In the distance, tiny black dots are slowly moving like ants across the snowy countryside. One, two, three dots. We are approaching Elmira in a car. The tiny black dots turn out to be horse-drawn buggies and carriages with people dressed in old-fashioned clothes. “How lucky. We have never witnessed a historic film shoot,” thoughts swirl around our heads. In disbelief, we look for the cameraman and the director. Mistake! This everyday story of a small community of peaceful and hard-working people, closed to the world, is being directed by life itself. They are called the Mennonites. It is as if time has stopped in St. Jacobs, Elmira, and Elora in Ontario.
When the founder of the Mennonite teachings, Menno Simons, published his theological contemplations based on Reformation, he found his disciples in the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. One of the main pillars of his beliefs was Anabaptism, which preached baptizing adults and not children. Anabaptists believe that only an adult person can make the decision whether to join the church or not. This thesis, very bold for the times, brought a radical label to the Mennonites. Coupled with their resistance to submit to any secular power and refusing to fight in wars, it was too much for the sovereigns at the time, who in turn mercilessly harassed, persecuted, and killed the Mennonites. The Mennonites left for more tolerant parts of Europe, and about four hundred years ago, a large group moved to North America.
Across the Mountains with Oxen
Pennsylvania welcomed the first Mennonites in 1683 and a hundred years later they started to migrate to Ontario, Canada. They were partly motivated by the new farm land, and partly by fear that the new American Republic would force them to fight in wars. They traveled over eight hundred kilometers on ox-drawn carriages, crossing the mountains, woods, and the Niagara River. Everywhere they went they were known as the “quiet ones in the land”, creating their own closed communities of small farms.
Early Sunday morning we start making our way from Toronto towards Kitchener, and before lunch we are waiting at the rendezvous spot in St. Jacobs. Del, a modern Mennonite, arranged for us to attend the worship service in a modest sanctuary in the middle of a big field that looks more like a large house than a church. For better clarity, let’s call it a church, even though the Mennonites themselves rarely use this word. The worship service is a private affair of the community; outsiders must have permission to attend.
We have to park in front of the gate; only horse-drawn vehicles are allowed in the yard. Horses under the hood do not count. We enter the church from the back but we still attract the attention of the already seated worshipers who curiously turn their heads in our direction. We get seated in the back boys’ pew. Women, men, boys, girls, they are all seated separately. Women sit on the left, men on the right, girls in the center left, and boys in the center right. The church has no electricity or lights, no modern heating system. It is heated with two coal-burning stoves.
Young boys arrive one by one and sit in the pews. Before sitting down, each one of them hangs his black beret on a hanger by the door. They do it with skill, with precisely aimed movements, as if standing at a conveyor belt. They are all dressed the same, as if from a 19th century catalogue, in black pants with suspenders and a jacket, and a white shirt with a dark tie. Girls sitting on the left side in separate pews look like peas in a pod with their clothes. Blue, black or dark purple dresses with similar fine patterns. Women also wear bonnets. Men are dressed just like the boys.
Four ministers enter the church and sit on a large bench turned towards the young worshipers. Wesley is something like a priest – the lead minister. He is in charge of the church. The second minister is visiting from neighboring Elmira. The third is the treasurer and the fourth is the deacon. The worship usually lasts a couple of hours. They do not use any musical instruments—not even an organ. They sing songs from a songbook written in old German which is stored in each pew. The service is in a German dialect. Since Wesley knew we were coming, he decided that today’s worship service would be in English. And perhaps not to make it too hard on us, he shortened it to an hour and a half. No Lord’s Prayer or sign of the cross. A striking moment occurred when everyone suddenly turn back and kneeled. This happened twice during the worship service. Everyone kneeled and contemplated silently.
The worship service is over. Women and girls leave through a special exit and wait for their husbands and fathers who are hitching their stallions to shiny black buggies. A procession of buggies on a dirt road offers an unusual sight. Its regular shape and length symbolizes the cohesiveness and strength of the community.
After the worship service, we follow Wesley’s buggy in a car, as planned. Even though Wesley is a church official, he is still a farmer. That is the way the Mennonite community works. Church positions are accepted as an honour, they are for life, and they are unpaid.
We enter a small house among the farm buildings and Wesley’s wife Esther invites us to lunch. Lunch is prepared by women only – Esther, her daughter, and Grandma. Together with the men, we sit down in a tiny mud room that feels like a waiting room for lunch. We discuss their community, faith, and way of life. The Mennonites talk among themselves in the German dialect Plautdietsch.
Mennonites believe that guests should be treated with utmost hospitality. Lunch is modest, but tasty. We feel a bit insecure about a strange creamy mush. The lady of the house explains that those are potatoes, and the mystery is solved.
Horse Shoes Instead of Tires
The trip from St. Jacobs to Elmira takes about fifteen minutes by car, an hour by horse. The Mennonite philosophy is to enjoy every single minute of their life. “When you travel by car and you see something interesting, it disappears before you can show it to your fellow passenger and share the experience. The car moves too fast for you to fully enjoy the trip,” says Wesley.
A horse can be bought for $1,500, and a good one can cost up to $2,400. “We ride horses but it does not mean that we are all horse experts,” adds our host.
Family and community are untouchable for Mennonites. They say that if you are down on your luck, your community will support you both morally and financially. According to Anabaptists, only an adult person can voluntarily decide whether or not to join a faith. However, a young Mennonite today is automatically expected to get baptized, otherwise they risk angering their family. Young people seek their life partners in their community exclusively. Men take care of the farm; women do various housework, from cooking, preserving, and quilting to taking care of the children. With an average of seven children per family, it is a lot of work.
At a local market we tried to take a picture of a Mennonite woman, but we were politely declined. Later we found out that they rarely voluntarily agree to have their picture taken. A personal photo is considered egotistical and vain.
The Mennonites believe that the Government comes from God and they try to respect it. However, if the law contradicts their faith, their faith comes first even at the expense of big losses and suffering. They refuse any government and state help. Instead of social security numbers that every Canadian must have, they managed to obtain a special numerical category. Both sides are looking for a bilaterally acceptable solution for retirement, which the Mennonites refuse to pay but also receive. They do not contribute to national health care. By obtaining their Bishop’s signature, they are exempt from having their photograph on a gun permit and the letter from their Deacon frees them from mandatory participation in jury duty. They are like the new-age dissidents.
The St. Jacobs Mennonites have their own school up to the eighth grade. This is their entire educational system. Any further education happens only with practical work on a farm. If a young person theoretically decided to further study at a university, the community would shun them.
A woman may be a school teacher, but only if she is single. When she gets married, she has to abandon work for good because she will be busy with traditional duties at home. “The moment our children get to school, all lessons are carried in English only,” sighs Wesley. The main problem is that the German dialect does not exist in the written form, and the standard German would be too hard for them. Its practical use in Canada would be questionable at best.
Edison Would Shed a Tear
This particular Mennonite community uses electric lights, refrigerator, electric stove and also tractors and other agricultural machinery for work at the farm. Just recently they approved using the telephone. But in St. Jacobs there is also another ultra conservative group of David Martin Mennonites who do not use electricity at all. They work their fields with horse-drawn ploughs.
Where else in the world outside the U.S. and Canada could they have lived so peacefully, forgotten for hundreds of years, and practiced their own religious beliefs? Their farms separated by many long kilometers offer privacy which does not exist in any other European country. Their isolated existence allowed them to preserve their heritage and characteristic language. Paradoxically, it is the conservative Mennonites who attract the greatest attention of the public, even though they themselves prefer to live quiet and withdrawn lives. They know who they are, they know the temptations of the modern times, and they claim “it is not certain that the modern life is any better or happier”.
After a pleasant day in interesting company the time has come to part. Wesley says his goodbyes and does not forget to add: “Remember that we are only common people like you are, so take us as such.”
Once, when best-selling Slovak author Gustav Murin was trapped in winter weather on a street in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, he started thinking about how Canadians deal with such situations. He published a blog post on January 22, 2013 that alluded to Maros’ Mennonite story “Lost World” as he jokingly imagined that the Mennonite horse-drawn buggies would have had no problems in the deep snow. He wrote, “A friend of mine and fellow countryman, Maros Handzak, who visited an interesting community of people in Canada and called them “lost world”, knows the answers to these questions. In addition, he gives an extraordinary example on how to avoid car accidents on the icy roads. You have to use the horse-drawn buggy! And it works! Here is the proof.”
This story was published in the March 13, 2009 issue of Plus 7 dní. Plus 7 dní (Plus 7 Days) is the best-selling Slovak-language magazine in the Slovak Republic, counting more than 250,000 readers.
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