settled, for a time, in Pennsylvania U.S.A. before coming north.

While in my mind Mennonites are a uniquely Waterloo phenomenon, that’s wrong: there are two million Mennonites today spread over 82 countries, with the highest number in the U.S, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and India. The plain-dressed and modernity-eschewing Old Order Mennonites of my childhood number 60,000 in U.S., Canada and Belize.

All trace back to the teachings of Menno Simons, a 16th-century Friesland (Netherlands) Roman Catholic priest, who, like Martin Luther and others, protested against Catholicism and embraced / created new, reforming Protestant religions. The followers of Menno — the Mennonites — believed in adult, not infant, baptism (known as “Anabaptists”) and are committed to non-violence, among many other theologically distinguishing characteristics.

For me, growing up amid Old Order Mennonites meant that, besides having to dodge horse poop on the shoulders of the road when you were riding your bike, there were images, food, and a culture that became a bit of your life, too. You might buy produce or eggs or Summer Sausage from a stand at the end of a farm laneway. You could pick up Mennonite-made jams or pies or relishes at the farmers’ market. You might see horse-drawn wagons gathering maple sap in a bush, or horse-pulled plows tilling the fields. There might be a Mennonite-built wood table in your house, or a Mennonite-stitched quilt on your bed.

The Old Order women wore plain bibbed dresses (incredibly effective at disguising pregnancy), their hair pulled tight back into a bun, covered by a white net cap. Girls wore plain dresses, their hair in braids,  and boys wore a straw hat, like dad, with a dark pants and white or light shirt. The children were educated in their own schools in the country, all of the same white-wood-siding design, until the age of 14.

62 Mennonite
Mixing old and new: this young Mennonite family wears plain dress, but dad carries a takeaway hot beverage and mom carries the youngest of four children in a modern car seat.

In my childhood, you could tell what farm was Old Order: There were no hydro wires running into the properties. While the rest of us grab at whatever latest technology comes along, Old Order Mennonites assess these things, one phenomenon at a time, to see if the technology is truly needed and not distracting to their faith. Most now use cell phones and have electricity, at least in the barn. Senior leaders review and decide what is allowed, and what isn’t. Sometimes, if it becomes precious and expensive to hang on to an old way, it will fall by the wayside: you now often see Old Order Mennonite women wearing lace-up sports shoes (in all their garish-hued glory) rather than the old-style black leather shoes.

Visitors to Waterloo Region who want to learn more about about the history of the Mennonites in the region should head to The Mennonite Story, an interpretive centre in the village of St. Jacobs that introduces you to the complexities of Mennonite life. The breadth of 21st-century Mennonite faith is wide, with the strictest of Old Order Mennonites (called the “David Martin Mennonites“) eschewing the biggest range of modernities — including rubber on their buggy tires — to “New Order” Mennonites, who live contemporary lives but follow Christian teachings, much like any church-going Protestant would.

62 Mennonite2
Waiting for customers in cars: Mennonites selling maple syrup and eggs.

Old Order Mennonites can be friendly but keep separate from contemporary society. They learn, pray, socialize, and marry among each other. They speak a form of German known as “Pennsylvanian Dutch” and learn English, as well, although their formal education is limited. While farming is a central occupation, many will work elsewhere — food and caring jobs for women at bakeries or seniors residences, furniture-making or blacksmithing for the men.

Beyond the quilts and baking and craftsmanship, Mennonites are also famous for their co-operation and charity. The entire community gathers and builds a barn when someone needs one, carrying into the 21st century the 19th-century practice of barn-raising. New Order Mennonites in Canada are charitable powerhouses: Ten Thousand Villages stores — 37 in Canada and more than 80 in the U.S. — are a non-profit fair-trade project of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the annual Mennonite Relief Sale in New Hamburg has raised $14 million in 50 years, selling quilts at auction to provide funds for MCC’s work around the world.

62 Mennonite Winterberries

Children’s book author and teacher Nan Forler and I grew up together — both raised Roman Catholic. Nan still lives in Waterloo County and in 2011 she published a story about a fictional Old Order girl named Naomi. Winterberries and Apple Blossoms is beautifully illustrated by well-known Waterloo County artist Peter Etril Snyder and is a “glimpse into one year of Naomi’s plain and peaceful life”, set out as 12 poems, beginning with “Quilting Bee” (January) through to “Sugar Bush” (March), “The Apple Orchard” (September) and “Christmas Morning” (December). Nan even includes a bunch of Mennonite baking recipes at the end that children can try, from “Shoo-Fly Pie Tarts” to Dutch Apple Pie.

An Old Order Mennonite life is a simple, hardworking life, as Nan’s story affirms, although the rules of what is and is not permissible can be mindbogglingly complex: on a recent visit home I heard that one group now has decreed the fabric for women’s dresses may not have a flower print larger than a nickel. Women did not decide that: male church leaders did.

So, yes, my feminism bristles at the restrictions and the lack of individual freedom Old Orders face, particularly the women. But parts of who I am — siding with peace, consciously having fewer possessions, and not being happy unless I can dig some dirt and make my own jam — comes from growing up near the Plain People of Waterloo County.

All photos: Kelley Teahen






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