The Booklet My Old Order Mennonite Heritage appeared in a sequel in Cross Cultures printed magazine ; by kind permission from the author/publisher, Mary Ann Horst. The National Film Board of Canada has chosen it as their source of information for a film strip depicting Old Order Mennonite Life in Waterloo County. In addition to writing this booklet, which has been a local best seller and has been translated into German, Mary Ann Horst has authored Pennsylvania Dutch Fun, Folklore and Cooking. She also wrote the script for the Child’s colouring book, Amsey and Sarah of Waterloo County. A long time vendor of Kitchener Farmers’ Market, Mary Ann, in collaboration with photographer James Hertel, published the book: Our Wonderful Kitchener Farmers’ Market. Twenty-two years, and ten printings later, Mary Ann feels it is time to make a few additions to her booklet. She will endeavour to give some information on some of the changes that have taken place in the last few decades, as well as on the exodus of some of the Waterloo County Mennonites to the Mount Forest area in latest publication, which is a sequel to ‘My Old Order Mennonite Heritage’, is entitled Old Order to Modern Mennonite.
April / May 1992
Frequently in my daily contacts with people, I am asked questions concerning the Old Order Mennonites. It is my hope that this booklet will provide answers to many of the questions which people are asking concerning this denomination of my forebears.
Old Order Mennonite Worship
I grew up in an Old Order Mennonite home where cars and radios and cosmetics were not permitted. As a child I wore the traditional plain button down the back dress and pinafore apron coming well below my knees.
While I have ceased to practise many of the customs and traditions of my Old Order Mennonite forebears, I have never forgotten that my early life had its roots in this cultural setting and I have in my heart a very warm spot for these people.
Sometimes in my conversations with people I am asked the question, “Why did you leave the Old Order church?”
Usually I reply something like this, “Because I wanted more freedom than they allow their members to have”
However, when I give this reply I always feel it is only a partial answer. To give a more complete answer would require the telling of a good part of my life story. For any who may be interested the following pages will provide an opportunity of a glimpse, not only into my own life, but into the general everyday life of the Old Order Mennonite people.
The Old Order Mennonites are among the most conservative of the Mennonite groups. Most of them are farmers, and have no cars and travel by horse and buggy. Their well kept farm homes are a tribute to their agricultural prowess.
Their church buildings, which they refer to as meeting houses, are of white painted clapboard with no ornamental accessories. Inside the church the walls are white washed, and the only furnishings are plain benches of unvarnished pine wood.
The meeting house which I most frequently attended as a child is a mile outside of the little Ontario village of Floradale. Memories of those two hour Sunday morning services are printed indelibly on my mind.
Behind the long unvarnished pine pulpit sit five or six solemn faced men. These are all ministers or deacons with perhaps one bishop. Like their fellow members the Old Order Mennonite ministers usually are farmers and receive no remuneration for their preaching. They also have no specialized training to equip them for the ministry.
The men are all clean shaven and the older men wear their hair a little longer than most of general society. The young men usually have conventional haircuts but do not follow modern fads in hair styles.
The older men usually wear a suit of dark grey. The coat which has no collar is buttoned up to the neckband and has a few slits up the center back. The young men wear dark colored suits with lapelled collars, navy blue being the most common. The coat may or may not have slits up the center back.
Women sit on one side of the church and men on the other side, with each sex sitting with their approximate age group. The ladies remove their fringed black shawls and coats and hang them in the lobby before entering the main body of the church. On their heads they wear the traditional white prayer cap which is tied under the chin. Their dresses, which are usually of a dark solid color or a small check or floral design, have long full skirts. They wear a cape and apron of the same material.
There is no lobby for the men and they hang their broad-brimmed black hats on the pegs of the wooden bars which hang from the ceiling above the benches.
At their worship services the ordained clergy always greet one another with a kiss. This kiss is not only an expression of brotherly love; it is also practised as an act of obedience to the command given to the early church by the apostle Paul to, “greet one another with a holy kiss”.
The office of minister is considered one of grave responsibility. While the Old Order Mennonites are generally not averse to laughter and practical jokes, the Old Order Mennonite minister never makes an attempt at humor in his sermons. I cannot recall ever having seen even the trace of a smile on the faces of any of the ministers when they were behind the pulpit.
When a new minister is needed any man in the congregation may suggest the names of any men in the brotherhood they feel would be qualified for ministerial duties. A number of Bibles equal to the number of men whose names have been suggested are placed before the men. One of the Bibles contains a slip of paper. Each man draws a Bible and the one drawing the Bible containing the slip of paper becomes the new minister.
Sermons are given in Pennsylvania Dutch, an unwritten German dialect with a mixture of English. The Old Order Mennonite minister uses no notes; The typical minister does not raise his voice a great deal but quietly admonishes the attentive congregation in solemn serious tones.
Recently I attended a Sunday morning worship service at the Old Order Mennonite meeting house on the outskirts of the town of Elmira. This was the first time in more than twenty years. Nothing had changed!
Everything – the church and its furnishings, the order of the service, the people in their traditional attire, the sweet innocence of quaintly garbed toddlers and babes in arms – all were as they had been back in my childhood days.
With the service ended, the ladies went to the lobby where they put on their bonnets and black fringed shawls. Ladies and children waited on the side of the women’s entrance while the men went for the horses. One after another the buggies pulled up alongside of the meeting house. Each driver brought his horse to a halt and waited for the passengers within his family. Those who had a number of children in the family drove a two seated carriage drawn by two horses. One by one the beautiful prancing horses left the church yard. As they drew the buggies carrying the traditionally simply attired Mennonites they made a quaintly charming procession.
Baptismal services are conducted once a year before which candidates attend instruction classes for six successive Sunday afternoons. Usually they are between the ages of seventeen to nineteen.
I recall that as a child the grave solemnity with which these baptismal services were conducted always made a deep impression on me. To my youthful mind there was something appealingly dramatic about these youths making the solemn commitment to be true to their vows until death, regardless of what the cost might be.
Communion services are held twice a year. As in most churches they partake of the bread and wine, using actual wine. They believe the communion service has symbolical meaning only and attach no saving merit to its practice.
Following the partaking of the bread and wine they participate in what they call a foot washing ceremony. Towels and basins are provided and all baptized members participate, washing each others feet. They regard the ceremony as a symbol of brotherly love and humility and a willingness to perform even the lowliest tasks one for another.
The Old Order Mennonites have strong convictions that they are to provide for any needs within the brotherhood and for this reason they accept no governmental family allowance or old age pension cheques.
They have their own form of hospitalization towards which all members pay. Contributions are looked after in such a way that no one knows the amount which another gives.
They carry no insurance policies. If a member loses a barn through a fire, the other members contribute financially and many of them give a day’s work to help to rebuild the barn or house as the case may be.
Smoking, while not condoned, is not taboo for the men of the church. The clergy generally do not smoke and for a woman to smoke would be considered unladylike if not disgraceful.
The occasional glass of liquor is permissible, but in actuality the Old Order Mennonites consume very little alcoholic beverages. Drunkenness is considered a sin and if persisted in will bring excommunication, as will dishonesty in business or any other deviation from their puritanical moral standards.
Instances where measures such as excommunication are considered necessary are extremely rare. When it does occur the erring member is, after a time, taken back into the fellowship, providing he is willing to make public confession before the church and to promise he will make an honest effort to avoid the same error in the future.
While the laity of the church are allowed to have electricity, many of them prefer to get along without it. Electricity is not permitted for the clergy. Telephones are not allowed in the home, but if a member is in business he is permitted to have the phone in his business place. Farmers are allowed to have tractors.
Most musical instruments are prohibited, although some of the young people own harmonicas. Snapshots are forbidden.
Formal education ceases at fourteen at which time both boys and girls stay home on the farm.
In contrast with the Old Order Mennonites, there are numerous Mennonite denominations whose members visit the beauty parlors and follow current fashion trends in attire. Many of the members of these more modern groups enter professions such as teaching, social work and medicine. In between the polarities of the most conservative and the most progressive, there are varying degrees of practice. In actuality, only a small percentage of the total number of Mennonites wear the traditional attire and a still smaller number travel by horse and buggy.
Within the various Mennonite sects of Ontario, there are a total of about 19,000 baptized members. All of these trace their origin to the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century. The anabaptist movement originated in Switzerland and quickly spread to Holland and Germany. They were given the name Anabaptist because of their conviction that infant baptism was not scriptural. They believed that scriptural baptism was an outward symbol of inner faith and they rebaptized any adults who wished to become part of their group.
They believed that the Christian could under no circumstances participate in war. Neither did they believe a Christian should participate in civil government. They insisted that the true church consisted of believers who voluntarily choose to separate themselves from the world and that separation of church and state would be a natural consequence.
One of the early organizers of the Anabaptist movement was Menno Simons. Menno Simons was a former Roman Catholic priest, and it was from his name that the name Mennonite was derived.
The early Anabaptists’ disagreement with the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches of that day brought them unpopularity and severe persecution. Cruel tortures were employed in the attempt to cause them to give up their faith. Felix Manz, one of the early Swiss leaders, was drowned, becoming one of the first of many who chose to die rather than to renounce his faith. Many Anabaptists were imprisoned and many were burned at the stake.
In the seventeenth century, the Quaker, William Penn, gave an invitation to any of the Anabaptists who so wished to come to America. In payment of a debt owed to his father, Penn obtained a charter to Pennsylvania from the British king. Britain promised that in America the Anabaptists would be given exemption from military service and freedom to worship as they wished. The result of the offer was that many Dutch and Swiss Mennonites came to America and settled in Pennsylvania in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
After the American revolution some of the Pennsylvania Mennonites travelled the long journey from Pennsylvania to Ontario in horse drawn conestoga wagons. Some of them stayed near the Canadian border but most of them came to what is now known as Waterloo County. They were the first white settlers in this part of the province.
Among the early settlers from Pennsylvania was a young man by the name of Abraham Weber. This Abraham Weber was my great great grandfather on my father’s side of the family. History records that young Abraham, after making the long journey from Pennsylvania to Waterloo County, camped back of what is now the Goodrich Tire Plant in Kitchener. He was soon on friendly terms with the ‘Indians’, and they spent time around his camp-fire.
At this same spot Abraham cleared the land and built a log house. Several years after building his house he married a young lady by the name of Elizabeth Cressman.
The particular wagon in which young Abraham made the trek from Pennsylvania to Waterloo County is on display in the museum of Kitchener’s Doon Pioneer Village. Every time I visit the village I stop and look at this wagon.
Always I feel within me an admiration for those men and women who chose to travel the long and oft times wearisome journey to come to Waterloo County and there carve out a new life in what was then forest wilderness.
Like their Mennonite brethren in Pennsylvania, the Mennonites in Ontario excelled in farming. As in Pennsylvania, so in Ontario, the fields flourished under their care, and to-day their well kept farm homes are a pleasant picture of peaceful rural tranquility.
Sunday Visiting & Recreation
The Old Order Mennonite custom of Sunday visiting provides welcome occasions for friendly fellowship with relatives and acquaintances. The Old Order people do not necessarily wait for an invitation but will go to any friend’s or relative’s house for Sunday dinner or supper any time they may wish to do so.
The Mennonite housewife is never certain just how many people she will have seated at her table for Sunday dinner, but she is always prepared for the possibility of company and each guest is greeted with a genuinely warm welcome.
A typical Sunday dinner consists of meat and potatoes, possibly a cabbage or bean salad, some kind of pickle and a vegetable. For dessert there will be some home preserved fruit, usually two kinds, such as strawberries and peaches, followed by cookies and cake. Nearly always the meal is ended with pie.
Before they begin to eat all bow their heads for a moment of silent, never audible grace. Food is placed in bowls on the table and each person helps himself to the various dishes as they are passed around. Sunday dinners provide an opportunity not only to, in their own words, “eat themselves full” but also for friendly informal visiting in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, with the well laden kitchen table providing a deliciously pleasant setting.
After the meal is finished and dishes washed and put away, the afternoon is spent in sitting and visiting. Sometimes the men will gather together in the living room and the ladies will visit with their sex in the roomy kitchen. At other times both sexes will assemble together to chat in the kitchen or living room.
Most Old Order Mennonite homes have no chesterfield suites. In the living room there are usually a number of hard, straight backed chairs and perhaps one or two old fashioned rockers and arm chairs which have been cushioned and back padded to make them more comfortable.
Frequently a rocker or an armchair are a permanent part of the kitchen furniture. Most kitchens have a couch at one end. Windows usually have only blinds and no curtains, and very often the sills are adorned with a colourful profusion of growing plants.
While the Old Order Mennonites have very few possessions which are strictly for ornamental purposes, many of them take pride in beautiful flowers and plants, indoors and in outdoor flower beds.
Creating gaily colourful quilts and mats are pleasant activities for the ladies. Very often the female Sunday afternoon visitors are taken upstairs to see the quilts and mats which are the products of many hours of labour.
Because the Old Order Mennonite people know just about everybody within their denomination, it is natural that on a Sunday afternoon visit, conversation centres around such matters as the Martin’s new baby girl, Nancy Gingrich’s rheumatism condition … And, being human, they are not averse to a little gossip, such as: Matilda Bauman is something of a gadabout and goes to town two or three times every week, even though she has plenty of work at home and her mending basket is always overflowing, and she extravagantly buys those boxed cake mixes instead of thriftily mixing her own from scratch.. (these are typical Mennonite Christian and surnames but do not refer to any particular individuals).
I recall that as a child I, like most children, always welcomed the opportunity to go visiting with my parents. I remember one particular Sunday when it was my pleasure to travel, seated between my mother and father in the one seated horse and buggy, the eight miles to the North Woolwich Meeting House. After the church service we went to Elias Gingrichs for Sunday dinner. The Gingrichs had a daughter, Veronica, who was about my age.
That Sunday afternoon Veronica and I had a pleasant time in Veronica’s back yard playing with Veronica’s family of dolls. “Let’s pretend,” Veronica said to me as she gently cradled a home made rag doll, “that we are stylish people with collars and belts and buckles on our dresses”.
I am quite sure that to this day Veronica has never owned a dress with a collar or a belt or buckle. She is married to an Old Order farmer and I am quite sure she is perfectly content with the simple traditional Mennonite attire minus the superfluous trims as belts and buckles.
While most of Ontario’s Old Order Mennonites do very little travelling outside of their own community, many of them at least once in a life time pay a visit to the Old Order Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. My father and Angus Bowman, another Old Order youth, took this journey by train with the practised custom, they were warmly received by their Pennsylvania brethren, who gladly took time out of their busy work day schedules to escort them by horse and buggy to visit many of the Old Order homes.
My father never tired of fondly reminiscing about those six weeks. When his friend, Angus Bowman, who later became a deacon in the church, would visit our home, the conversation would frequently turn to this happy highlight of their youth.
During the week the Old Order Mennonite people take very little time off for recreation. Usually they rise between five and six in the morning and work till eight or nine in the evening. However, the Old Order Mennonite farmer frequently manages to combine business with pleasure. When he has business in town he will very often meet one of his Mennonite farmer friends and is likely to take time to chat awhile on any news of current interest. Going to Kitchener or Waterloo stockyards, where he may buy and sell livestock, may also be a time for an occasion to visit with his Pennsylvania Dutch farm friends.
For the ladies, quilting bees are not only occasions to produce gaily attractive bed covers; they are also a welcome opportunity for friendly informal visiting. My mother, who at the time of this writing is eighty-two years old, is at her happiest when she can join a group of Pennsylvania Dutch ladies around a quilt in her own parlor or in that of one of her friends. For these practical minded Mennonite ladies, quiltings are a counterpart of what afternoon bridge is to others.
Some of the quilts will be put to practical use as a bed cover soon after completion. Others may be put in the hope chest of a hopeful teen age daughter. Still others are made for the purpose of being given to those who lack an adequate supply of material goods. This may be someone within their own community or it may be someone overseas.
Frequently I hear people say that quilting is a craft which seems to be gradually dying out. Not so with the Old Order Mennonites. With the younger as well as with the older ladies, quilting bees are still a treasured practical and sociable hobby.
Childhood Joys and Trails
Like most children of Old Order Mennonite parentage the first years of my life were spent on a farm home. However, when I was almost five years old, my parents left the farm and moved to the little village of Floradale. For me those years in the little village were happy years.
Most every day I played with my little next door friend, Elmeta, either at her house or mine. Elmeta’s parents belonged to the more modern Ontario Conference Mennonite church and Elmeta’s dresses were considerably more stylish than mine. Sometimes I was just a bit envious of her more gaily coloured frocks with collars and belts and buckles. To me a dress with a collar and a belt and a buckle was a dress of pretty high style.
The Old Order Mennonite and the Ontario Conference Mennonite churches had been one denomination until the year 1889. The group which became known as the Ontario Conference Mennonite denomination wished to have evening services and Sunday Schools. While they upheld the desirability of simplicity in dress and some adherence to specific, traditional Mennonite attire, they were more liberal in their regulations concerning dress.
Their differing viewpoints led to a denominational split. Since then there have been numerous similar divisions, a result of these being the number of different Mennonite denominations of to-day.
Despite the difference in our apparel, Elmeta and I played happily together, mothering our dolls, keeping house in Elmeta’s play house and exploring the surrounding country-side.
When we were almost six, Elmeta and I began our years of formal education in the two room village school about a quarter of a mile outside of the village. Some time before we began attending school, my big sister Sarah taught us to read a bit and coached us on our arithmetic until we could count to one hundred. I recall that on that first day of school were were the only two children in the beginners’ class who could count all the way to one hundred. Despite my plainly orthodox Mennonite apparel, this accomplishment gave me a pleasant feeling of unholy pride. Of course, I realize now that this was not due to superior intelligence on our part, but to the hours of coaching Sarah had given us.
Most of the residents of Floradale spoke the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. Since most Old Order Mennonites lived on farms, there were not many Old Order people living right in the village. However, I had quite a number of Old Order Mennonite school mates from the surrounding rural homes. A number of village residents were Ontario Conference Mennonites and there were also quite a number of Lutherans and Evangelical United Brethren. The latter have since amalgamated with the United Church of Canada.
Floradale was a friendly little village, where every one not only knew everyone else, but also knew such interesting details such as which housewife was a model housekeeper and which one didn’t much care whether the mending and the dusting were ever caught up or not. Also everyone had a pretty good idea which of the married couples got along reasonable well and which ones frequently fought like cats and dogs.
Little errands like going to the village store to pick up the occasional loaf of bread for my mother and going to the post office to see if there was any mail, were pleasant incidents of life in a small village where the grocery and the postal clerks were familiar friends.
Some Sundays I went with my parents to worship services at the North Woolwich Old Order Mennonite Meeting House about a mile outside of the village. Since the Old Order Mennonites held services in one particular meeting house only on alternate Sundays, attendance at worship service is not always an every Sunday occasion.
When I was almost eight my father made a decision that was going to mean quite a change for his family and would bring to an end our life in the little village. The decision he made somewhat alarmed many of his Old Order Mennonite relatives and friends.
He decided that he would buy a farm eight miles north of Floradale in a non-Mennonite English speaking community near the village of Alma. Eight miles by horse and buggy was considered quite a long journey and didn’t my father realize, some of his Old Order Mennonite acquaintances wondered, that the influence of the non-Mennonite English speaking community might cause his children to leave the customs and traditions of Old Order Mennonite life? But my father wanted a farm. He had suffered some ill luck and financial loss during the depression of the thirties and the land up Alma way was productive and it was cheap. Despite the well meaning warnings, my father took us to his farm in this English speaking community. To many of his Old Order friends I am sure it seemed as though he was taking us to the other end of the world.
I felt a little timid the first morning my father drove my brother Eli and me via horse and buggy to the little red one room school house. I remember feeling a little self-conscious, aware that I was the only little girl wearing a dress that came well below my knees with a matching pinafore apron. However, the new teacher and the little United and Presbyterian children, who were mostly of Scottish and Irish descent, were kind and friendly and I was soon happy in my new setting; though for the first few months that we lived on the farm I sometimes grew rather lonely for my former village friends. Here there was no next door Elmeta; and our closest neighbours were older people with no young children. Farm life, however, had its advantages. Playing hide and seek in the barn with my brothers Noah and Eli and jumping in the straw and hay were lots of fun. And one day, for fifty cents, Eli bought a wee brown and white floppy eared collie puppy. We loved him dearly and though he was a male pup we decided to name him Trixie.
Despite their sombre dress and the fact that they frequently appear somewhat shy when in public, the Old Order Mennonite children love fun and gaiety as much as their more fancily attired contemporaries. My brother Eli and I were no exception to this. Our childhood experience which I fondly and amusedly remember took place when I was about ten and Eli was about twelve.
One bright warm Saturday May morning Eli and I decided we would like to go fishing. We got my father’s permission to travel by horse and buggy to the picturesque winding creek three miles up the road. Eli hitched the horse to the buggy and we felt quite proud and grown-up as we drive off. When we reached our destination we discovered a delightful surprise. Trixie had travelled along with us! Unknown to us he had trotted along all the way keeping himself hidden under the buggy. (It was one of the sore trials of Trixie’s life that he could not usually accompany us when we left home, but this time he had outsmarted us all !) We were delighted to have his company and we patted him, fussed over him, and told him what a nice dog he was. The three of us had a most enjoyable morning. We felt very proud to have such a smart, if not thoroughly obedient, dog.
There was only one thing that bothered me about Trixie. It seemed that most grown-ups assumed without question that no dogs would ever go to heaven. I never discussed the matter with any adults, but at times I hopefully wondered whether they might not be wrong.
Besides Trixie we usually had four or five cats and every now and then one would produce a litter of kittens. Eli and I were always delighted when it became apparent that one of the female cats was in the family way. After the kittens were born we always enjoyed watching the rather ugly little furry creatures gradually develop into adorable playful bundles of fluff.
Whenever there was a new baby calf the happy task of feeding the new addition always fell to us.
My parents never told us a word about the facts of life, but we were not as completely uneducated in this area as might have been expected. I suspect this applies to most Old Order Mennonite farm children. Birth, whether it was the arrival of a new kitten or a new baby brother, is joyfully accepted as a natural and happy event.
Quite frequently in my conversations with people I have heard the remark, “Mennonite children always seem to be so good“.
While I would not argue with the fact that severe disciplinary problems are quite rare (but hardly nonexistent) I am also aware that Mennonite children, like any other children, are not always perfectly well behaved. While they may often appear to be quite timid when out in public, that shy little brown eyed boy and demure bonneted lass may well be capable of being just as impishly mischievous as their Irish O’Shannigan or Mulrooney contemporaries.
It is also a fact that Mennonite boys, like any other boys, love to tease their sisters, especially if they can get a pleasingly temperamental response. My big brother Urias was no exception to this. I remember that on one occasion when he pestered me unmercifully, I became so angry I picked up a block of wood and threw it at him. Perhaps my aim was poor or perhaps he ducked very quickly; anyway, the block of wood missed hitting him. To add to my frustration my mother gave me the hardest spanking I have ever had in my entire life. To make a bad matter even worse, Eli, who really was my dear friend and who I usually loved most devotedly, thought the whole matter hilariously funny. He laughed and laughed until I wanted to throw something at him, too – of course, I didn’t dare.
The Mennonite farm child usually has fewer toys than most of his city contemporaries. A little girl will probably have a few rag dolls and perhaps a low priced store bought doll. A little boy may have a tractor and a few trucks. Both boys and girls may have a few stuffed animals, usually home made.
Though the Mennonite child learns the discipline of hard work at a tender age, laughter and play are also a part of every day life, and he has a balanced routine of toil and fun.
Adolescence and Early Youth
When the Old Order Mennonite girl reaches fourteen or so she replaces her little girl pinafore with a cape and apron. Her skirts become longer and she begins to wear her hair in a bun.
When my sister, Susannah, first switched to adult clothes, her new black satin bonnet was topped with a black bow of identical material. The most conservative of the Old Order do not have this bow. One of my mother’s good hearted but out-spoken and ultra-conservative friends expressed disapproval of this vain frivolity.
“When my Selina gets long dresses,” she told my mother, “she won’t get one of those bows on top of her bonnet”.
Even amongst the Old Order there are degrees of conservatism in dress and adherence to the keeping of the old traditions. With my parents my father was the more conservative of the two. My mother, though she loved the church and her fellow members and was loyal to all the church rules and traditions, was less rigid in her opinion as to what was permissible than was my father. One reason for this difference may have been the fact that my mother’s mother had been Methodist and had turned Mennonite when she married my grandfather. Some influence from this denominational background may have filtered through to my mother.
My father’s parents had been very conservative and had considered the adherence to the old traditions and customs a solemn obligation.
I can still hear my father stating that his mother had frequently admonished her children to follow the example of those who were the most conservative in dress.
Most of the Old Order Mennonite people would find it hard to give a logical theological explanation for many of their customs. They would say that refraining from having cars and telephones and wearing of the traditional dress help them to retain their distinction from the world and to preserve their way of life.
For the Old Order Mennonite girl the teen years are usually happy and somewhat exciting years. She works on her parent’s farm, or, if not need by them will probably be hired out to another Old Order Mennonite farm couple. Though her every day routine might sound like a life of hard work and drudgery, the typical Old Order Mennonite girl is generally quite happy.
On a typical day she will arise around six and then go out to the cow stable to help with the milking. The rest of the day she is busy with such chores as washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking and mending. Some days she may go to the field and hoe turnips or thin out young mangels. All this for room and board and pay which most of to-day’s employees would call peanuts !
The young man’s routine is similar except that his work keeps him busy in the barn and fields.
Nevertheless, life is not all work. On Sunday mornings there is worship service to attend. Sunday afternoons are frequently spent in visiting and entertaining friends while Sunday evenings for the young people are wonderful fun.
Each Sunday evening the young people have a get together in one of the Mennonite homes. If a young mane escorts a young lady to one of these get togethers, it is assumed that the two young people are going together. It is not the custom of the Old Order Mennonite youth to date more than one young lady simultaneously. If per chance the young man’s fancy is attracted by the charms of another lass, he will first terminate his relationship with his previous partner before beginning to date his new interest. Both the young man and the young lady are free to terminate their courtship whenever they wish.
At these Sunday evening get togethers the young people sit about and chat. They sing hymns, usually in English, and faster than their slow Sunday morning worship service tempo. They play ring games, which are a sort of drill game somewhat similar to square dancing. Sometimes someone will entertain the group by playing a harmonica.
Occasionally some of them engage in a bit of square dancing though Sunday evening square dancing does not have the full approval of all the older members. However, many of the older people are inclined to shrug off any criticism of this form of entertainment with an indulgent, “Ach, the young people must have a little bit of fun”.
In the meantime square dancing has never been strictly forbidden and the more dashing Old Order Mennonite youth happily continues to swing his partner and to tap his feet to the lively old barn dance reels.
My friend, Melinda Martin, was a typically happy Old Order Mennonite teen age young lady only a few months my senior. One Sunday afternoon, shortly after her fourteenth birthday, Melinda paid me a visit.
“I love going to church,” Melinda told me enthusiastically, during our afternoon visit. “And I think Sunday evenings are so much fun. I really love to dance”.
Melinda didn’t attend the young peoples’ get togethers very long until one young man began escorting her regularly via buggy and beautiful prancing horse.
Unlike my friend Melinda, I cannot say that I found the prospect of settling down to the everyday life of the Old Order Mennonite girl completely appealing in every way. Perhaps some of the well meaning advice of my father’s Old Order friends and relatives had not been without sound reasoning.
“Aren’t you afraid”, they had said, “that if you take your children to an English speaking community, the influence of the non-Mennonites around them may take them away from the church?”
Also some of the influences within my own family circle were not conductive to making the Old Order Mennonite way of life appear as the only satisfying one. My two oldest brothers Ismael and David and my sister Susannah had joined the Old Order Church. Urias had joined the Waterloo County Markham Mennonite Church, which was slightly more progressive than the Old Order, in that they were allowed to have cars and were a little less rigid in their regulations concerning dress. My sister Sarah was still undecided but was considering becoming a member of the more modern Ontario Conference Mennonite denomination.
A number of years previous to this my sister Selinda had fallen in love with a neighbouring young Presbyterian farm lad. My parents had expressed disapproval when the young man began dating my sister. Because of my parents’ disapproval the young couple stopped seeing one another for some time, but later again resumed their courtship. When they finally married, however, my parents appeared to be quite resigned to the situation. The marriage was a happy but heart-breakingly short one, as about a year and a half after the wedding day Selinda died of complications in childbirth.
In far off Europe World War II was raging. My brother Noah on reaching eighteen had enlisted in the army to my parents’ deep disappointment. While the general public bestowed the highest praise on the young service men of the armed forces, the sight of handsome young Noah in khaki uniform made my mother and father want to weep.
It was probably small wonder that I was not ready to unquestioningly accept the Old Order Mennonite way of life as I was aware that my parents hoped I would. Also at this time I was feeling somewhat sad because I could not go on to high school as my three other class mates from the little red school house had done. I still had not lost my hankering for dresses with collars and belts and buckles.
About this time my mother took me to the store in the village of St.Jacobs and bought me a new black coat, topped with a black Persian Lamb collar. To my father this fur collar was unnecessary worldly adornment. It was with a stern frown that he expressed his disapproval. My mother, always ready to make every effort to keep everyone happy, began to take the collar off, performing this task when I wasn’t around. When she had the collar almost off I came on the scene and I raised quite a fuss.
“The coat will look ridiculous without the collar!” I grumbled in peeved annoyance “And what is wrong with a little collar like that anyway?”
My poor darling mother! She quietly and patiently stitched the collar back on.
The winter when I was a very youthful fourteen and a half I left home to go out working. Unlike my Old Order contemporaries, I did not find employment with an Old Order Mennonite farmer. Instead I went to work and live in the City of Kitchener.
My sister Sarah had been working in the housekeeping department of Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital for about a year. At this time help was scarce and I think the housekeeping supervisor had discovered that Mennonite young ladies were generally reliable and not too much afraid of hard work. So, despite my youthful years, I was hired to join the housekeeping staff of Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital, (then a much smaller institution than now).
Had it not been for the fact that Sarah was already working there I do not think my mother would have allowed me to go to the big city. As it was, it was only after considerable coaxing on my part that she somewhat reluctantly gave her consent. I think that she half suspected that I would leave the Old Order Mennonite way of life and at the same time I think she realized that it was necessary for me to have the freedom to live my own life.
From that time on my association with my Old Order Mennonite friends became less and less. I began attending worship services at the Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo, one of the Ontario Conference Mennonite churches.
Visits to my home for weekends, holidays, and sometimes for periods of several months during the summer, were always times of happy reunions. Nevertheless, the fact that I was gradually abandoning the traditional Old Order attire did cause some uncomfortable moments.
To my father this adoption of a more modern form of attire than the traditional Old Order Mennonite garb was an indication of an inordinate love for the world. Very frequently he would express his disapproval with two German scriptural quotations: “Habt nicht lieb die Welt,” he would admonish us solemnly; and “Stellet euch nicht dieser Welt Gleich”.
Whenever my mother expressed disapproval of a too bright colour or too short skirt (which really was not very frequent) it was in less theological terms.
“Ach,” she would say apprehensively, “what will our relatives think?”
When I was seventeen I was received by baptism into what was then known as the Ontario Conference Mennonite Church, which in 1987 adopted the name Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada.
The day when I took my baptismal vows stands out vividly in my memory. I remember that it was with a humble awareness of my own shortcomings that I made the vow to be true to Jesus Christ until death. This vow of loyalty till death is made in both the Old Order and the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada churches at the time of baptism.
This conference to-day has no regulations concerning dress, although they encourage simple and modest style in clothing. They accept higher education and like nearly all Mennonites are pacifists, placing a strong emphasis on the Christian’s obligation towards his fellow men. They send relief and mission workers to many parts of the world.
I recall that around the time I was baptized I had some feelings of sadness, because I knew that my decision to affiliate with a more modern Mennonite church was a disappointment to my parents, especially my father. However, it was probably easier for me than my older brothers and sisters who had left the Old Order Mennonite denomination. By this time it seemed that my parents had grown somewhat resigned to their children’s departure from the old ways.
Over twenty years have passed since the day that I made my baptismal vows. Since then my attendance at Old Order Mennonite church services have been limited almost exclusively to the funerals of my aunts and uncles. During those years all of my mother’s brothers and sisters have passed away.
My father’s two sisters and his one brother also passed away during these years. And four years ago we laid our father to rest in the burial plot beside Martin’s Meeting House. In this same cemetery are buried both my grandparents on my mother’s and on my father’s side.
Some people on attending Old Order Mennonite funeral services for the first time are somewhat taken aback. There are no flowers at Old Order Mennonite funeral services, while the deceased is clothed in a white shroud and has not a touch of cosmetics. The black coffin lined with white material is very plain and simple.
Prior to the final church gathering a service is held at the home of the deceased. Only relatives and very close friends attend this house service. After this service in the house, and before the final one in the church, the body is taken by a horse drawn carriage to the church cemetery where a grave side burial service is conducted. With the family standing about the coffin a fitting hymn is sung and prayer is offered. The casket is lowered and a few shovels of sod are dropped on the closed lid of the lowered casket. After the grave side service the final service is conducted in the meeting house.
To some people the Old Order Mennonite funeral services may seem unnecessarily austere, yet from my own observations, it seems to me, that the Old Order Mennonites are often able to accept death with greater serenity than is true for much of general society about them.
At all times, and especially at the time of funerals, there is in the Old Order Mennonite denomination a strong emphasis on the on-going life after death. It seems that this emphasis enables them to accept death as a natural, even welcome, sequel of life.
To me my own father’s funeral was not an entirely sad occasion. In his sermon the minister mentioned the fact that he had frequently visited my father during my father’s final illness, and that on these visits he had sensed that my father was anticipating the life of the eternal hereafter. As I took a last look at my father’s face I felt a sense of sadness, but greater than the sense of sadness, I also felt within me a surge of joyful triumph. With my Old Order friends I could rejoice in the comforting solace that Father had entered into the bliss of the eternal.
I didn’t mind one bit that there was not one flower beside his unadorned black coffin. Everything was plain and simple and in harmony with the old ways and traditions he had known and loved while he lived. To me it all seemed perfectly right and good.
Following the final service, it is the custom for relatives and friends to go to the house of the deceased. A substantial meal is served and a time of visiting follows. This period of visiting and fellowship helps to alleviate, for the family of the deceased, some of the inevitable strain of the preceding days.
* * * * * * *
In the meanwhile, while progress and constant change are the order of the day, the quiet, God-fearing Old Order Mennonites are continuing to follow the customs and traditions of their fathers and their father’s fathers before them. Among these plainly attired, quiet living people are some of my dearest friends. Nevertheless, despite my enduring love and respect for them, I have no regrets that I did not stay within the denomination of my forebears. I would, however, be the last to encourage any other young person of an Old Order Mennonite background to make the same decision without first doing some long and careful thinking. I might warn him that for one who has spent his early years within the confines of such as the Old Order Mennonite community, life in the more complex and highly competitive modern society may be somewhat frightening and he may keenly miss the personal close-knit relationships which are still a part of Old Order Mennonite life to-day. I would remind him that along with new advantages and new freedoms there will also be new difficulties.
Despite all the pros and cons which one might mention, there are always those youths of Old Order Mennonite background, for whom the yearning for greater freedom and broader range of interests are such that they virtually must leave in order to find the highest degree of satisfaction and fulfillment in life. Now and then even these persons may sense within them a yearning nostalgia for the more serene simple life of the Old Order farm folks.
But even for the quiet living, God fearing Old Order Mennonites, life is not always perfectly serene and peaceful; like all of humanity they have their problems and difficulties. Ill health and financial reverses also come to them. There are the occasional episodes of family squabbles and in-law bickering.
While they can, on the whole, be described as a good people, they, like all the rest of humanity, have their imperfections. Within their group there sometimes is the occasional black sheep, who, through dishonesty or some other deviation from their high moral standards, brings a black mark on his reputation. The whole spectrum of human virtues and weaknesses can be found within the Old Order community as well as amongst any other group of people.
Nevertheless, for the Old Order Mennonites, life in general is usually quite peaceful. Family life is generally happy and congenial. In a world in which there is much bustling activity and high tension the Old Order Mennonites are a pleasingly restful picture of serene rural tranquility.
One of the greatest joys of my life is to occasionally take time to visit some of my Old Order Mennonite farm friends, to sit and chat with them in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect around a delightfully well laden kitchen table. Sometimes immediately following the moment of silent grace preceding the meal they will admonish me, “Now, just help yourself and eat yourself full”.
Whether they specifically tell me to do this or not, I know that this is precisely what any one is expected to do at an Old Order Mennonite table and I happily “eat myself full”.
And whenever I have the opportunity I love to watch my Old Order Mennonite friends travel the Waterloo County roads with their buggies and beautiful prancing horses. I watch them and I say to myself, “There is something so beautiful about this. Ach yes, there is something truly beautiful about it”.
May it be a lasting beauty of Waterloo County.
…. much has changed in the world around me since I wrote the preceding chapters of this book. While modern technology has continuously been introducing new labour saving devices, supposedly making our lives simpler and easier, the pace of life for most people has continued to accelerate.
While I am well aware that not everything was better back in the “good old days”, I must admit to sometimes having the uneasy feeling of being surrounded by a world of perpetual change.
At such times it gives me a feeling of quiet reassurance to see the stalwart Old Order farm folk still carrying on the customs and traditions of their forebears. The horse drawn buggy is still their mode of transportation for trips to town to look after business matters and the purchasing of a few groceries. On Sundays one can still see a steady stream of buggies and a few dachwaegles (closed in buggies with roofs) carrying their traditionally garbed passengers to the simple meeting houses which have remained basically unchanged in architectural style for over a hundred years. After church service many of the Old Order folk will, with or without invitation, go to the farm home of relatives or friends for Sunday dinner as has been their custom for generations. Yet, even as I watch the procession of buggies, I, with a touch of sadness, concede that modern innovations have also touched their lives and that gradually changes are creeping into their lifestyle.
Probably the area in which the Old Order Mennonites have changed the most in the last two or three decades is in their farming operation. When I was a child it was customary to give the children of six or seven years the task of milking one cow, usually beginning with the bossy that let her milk down easily and wasn’t a kicker. From one cow they would gradually go on to milking two or three or more cows. To-day, instead of a herd of eight to twelve cows, many Old Order farmers have twenty to thirty cows which are milked by machine and the milk stored in large bulk coolers.
Many Old Order Mennonite farmers no longer keep the heavy work horses needed for pulling heavy loads of hay or grain and for other general farm work. The horse drawn binder and the hay loader of my father’s day have become nearly extinct – even on Old Order Mennonite farms. More and more the Old Order are investing money in more expensive and more sophisticated machinery.
Yet while there is a steady progression of modernization the church in typical Old Order Mennonite fashion is putting some restrictions on the acceptance of modern technology. The stable cleaners and silo loaders and combines that many non-Mennonite farmers have are prohibited for the Old Order Mennonite farmer. The church has also laid down some rules limiting the size of their tractors and other machinery. Hydro, as I have said in the first chapter of this book, is permitted. Yet, they still maintain the rule that the clergy have no electricity. And there are still some of the laity who, if they purchase a farm equipped with electrical power, will have it removed.