The Western Mennonites
A graphic pen picture of life among a group of New Canadians now in the throes of the conflict between orthodoxy and modernism
IN PASSING down the single street which separates the two long rows of white houses forming the oldstyle Mennonite village, one cannot help but note the striking similarity between these dwellings as they lie huddled among trees and shrubbery, each with its quaint old-fashioned flower garden in the foreground. One is not surprised therefore, on entering the various homes, to find here too a sameness of color and furnishings. But those of us who are better acquainted with the Mennonite know that it is not lack of originality or progressiveness, but his belief in humility and equality that causes him to live in such modest surroundings and keep him on an equal basis with his neighbors.
The original houses were long, low, one-storied log structures, with barn adjoining the house by means of a hall or passage. Opening up from this hall, and separating it from the barn, were store rooms where the winter’s supply of food and grain was kept. The walls of house and barn alike were whitewashed. A thatched roof and blue shutters on the windows gave them a quaint Dutch effect. Of late, however, these buildings have given way to frame houses, shingled and painted white, but otherwise 'the architecture has remained unchanged.
The houses inside are very plainly furnished. The walls and ceiling are generally whitewashed or painted white or pale blue, and floors bright yellow. The furniture, which is usually homemade, consists of beds, tables, chairs, cupboards and benches, and is invariably painted yellow or a wine color, edged with plain black borders. Often good workmanship is displayed, and every boy receives his manual training at home.
The house is usually divided into three or more rooms, of which the kitchen is by far the most important. It is here that many savory dishes are cooked. It is here that the family gathers three times daily to consume its hearty meals, to say nothing of the coffee served every afternoon at four, when not infrequently friends are present, especially on Sundays, to share the zwieback, peppernuts, and jam which are always served with the coffee.
Next comes the living room, spacious, large and shining, with its freshly painted furniture and floors. If the family is large it may contain a bed, besides chairs, tables, benches, and often a wardrobe. One is struck on entering by the bareness of its walls and curtainless windows. Not a picture or ornament of any kind is used to break the monotony of the large white spaces, but, on enquiring, your host will explain this by quoting,
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of anything.” Consequently you find neither pictures,
photos nor mirrors in the Mennonite home. I f you find a mirror at all, it is a very small one which our host uses for shaving, then turns to the wall lest constant use should foster vanity.
A unique object in every living room is its huge brick or clay oven which occupies one comer of the room. It is about four by nine feet, and reaches right up to the ceiling. It is heated from the chimney room by either straw or manure bricks, a huge pile of which are prepared and dried every summer. A long bench placed alongside one of these ovens makes a very cosy seat on a cold winter evening.
Opening up from the living room are several other rooms which are used as sleeping quarters. Each of these rooms contains one or two beds piled several feet high with great feather ticks and pillows encased in cotton print covers. A goodly supply of such bedding is given to every girl at marriage. A chair or two, with perhaps a table, complete the furnishing of the bedroom.
No matter how much wealth a Mennonite accumulates, his mode of living remains practically unchanged. But although it is hard to detect signs of wealth among them, abject poverty is unknown.
rT'HE dress of these people is supervised as carefully as the building of their homes. The predominating color for both men and women is black. The men wear their coats fastened up closely about the necks in the absence of collars and ties. The women usually wear plain black cashmere or
lustre dresses on festive occasions, though on week days they wear browns and dark greens, while the girls and younger children are often seen in print dresses though always in quiet shades.
Their dresses are all made after one and the same pattern. The skirts are long and plain with a few gathers at the back. The waist is long-sleeved, high-necked, and fastened down the front with inconspicuous buttons. It may have a few tucks down the front which serve to conceal rather than reveal the form. No older woman’s costume, however, is complete without its black lustre pinafore. This may be adorned by an edging of black lace at the lower hem.
The one article of feminine attire which gives the Mennonite woman a chance to indulge her natural vanity is a fancy little black cap or bonnet which she dons at marriage. This, though black, may be made entirely out of lace or net, with a spray of black ornamental flowers fastened across the front and peeping through frills of lace and ribbons. Little flat black ribbon bows are sewn across the top just back of the border of lace and flowers. Black ribbon streamers extend from each of these bows and hang down over the top of the cap, where they are fastened at the lower edge. These caps are seldom seen by an outsider as they are carefully concealed by a shawl or two. It is only when visiting each other’s homes that they are displayed in all their beribboned splendor.
The Mennonite woman selects her shawl with as great care as we do our hats, and certainly spends more time in putting it on. No young man is more fastidious in arranging his tie than the Mennonite girl in putting on her shawl. It must be loosely tied in a graceful knot below the chin, with ends hanging in a certain way; the top of the shawl must be brought to a perfect point directly above the middle of the forehead. To omit this point is considered very poor taste indeed. You rarely see a Mennonite girl without her shawl, and in winter two or three are worn for warmth. Brilliantly colored flowers may be embroidered in the corner that hangs down the back, and the "best” shawls may have a fringe around the edge to give variety and swank.
Most of the women have beautiful hair, which seems to thrive well in spite of the singular treatment to which it is subjected. Every Saturday it is taken down and washed. Should you pass through a Mennonite village some afternoon in summer you would see groups of girls gathered in the yards drying their hair in the sun. Unlike their dresses, their
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The Western Mennonites
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hair cornes in almost all shades of blonde, red, brown, and black, and reaches almost to the knees. When nearly dry it is parted in the centre and a tiny braid is begun at either side of the parting with as few hairs as possible. At every twist of the braid, a few more hairs are added; thus it is continued to the back of the head, fastening the braid close to the head as it proceeds. When the centre back is reached the braids are completed in the ordinary way and wound about the head and fastened with some colored yarn or string. Its owner then worries no more about it until the next Saturday, when the same process is repeated.
Nowhere can be found finer gardens than those owned by the Mennonite. An agriculturist for generations back, lie has developed a rare physical strength and hardiness, which, coupled with an unusual industry, places him among the chief horticulturalists of the world.
Consequently every Mennonite home is surrounded by gardens of most luxuriant growth. There is of course the great field of potatoes and vegetables, but no Mennonite garden would be complete without at least half an acre of sunflowers, the seeds of which are roasted and eaten as nuts in winter. Next in importance to the sunflowers comes the plot of water melons and musk melons. You rarely visit a Mennonite home in autumn but what several of these melons are brought in and served.
Practically every home in the village has its own orchard or fruit garden. Here are found various native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, such as crab apples, plums, choke cherries, pin cherries, black and red currants, raspberries, gooseberries, and occasionally strawberry plants.
Her garden is the one outlet for her love of beauty in the life of the Mennonite woman, and she indulges this passion to the extreme in the cultivation of flowers. I have visited many a Mennonite home in summer, but was never in the house more than half an hour before I was invited out to see the flowers. They always formed the chief topic of conversation, and I have never left without an armful of beautiful oldfashioned flowers; nasturtiums, marigolds, snapdragons, sweet peas and asters. It is hard indeed to find a home without its flower beds and pansy borders in the foreground.
The Season of Visiting
VW INTER and autumn, after the crops have been gathered, are the seasons for visiting. Whole families, packed in great democrats or sleighs, will set out to visit relatives or friends in neighboring villages.
Many a cheerful evening they spend in each other’s homes. As soon as the handshakings and greetings are over and the visitors are properly seated, a bowl of sunflower seeds is passed around, and conversation and laughter go on apace amid the soft crackle of these seeds which are eaten throughout the evening. By the time the company leaves, the floor is literally covered with shells. Some, especially women, have become so addicted to this habit that they carry a pocketful of seeds about with them, eating them constantly, even in church.
In spite of their narrow existence, I found the Mennonites a wholesome and refreshing people to visit. It is a relief and a rare change to associate with people who are not forever trying to impress you with the superiority of their own countrynot having one— and, moreover, they do not try to force their beliefs on to you as so many other religious sects do. All they ask is to be left alone to live their religion rather than talk about it. Neither are they social climbers who try to force themselves into higher circles. Their conversation, though at times tending toward gossip, is on the whole helpful and instructive as they compare their own little problems and try to find their solutions.
It would be hard indeed to find a people who enjoy each other’s company more than they do. Neither do they lack in neighbor-
liness toward outsiders. Their extreme kindness is displayed to its best advantage in case of sickness, when the patient becomes the recipient of many a bowl of savory soup or chicken. They think nothing of sitting up all night long in silent sympathy with the afflicted.
One of the most outstanding social events is pig-killing. Days before the event takes place the good housewife is busy baking bread, buns, and peppernuts. All necessary tools are gathered up, scrubbed and scoured so that all is in readiness.
Very early on the appointed day the invited guests begin to arrive, bringing with them such members of their family and tools as may be useful in their work. A great cauldron of water is heated outside over an open fire. The men then proceed with the killing and cleaning of the pigs.
Then follows the work in which both women and young folks join ; that of cutting up the fat meat into small cubes and rendering the lard in the huge iron cauldrons. The spareribs are cooked at the same time in the boiling fat, and later packed away in the lard for winter.
Then comes the sausage-making at which everybody works. Amid laughter and chatting they turn out sausages of all shapes and sizes—meat sausages, liver sausages, and blood sausages.
The first lull in activities comes when dinner is served at noon by the efficient hostess, whose table is loaded with baking, supplemented by fried liver, potatoes, and dill pickles, and again in the afternoon about four o’clock, when coffee, buns, peppernuts and jam are served. These festivities culminate at night, when a sausage supper crowns the day and all guests return to their respective homes, each with a generous bundle of fresh meat, the gift of the hostess.
It was on a bright sunny morning in June that I had the privilege of visiting a Mennonite church of the old faith, accompanied by one of its members.
The church was a low barnlike building, displaying the rough unfinished beams and rafters on the inside. The floor was thickly strewn with sawdust. Long backless benches served as pews: consequently sitting on one of these through a three-hour service made an impression on me which I shall not readily forget.
“You do not go to church to enjoy ease and comfort but to do penance for your sins,” my friend explained to me afterward.
The minister entered, dressed in what looked to me like a green riding habit, with high top boots and red handkerchief about his neck. The hymns, consisting of some twenty to twenty-four verses and sung in a minor strain, dealt mostly with the life hereafter and pictured most vividly the wailing and gnashing of teeth and fire and brimstone applications accompanied by the rattling of monstrous chains. Then, by way of contrast, we were shown a picture of heaven with its snowy robes and harps of gold.
After several of these hymns, alternated by Bible readings, the minister still further enforced their lessons by upbraiding his l>eople for their sins and exhorting them to follow the footsteps of their Savior. After an hour or so of this discourse the whole congregation knelt on the sawdust-covered floor in silent prayer, broken only now and then by the sound of quiet weeping. Another hymn brought the three-hour service to a close.
Their minister is chosen from the congregation, and may be any good man able to read and write. I am told that he requires private confessions of his people, thus keeping strict watch over their thoughts and actions—a true shepherd of his flock.
But he is not alone in this work. The church is well organized, and a number of zealous assistants help him to keep watch over his flock and to punish such members as go astray.
A private school under the supervision of the church is conducted in every village
during the winter months. A primer and the Bible are the only textbooks found in the school, as a knowledge of these and the elementary rules in arithmetic are considered sufficient to help the individual through life. The main object of these schools, however, is to guard the children against all contact with knowledge that would tend to undermine their faith.
Being naturally sociable, the laws which the most intelligerit and progressive Mennonite finds the most irksome are those respecting his association with, and imitation of, outsiders. His love for the beautiful is rigidly suppressed as vanity. He is not allowed to buy cars, use telephones or acquire any up-to-date furnishings for his home. The use of sword or weapon of any kind is strictly prohibited—hence the opposition to war. “Thou shalt not kill,’’ is considered sufficient reason. Neither is he allowed to affiliate himself with any lodge or organization of any kind outside of his own church, as these are looked upon with suspicion as being in league with the devil.
Anyone breaking these laws is placed under what is known as “The Ban” and is practically ostracized even by his own family. He is not allowed to eat at the same table with his brother or shake hands with him; instead he merely touches his knee. If the husband is “banned” and the wife refuses to leave him, she must share his fate.
Naturally, as the young people mingled more and more with their English neighbors in a business way and learned their views, they rebelled against these restrictions, with the result that a new sect was formed who call themselves “Bergthaler” to differentiate them from the “Old Colonists” or “Rosengarter.”
And what has become of the Mennonites who have broken away from the old faith? Slowly but surely they are changing. Gradually they are throwing off the restraints that held them down, and now they are finding themselves face to face with other problems to which they seem unable to find a solution but which will undoubtedly solve themselves in time. Too conservative by nature to throw off all their customs at once, they are vainly trying to maintain them and adopt those of Canadians as well, often with pitiful results. Children are lost to their parents as they become Anglicized.
Unfortunately the young folks here as elsewhere are more apt to copy the vices rather than the virtues of their neighbors; consequently the use of slang, swearing, smoking, drinking and all other cheapening influences are found at work among them. The steadily increasing use of cars and allnight dances are responsible for a good deal of immorality among the young folks.
Their dances—not yet wholly approved of by the older generation—are often carried on in a most unwholesome atmosphere; usually in some barn or granary half lighted. They are patronized indiscriminately by wild young men of all nationalities, who come there half drunk from miles around. On the other hand, it is hard to find one institution outside the public school of an uplifting character.
No wonder the old folks sadly shake their heads and declare their fathers were right after all: the world is going to the devil. Perhaps if we could see some of the tragedies enacted in these homes we would be more tolerant toward them, as they cling fearfully to their faith and customs which kept their fathers a sober and industrious people.
Change and Dismay
TN SOME cases the impact of modern -*• materialism is working havoc with whole communities.
A few weeks ago I had occasion to visit the Mennonite village of Osterwick, near Morden, Manitoba, after an absence of six years. I received a very real shock at the change that had taken place in that short time.
I knew at once that something had
happened to the quiet peaceful little village, with its rows of whitewashed houses, as I had last seen it. The houses were still huddled beneath great maple trees, but they had lost their gleaming whiteness. All but one or two were badly in need of a coat of paint; tall grass and weeds or else black soil had replaced the neatly-kept flower beds; everywhere were signs of poverty and neglect. I felt I was visiting the Deserted Village.
A change in architecture had also taken place, such as the addition of a sun porch here and there or the use of blinds instead of shutters. Only in a few instances were the barns still attached to the houses, and even these were modernized by the adoption of a ventilation cupola. In front of a few of the houses sat groups of dejected-looking men and women on doorsteps or on grassless lawns. Others looked out at us through windows as we passed down the street.
A group of young lads flocked about our car as we stopped, but they were not the sombre-clad little fellows I had known. These wore “Whoopee” overalls, blue shirts with bow ties; some had on sombreros and several were smoking cigarettes. For a moment I wondered if I had struck the right village.
I enquired in English after some of the old folks I had known, but gathered from the conversation among themselves that they knew nothing about them. I repeated my question in Mennonite, when one of the older lads informed me that they had gone to Mexico. I asked for one after another but received the same answer, ‘‘Gone to Mexico.”
I was puzzled. Who then were these inhabitants? As I could get little satisfaction from these lads I decided to get information elsewhere. Under pretense of getting a drink of water, I rapped at one door after another, but received no answer. Finally I was admitted to one of the more prosperouslooking homes. It was freshly painted and still had the remnant of a flower garden. I decided that this might be the home of one of the Old Colonists I had known.
I was admitted by a bright young lady in a modern black satin dress. I asked for a drink of water in Mennonite, but was answered in very good English that I could certainly have a drink, and we proceeded out to the pump.
From her I learned that only a few of the Old Colonists were left, and even these had changed their mode of living to some extent.
“That is our new school,” she said, pointing to a small white building in the centre of the village.
“Is it conducted by your Prediger?” 1 asked.
“Oh, no. We have an English teacher now. Everyone is learning to speak English, and they are beginning to like it too.”
As I looked down the weed-covered street a sense of disappointment swept over me. WTas this what English education was doing for the Mennonite? Were we taking from him his own foundation and putting nothing in its place? Was degeneration setting in? I guess my face must have registered my thoughts rather plainly, and the girl, seeing this, remarked, “The village has gone back a lot, hasn’t it?” I admitted it had, and decided to find out the cause. My consequent investigations threw considerable light on the situation.
Rather than send their children to English schools, many of the Old Colonists of the Rosengarter set emigrated to Mexico about six years ago. The following year there was a great influx of the New Mennonites of the Bergthaler sect from Russia. These seem even more progressive than the New Mennonites who settled here some years ago.
One of the outstanding characteristics of these newcomers is their desire for an education and their eagerness to become Canadian citizens. Many are taking out their naturalization papers as soon as their five years of residence are up.
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The Western Mennonites
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In Russia most of them had been prosperous farmers, but lost all during the war. Several had been millionaires, while ethers were doctors, teachers, and preachers, holding certificates from European universities.
On their arrival in Canada, they were distributed in various Mennonite Reserves among relatives and friends, each town having its own quota. They settled chiefly in Southern Manitoba along the Red River, and in Saskatchewan and Alberta. A few went as far west as British Columbia.
Those who could afford to do so bought small farms, while others rented them or worked as hired help until they could afford to improve their positions.
Like the Old Colonists, they prefer living in villages rather than isolated farms, with the result that the homes vacated by the Mexican emigrants are now occupied by these new arrivals from Russia. Thus, most of the villages are now half comprised of the new immigrants, while in some cases the new even predominate.
Because of this, many changes have taken place within the villages. It is estimated that the Old Colonists, when leaving Canada, took with them about fifteen million dollars, while the ones arriving from Russia came here empty-handed.
When the Old Colonists left, some of those remaining took out their original homesteads, thus breaking up the “script” system and here and there breaking up sections of the villages. But in most cases this land could be rented or purchased by the residents of the village and so they retain their original homes.
In many cases the “Darp Koegel” or home script of some twenty to thirty acres has been enlarged and is being used as a private pasture by its owner, while others still use a common pasture fenced and purchased by such members as care to join.
All Mennonite villages of Southern Manitoba have public schools and are taught by Canadian teachers. But as the New Mennonites in most cases have not yet completed their five years of residence in Canada, they have no vote. Consequently the schools are still run in a very conservative way by the remaining Old Colonists. The New being naturally more progressive in their desire for the best education, considerable friction results.
Naturally people with such a high educa-
tional standing lost no time in acquiring the English language. On their arrival here, they attended night schools almost as soon as they were settled. Winkler alone had an enrolment of sixty men and women, their ages ranging from fifteen to sixty years. Five of these w'ere college graduates.
At the end of two months of study, Mr. Wolkoff, principal of the Winkler school, put on an educational demonstration at Morden consisting of reading tests up to the fifth grade, story telling, and a spelling match, thus demonstrating that at the end of tw'o months these new immigrants knew English better than the Old Colonists after a residence of thirty-four years.
Many are at the present time attending high school at Winkler, Gretna, Altona and Steinbach, in order to make good their European certificates. Their chief work here, of course, is the study of English.
In dress they are very modern, adopting Canadian styles as soon as they can afford to do so.
One cannot help but sense in them a desperate effort to retrieve their lost fortunes in this new country, and it will require careful and sympathetic guidance to save them from the danger of materialism.
Although they have among their number not a few professional people, the majority of them are farmers. While in Russia, each little community sent out two delegates each year to educational centres of other countries to study the most advanced methods in education and agriculture. Accordingly they are adopting similar progressive methods in this country. A short time ago they held a large conference in Winnipeg. Delegates from different Mennonite reserves from Manitoba and throughout the West w'ere present. Educational and agricultural topics w'ere discussed. One of the most outstanding features of this conference w'as the appointment of an agricultural expert to assist them with their problems in farming.
True, they are at present so povertystricken that they have neither money to paint their houses nor time to cultivate their flower gardens, but with such splendid, industrious and ambitious inhabitants, and a few years of successful crops, those villages are bound to blossom forth in greater beauty and prosperity than ever before.