Mennonite Story shifts perceptions

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Posted November 18, 2014 by Rod Charles in Canadian Museums
mennonite story st jacobs

The Mennonite Story is a museum that endeavours to demystify the religious group of people who helped establish the agricultural roots of southern Ontario. (St. Jacobs Tourism)

Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor

ST. JACOBS, ONTARIO — Del Gingrich, manager of The Mennonite Story Museum in the town of St. Jacobs, says he is a Mennonite and while it’s not in me to question him, it sure seems like he has made a mistake.

This soft-spoken man doesn’t look the way many of us might perceive a Mennonite to look. To be honest, his appearance is more like that of a public servant or college professor. He isn’t wearing the dark, colourless period clothing that one would expect from a Mennonite and in fact appears, dare I say, suspiciously hip and fashionable for a man who supposedly lives in the past and spends most of his time locked away in the dim lights of a museum.

Make no mistake though, Gingrich is a Mennonite, and a proud one — he’s just not the kind of Mennonite that’s meeting any of the stereotypes in my mind. He grew up in a modern Mennonite home in the town of Elmira (about 8 kilometres north of St. Jacobs) and moved to Toronto in his early 20s. One reason for this move was to get away from the tight restrictions imposed by the church — not being permitted to go to movies, dances, concerts or participating on a sports team. An elementary education administrator, Gingrich met his wife, Marguerite, in Toronto. She grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition. Three boys later they decided to move back to Elmira.

“After about 10 years in Elmira, I started attending the Mennonite Church where I had grown up. It had changed considerably, not having separation from mainstream society as was the case when I was a child and teenager. I continue to attend,” says Gingrich. “My wife and children have never attended, which presents no significant problem in our marriage or family relationships. Today I see myself as an ‘agnostic Mennonite’ but support the church’s efforts in peacemaking and reconciliation, assisting the needy and marginalized, strong sense of community and accepting all as our neighbours regardless of their ethnicity, religion or lifestyle.”

The True Story of Mennonites in Canada

Growing up in the Grey Bruce region of Ontario, my image of Mennonites has been of a people who have chosen to avoid the bright lights, fast pace and trinkets of the present, instead holding onto past traditions and choosing horses for transportation instead of cars, candles instead of electricity, violins instead of radios and chess instead of Xbox. But it blew my mind to realize just how little I knew about this culture that has existed, peacefully and quietly, right in my vicinity.

But blowing up expectations — and minds — is what Mennonite Story is all about, and Gingrich is only too happy to help dispel those misconceptions.

“Many people who visit our museum have the image of a Mennonite as being one that we would describe as Old Order,” said Gingrich, adding that people should come to The Mennonite Story to learn about the journey and beliefs of a people of faith. “The museum helps to enlighten them and to sort out our many ‘varieties.’ They are surprised, for example when I tell them I am a Mennonite.”

I was pleasantly surprised to see people of all colours and backgrounds on the walls of the museum, and was even more surprised to learn there were so many Mennonites in Africa and Asia. I have always believed Mennonites to be a hard-working, mind-their-own-business bunch who had their own interesting, unique lifestyle. But I have to admit that I had never seen Mennonites as being African or Filipino. According to Multicultural Canada, there are 1.7 million baptized Mennonites of different groups around the world in 83 countries. The totals by continental region are: Africa 38.3%, Asia and Pacific 17.8%, Europe 3.8%, Latin America and the Caribbean 10.5%, North America 29.8%.

Multicultural Canada says: “Mennonites reside primarily in Ontario and in all the western provinces. The two largest groups in Canada are the Conference of Mennonites, generally referred to as the General Conference Mennonites (GCs), with 29,000 baptized members, and the Mennonite Brethren (MBs), with some 26,000 baptized members. These two groups comprise about 55 per cent of Canada’s Mennonite population. Other groups are the Old Order Mennonites and Amish in Ontario, the Evangelical Mennonite Church (Kleine Gemeinde), the Old Colony Mennonites and Sommerfelder Church, the Chortitzer Mennonite Church, and the Bergthaler Churches in Alberta and Saskatchewan and several others. The membership among the smaller groups varies from about 1,000 to 7,000.

One question that I had for Gingrich was about the Amish in the United States, and if they were related to the Mennonites in Canada. He explained that the Amish broke away from the Mennonites in 1693 in Switzerland, but are considered to be “under the Mennonite umbrella.” The Amish (Old Order) are the most orthodox of all Mennonite groups. They don’t use electricity or technology of any sort. Some farm families have a phone at the end of the lane, which is also used by neighbours. Their worship services are held in homes. Like the Old Order Mennonites, they have their own school system and speak a German dialect. Married Amish men grow beards and some use hooks and eyes instead of buttons on their garments.

Learn the History of Mennonites

Another nice thing to take note of is the sense of calmness. During the presentation at The Mennonite Story, one Mennonite of the Old Order asks why they would ever want to drive a car? You miss everything when you drive a car. No argument there.

Founded in 1979, Mennonite Story came to life out of a sense of privacy. The museum helps increase knowledge and education about the community but more important, keeps the curious away from important and meaningful events.

“The impetus for its creation came from the local Old Order Mennonite community. They were experiencing a growing number of curious people who’d park outside their churches and take pictures, some acting in a rather intrusive manner like climbing onto the buggies when the church service was going on,” said Gingrich, adding that the museum draws approximately 30,000 visitors annually. “The Old Orders appealed to the local municipality’s officials for some assistance to alleviate this problem. What resulted was a group of modern Mennonite church leaders and successful Mennonite businessmen getting together to head up the creation of this place.”

Between 2006 and 2007 the museum was given a $250,000 renovation that included new displays, a chair lift, a complete makeover of the main floor and some rooms in the lower level, and new washrooms. One of the best additions to the museum was the production of an informative 11-minute DVD about the Old Order Community, which does a great job telling the story of Mennonites in the community.

Gingrich explained that in the Region of Waterloo, where St. Jacobs is located, there are about 20,000 Mennonites who belong to about 30 different groups. There are three main groups — Old Order, Conservative and Modern. Each of these groups has various sub groups.

“Amish would be in the Old Order group as would Markham-Waterloo Mennonites who drive cars that must be black and without radios. All Mennonites are in the Anabaptist tradition. As you move from Old Order to modern, the lifestyle pretty much depends on how much that group has accepted change,” says Gingrich. “Some conservative groups, for example, allow radios or permit their children to continue their education. Modern Mennonites like myself, are fully integrated into modern society, but worship in the Anabaptist tradition. Mennonites were named ‘Anabaptist’ at the time of the Protestant Reformation. It meant ‘rebaptiser’ as they believed, as we do now, that people should choose when they want to be baptized in the Christian tradition.”

While Mennonites have historically enjoyed a peaceful existence, it hasn’t always been an easy one. Another interesting display explains that the Anabaptist movement has referred to the teachings of Jesus that urge to live in a peaceful manner and to be good neighbours. Historically, Mennonites have taken that to also mean they should not take up arms and participate in war: to be pacifists or non-resistant. This became an issue in the First World War, causing the Canadian government to exempt Mennonites from participating in the war.

The same situation arose in the Second World War, with Mennonites and other like-minded people being permitted to engage in alternative service instead of going to war. Still, almost half of modern Mennonite young men at the time chose to go to war even though they didn’t have to, a decision which presented a challenge for their congregations and families when they returned from battle. Presently, the conversation around peace is to do what can be done to keep peace in relationships from the personal to the global.

Gingrich says one of the most inspirational parts of the museum — and I have to agree — is the final, brief presentation in the Reflection Room. It prompts people “to reflect on their own lives.”

“While you’ve been learning our story you may have been reflecting on your own. After all, every human being has roots, a set of values and beliefs; a story,” says the narrator in the presentation. “Have you considered the influences that have shaped your personality, your beliefs, the quality of your present life? Does your way of life bring you fulfillment? Are you happy with the direction you’ve taken?”

Important things to ponder, and just some of the deep, important and meaningful questions that you will be moved to ask yourself when you visit. Mennonite Story will make you think — expect nothing less.

MORE ABOUT THE MENNONITE STORY

Location: 1406 King Street North, St. Jacobs, ON (see map below)
Telephone: 519-664-3518


About the Author

Rod Charles
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Rod has previously worked for Canoe.ca and is currently freelancing for Huffington Post Travel. He’s also written travel articles for the Toronto Star and Up! Magazine. Living in Toronto but raised in the small central Ontario village of Holstein, Rod is a country boy at heart who has never met a farmer’s market he didn’t like.

 
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