As we drove into the Waterloo Region, we were told of the twin towns of Waterloo and Kitchener and that Kitchener had many people of German origin and the town was called Berlin, that was prior to the World Wars. We heard of the Mennonites and their adherence to a simple life style and clothes and that some of them still move around in horse driven carriages. That week end we visited the St Jacobs Farmers Market and saw many women in 19th century gowns and some people moving around in horse drawn Conestoga carriages. I was intrigued by this community and inclined to learn more about them. I wondered how a community so differentiated, yet affluent, could continue to live in this manner in the midst of a prosperous and tolerant country. I couldn’t help feel that adhere to old customs and traditions seemed intriguingly linked to prosperity.
The Mennonites are a global community of approx 1.5 million, of which I was surprised to know, that approx 85 thousand lived in India , mostly around Kolkutta !The Mennonites got their name from a 17th century reformist Menno Simons . Menno Simons lived the early part of his life in a small town in Netherlands, but once he renounced his catholic priesthood and formally adopted the Anabaptist movement, he was persecuted and hounded everywhere he went and could not stay in any place for more than three months at a stretch. Menno Simons used his extraordinary analytical mind to write and preach in support of the Anabaptist movement .While he was not a founder, his influence and impact was so great that all his followers and the Anabaptists were called Mennonites. He is credited with having arrested the decline of the movement and its subsequent growth in the direction of an avowed pacifist movement shunning violence of any kind. Simple living, hard work and pacifisms are the hall marks of this community.
The Mennonites, persecuted and hounded out of their lands were prone to set off for safer havens frequently with little or no possessions .They therefore learnt to build self supporting communities. The Mennonites of Ontario came initially from settlements in Pennsylvania and procured large tracts of land for farming in present day Waterloo Region .The families of Joseph Schneider and Abraham Erb are credited with building the community and township around Kitchener and Waterloo. It’s amazing to read how these towns sprung up from marshy lands of yester year and is a tribute to the hard working Mennonites and their ability to build self supporting communities.
I was privileged to visit Joseph Schneider’s house, now a museum, in Kitchener. The house has been reconstructed on the same spot and as it was originally built, in early 19th century .The discipline, simplicity and hard working nature of the occupants was evident everywhere in the house even today .Women and men in period costumes of the 19th century took care of the house and the visitors ,giving it “life”.
So how do the Mennonites stay differentiated in the prosperity, tolerance and economic opportunities of today’s liberal societies? This question has clearly troubled the Mennonites in recent years with some groups such as the Amish breaking away and sticking to the old orthodox order .I have even read of families leaving their prosperous livelihood and resettling in countries such as Paraguay , there to lead a more austere and frugal life style.
We had seen a family picnicking on the banks of River Avon in Stratford .An elderly lady, who could be the grandmother, dressed in traditional simple gowns of the 19th century, was all that associated them with the Mennonites. The rest including the father and a bunch of kids could not be distinguished in any way from the other Canadians.
And so it must be that everyone should be allowed to live as they please following the religion of their choice, as long as they are peaceful and law abiding citizens .And if they chose to use old order traditions to foster tourism or enhance their business interests , so be it !