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A step back in time May 4, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, change, diversity, explore, learn, life, world.
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Scenes from a Mennonite kitchen 1This past week, I had the privilege of visiting an Old Order Mennonite couple. The group of us stayed for about 40 minutes, listening to tales of harness-making and quilting, ploughing and making preserves.

My only previous exposure had been seeing the black horse-drawn buggies near St. Jacob’s, and buying Mennonite sausage at the market. (Yum!) You may have seen the women, in lace caps and flowered dresses, and men in their dark suits and sober hats. They belong to a tight-knit community, and as much as possible try to stay out of the public eye.

The Mennonites are sometimes known as “the quiet in the land.” A few years ago, I saw the award-winning play (“Quiet in the Land“) by Anne Chislett; its portrayal of the tension between tradition and change in a small Amish community is heartfelt and compelling.

Out of the approximately 50 types of Mennonites in Canada (the Amish are a Mennonite offshoot), many have modernized to some extent. Most of the Old Order Mennonites now have telephones and electricity, and more modern groups drive cars and go to university.

Descendants of a radical wing of the Protestant Reformation, the pacifist followers of Menno Simons (1492-1559) endured two centuries of bitter persecution in Central Europe. During these two centuries, many Mennonites sought sanctuary in Prussia and southern Russia. Others, like the Swiss ancestors of the southern Ontario Mennonites, emigrated to North America. Their descendants now live all around the world, from Paraguay to the Congo, with two-thirds living outside North America.

Scenes from a Mennonite workshop 4

This global perspective means that the Mennonites are active in reaching out to people around the world through relief organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the volunteer-run self-help stores known as Ten Thousand Villages.

During our conversations, I observed the care given to crafting everything from leather bridles to hockey gloves, peach preserves to quilted chair covers. I looked at the weathered hands of the old couple, and their faces lined from sun and smiling, and I could see that their simple hard-working life had been full and fulfilling.

Although I am modern in my desire for freedom and self-determination, part of me longs for that kind of connection — to the land, to the community, to their craft, to their beliefs — that the Mennonites show in their lives.

Scenes from a Mennonite workshop 2Scenes from a Mennonite workshop 1

Scenes from a Mennonite kitchen 2

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Related Links:
NY Times Book Review: A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
Introducing the Mennonites
Special section: Modern Mennonites
Mennonite Central Committee
Third Way Cafe
Ontario’s Mennonite Heritage



1. Shelley - May 4, 2008

How fortunate you are to be able to get a glimpse into their lifestyle as I find that even living surrounded by many families I am still considered “English” and therefore not privy to very much communication.

Part of me is called to that lifestyle of a simpler number of choices, yet I know tha tunfortunately I would rebel against it if forced to live within the culture, despite my desire to live that simply.

2. eyegillian - May 5, 2008

Thanks for the comment, Shelley! I was on a tour arranged from the Visitor Centre in St. Jacob’s — it’s right on the main street — where they give a newly updated multi-media presentation called “Telling the Mennonite Story”… definitely worth checking out if you’re down that way.

And I agree with you about the lifestyle. I want to live a simpler life but not if it means I can’t keep all my options open… and I don’t like being told what to do, either! (I guess humility isn’t one of my talents…:))

3. lavenderbay - May 5, 2008

My mother’s father started life in an Old Order household, but with several deaths destroying the family harmony before he reached the age of 12, he and his younger sister left the faith; only the older sister wore the habit her entire life.
My grandfather remained a hardworking, quiet, very humble man, a garage mechanic who never refused help to anyone; my mother’s most-often-told story is that of him leaving the table during Christmas dinner to pull someone’s car out of a ditch.

4. eyegillian - May 5, 2008

It sounds like your grandfather was a wonderful man, lavenderbay. If not for his difficult childhood, perhaps he might have stayed in the Old Order… funny how life works out.

5. paula - May 8, 2008

I think your photos in this post are extraordinarily evocative.
Like you there’s a part of me that finds that kind of belonging and connection extremely appealing. Most probably it’s because my childhood was spent travelling the world and finding that I never had that deep rooted tie to place and family that I found in many strange small corners of the earth. Hence the reason I probably do what I do now!

6. eyegillian - May 8, 2008

Thanks, Paula! That’s neat to hear one of the reasons why you seem so rooted today… I know I never really felt rooted as a child, either, because my parents were both from other countries (England and New Zealand), I barely had any contact with my grandparents, and we also travelled a lot (although we never moved). So I do know what you mean!

7. menno simons - May 20, 2008

[…] and quilting, ploughing and making preserves. My only previous exposure had been seeing thehttps://eyegillian.wordpress.com/2008/05/04/a-step-back-in-time/COB-NET Historical Notes: Menno SimonsAlthough his sermons became more evangelical in tone, menno […]

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