"PRAIRIE ANGELS" THE MENNONITES OF MANITOBA

“PRAIRIE ANGELS”

THE MENNONITES OF MANITOBA

A DOCUMENTARY WRITTEN AND PRODUCED FOR PRAIRIE PUBLIC TELEVISION

By George Siamandas

The sun begins its rise over the village. Soon, the village will come to life as people from southern Manitoba gather to attend a celebration of Mennonite life. It’s a recreation of a typical early Mennonite village as established in southern Manitoba by a major migration of early settlers that have helped forge the very character of Manitoba. A religious people who over the last 125 years have imbued Manitoba with their sense of ethics: the principle of hard work, a love for their neighbours and a love of agriculture. The Mennonites of Manitoba.

In the summer of 1874, a German speaking group of Mennonite immigrants from Russia, began to flow into the virgin prairie of southern of Manitoba. They settled on land very much like the land they had known for centuries. Sixty-thousand Mennonites now live along a band of fertile land hugging the US-Canadian border. With a core of beliefs centred around a belief in God, leading a productive life, and pacifism, the Mennonites have lived in Manitoba for more than 125 years.

How has Manitoba shaped the Mennonites? And what kind of impact and contributions have they made to Manitoba? How have they been able to sustain their culture in the face of so much change. Join us for a discovery portrait of Southern Manitoba’s Mennonites, truly those master builders of the prairie. The modest, humble and almost invisible, Angels of the Prairie.

Mennonite author Andreas Schroeder writes that “For sheer epic drama-across four and a half centuries, five continents, over forty countries; fleeing vicious persecution, utopian enticements, breached promises, and their own prophets, few histories can match the story of the Mennonite people.” Their story begins with the Anabaptists in 1525, in Zurich Switzerland. A Dutch Catholic priest named Menno Simons converted to Anabaptism in 1536 and soon became a prominent promoter of the new faith. This new faith talked about a simple non‑worldly lifestyle, that was non violent. It promoted turning the other cheek and community service.

And unlike the other religious expressions of the day, Anabaptism emphasized a direct personal relationship with God that did not depend on priests, and did not require church structure. Most of all, this new faith rejected the power of the state and of a state church. People would be free to choose and they should choose when ready as adults, hence the Anabaptist practise of adult baptism.

But there was no worse a time than the 1550s to be an Anabaptist. Approximately 2,000-4,000 Mennonites are believed to have been tortured, beheaded, or buried alive. Menno’s followers came to be known as Mennonites and they were characterized as pacifists. But Mennonite has become a generic term for all evangelical Anabaptists.

Why had the Mennonite been willing to cross continents to retain their freedom? The Mennonites were looking for freedom from state power. They wanted the right to educate their children in their church-run schools and to practise their own faith. Partly through fear of annexation by the US, in 1867 the colonies of Upper & Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia joined to form the Dominion of Canada. And in 1870, Manitoba joined the federation. But there was the concern that if the Canadian west was not quickly populated, that it would be swallowed up by Americans.

To preclude United States absorption of the fledgling province of Manitoba, the Canadian government initiated a program of attracting new immigrants to settle the west. Like Catherine the Great had needed a century earlier, Canada and the unsettled west now needed settlers. People who could endure the hardships of homesteading the Canadian West. And especially, people with strong backs.

William Hespeller a German‑speaking agent of Canada, visited numerous Russian communities in the early 1870s and offered them opportunities to farm in western Canada. Twelve delegates representing Russian colonies were extended transportation to Canada to see the proposed lands. The Mennonites were offered full privileges to practise their religion, handle their own education, and, exemption from military service. Hespeller was impressed by what he saw in Russia and reported: “They are a hard working, sober, moral and intelligent people. I found prosperous merchants, manufacturers, and mechanics.” Twelve Mennonite delegates arrived to inspect Manitoba in 1873. Assembling at Fargo North Dakota, they journeyed four days to Fort Garry (now the City of Winnipeg) where they were met by the Lieut Gov Morris and his full cabinet. Several delegates were discouraged at what they saw. The land was very wet and the characteristic mosquitoes were out in full force. Five of the twelve delegates gave up on Manitoba, and decided to explore other possibilities and eventually, settled in Nebraska and Kansas.

In Manitoba, the Metis hunters of the southern plains were very concerned with the prospects of settlement in general. The buffalo herds upon which their life style was based had been eliminated in the late 1860s. The steamboats and new settlers were causing concern for the aboriginals and Metis that inhabited the area south of Fort Garry. In 1873, just four years after the Riel rebellion, relations with the governing community were very strained. In a skirmish over a personal matter, the Metis took the delegates prisoners. Fifty soldiers from Fort Garry were sent out to free them and the shaken delegates returned to consider their plans. In spite of these events, four of the seven delegates, decided to take up the federal government’s offer of free land in Manitoba.

On July 23, 1873, the Canadian Dept. of Agriculture formally invited the Mennonites to settle in special land reserves in southern Manitoba. The East Reserve comprising 8 townships east of the Red River. And in the years following a second west reserve, west of the Red was set aside for Mennonite immigrants. An entire exemption from any military service was provided by an order in council. In June 1874, a landing site was chosen at the junction of the Rat and Red River, and Jacob Shantz and a crew of Metis built four immigration shacks in anticipation of the immigrants.

Between 1874 and 1879 almost 18,000 Mennonites left Russia for Canada and the United States. Entire villages were transplanted from the Russian steppes to the virgin soils of southern Manitoba. Five hundred and fifty families which comprised the entire villages of the Bergthal and Kleine Gemeinde colonies moved to Manitoba.

On July 31, 1874, 65 families or 385 Mennonites landed at the Forks in Winnipeg. It had been a long journey leaving Europe and then an ocean voyage landing first at St. John’s Newfoundland, then to Quebec City, and then by rail through Montreal, Toronto the Great Lakes, and then through Duluth, Moorhead and finally by the steamboat International north to Fort Garry. In this group of families, two babies had been born on the ship, another two at the immigration sheds.

Upon arrival the newcomers needed to buy everything for a new life in Manitoba. The Manitoba Free Press reported that the Mennonites’ arrival caused a minor economic boom with the newcomers spending $20,000 in three days. Merchants were surprised, not only about how much money the Mennonites had to spend, but also at their keen bargaining methods.

Mennonites are noted for their love of the land and their agricultural skills. In Russia they had been model farmers who ran the country’s agricultural program. While the Mennonites had been commercial farmers in Russia, in Manitoba they had to break the virgin prairie sod. Using oxen and a 12 inch plough a farmer could break 6 acres of prairie annually. The new villages were immediately re established on similar land using the old systems brought over from Russia. And even the place names were the same, as one new settler was happy to report back to relatives in Russia. Steinbach is taken from the same Russian Village the immigrants had left and means stony creek. Altona means fertile plain and was taken from a city in Germany. Sommerfeld stands for summer field, while Blumenfeld means flower field. At one time, 65 villages in the east and 65 villages on the west dotted the Manitoba landscape.

Fifty‑five minutes south‑east from Winnipeg, lies one of these original villages, the town of Steinbach. Steinbach was founded in 1874 by 18 families that set up a traditional Mennonite village along a creek. The founders’ names included Wiebe, Penner, Reimer, Toewes, Friesen, Plett are the stock of many Mennonites in Manitoba today.

Commerce started with a sawmill, a flour mill and Reimer’s store. Later in the villages as merchandising started to get big, business became frowned on as an activity. In 1895, Klass R Reimer’s store was visited by church leaders who were concerned his financial success was not conducive to Christian simplicity. Afraid of “big business,” the church leaders of Steinbach stood steadfast against petitioning the railway to come through town. It never did.

Others who pioneered the automobile business, also heard from the church. JR Friesen, the first man to bring a car into Steinbach was promptly sanctioned by the church. Undaunted, Friesen was so excited about the possibilities of the car that he did not take the shunning too seriously. In fact, he, had the last laugh. On June 6, 1914 Friesen became the first Ford car dealer in western Canada. In the years to come, the same ministers that had confronted him, came to buy cars for themselves. Through the promotional work by people like AD Penner, Steinbach quickly became known as the automobile city, as Steinbach auto dealers became notable for ingenuity in making car sales.

On the west side of the Red River lies the west reserve and the richest farmland in southern Manitoba. Here is found Altona, population 3,500, another prosperous Mennonite town known as the Sunflower capital of Canada. Altona has developed with more of a business mentality and has seen its share of innovation especially in agriculture. Twenty minutes north west of Altona is Winkler, the other major Mennonite town in the west reserve, named after lumber merchant Valentine Winkler.

Until the 1940s, the majority of Mennonites in Manitoba were farmers or worked in farm related occupations. After WW2 Mennonites began to leave the farm. But for many, farming remains the preferred life. Yet the forces of change from outside were causing a change from a rural life to a different kind of life in the city. The city offered both temptations and opportunities. Today half of the 66,000 Manitoba’s Mennonites live in Winnipeg. And except for their surnames, most are indistinguishable from the rest of the population.

While in Manitoba Mennonites can be thought of as having ethnic qualities, they remain fundamentally a religious group that is bound by a strong belief in living the life of Christ. Ultimately this faith is what unites Mennonites in all parts of the world.

NAR: And increasingly their appearance is changing from a white Germanic face found in North America, to people of colour. But their diversity of national origin and skin colour pale when one looks at the diversity of belief that is expressed in Manitoba’s relatively homogeneous Mennonite population.

In Steinbach, a community of 9,500, there are 22 churches. All the way from the conservative Holdeman Mennonites where the women still wear black head coverings and resemble Hutterites, to the Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonites. How conservative is Steinbach today? It is the only city or town in Manitoba to prohibit the sale of liquor within city limits. Religious faith is at the core of what it means to be Mennonite. Faith gives life meaning, purpose and direction. Mennonites believe that it is not what you say on Sunday that matters but how you live the whole week.

Menno Simons preached that we shall not go to war or engage in strife. They that have beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, shall know no war. From the beginning, as pacifists, Mennonites have sought exemption from military service. Times of war have been particularly stressful for Mennonites. Mennonite were not compelled to fight in WW1. Only one person from Altona fought in WW1. By WW2, Mennonites were trying to find ways of showing their citizenship through alternative forms of service. During WW2, 7,500 Canadian Mennonites received exemption and worked in forestry, road‑building, parks development, farming and industrial work. Instead of going to war, Mennonites bought Victory Bonds in high numbers and helped with relief. Nonetheless, by WW2, some Mennonites were wavering; 101 citizens of Altona, all Mennonite names, joined the Canadian Armed Forces.

Taking pride is something Mennonites are warned about. They are not to show off, nor to compete. Helena Friesen is one who ignored this convention. Helena showed her pride in wearing a newly-made dress made to church one Sunday in 1856. This pride of appearance so angered the ministers who had wanted Helena, the wife of one of their leading citizens to set an example of humility and modesty. Helena was admonished for her new fashioned dress, because at age 44, she was judged vain in taking such pains about her looks. One’s pride is allowed only a few forms of expression: A well made quilt, a neat home, a beautiful garden, wonderful cooking, or baking. A well kept farmyard and healthy animals. Or a growing business.

Traditional Mennonite views put men first and appear to devalue women. For many Mennonite women, life has been a struggle. Mennonite women are emerging from traditional roles. But once it was not easy to have a family and pursue a career.

The church has until recently been a place where the pastors have been men. But this male dominated norm is now starting to be challenged by a new breed of women Mennonite ministers. But it has not been an easy road.

All these do’s and don’ts place incredible pressures on the young growing up as Mennonites. And artistic youth is particularly vulnerable. Music is a present day form of expression for Mennonites. Choirs are renown for their musicality and the profession is full of musicians.

Along with the belief of the simple life is the belief in simplicity of expression. Simplicity is the teaching in all things. There is no need for ornament or for extravagance in design. Churches are not decorative or monumental. They are intentionally simple and modest. No gothic arches, no stain glass windows and no tower rising to meet the heavens. There was a very practical reason for this plainness. In earlier times in Russia Mennonite churches were disguised to look like homes in order to avoid undue attention. As a result, Mennonites tend to lack an awareness of architecture.

Most Mennonites are politically reluctant. Religion teaches one to be separate from the world. And as a result in Canada, few had run for election before 1950. But no politician fails to consider them as a force.

A sense of their history is another thing that binds Mennonites and gives them a sense of who they are. And those Mennonites in search of their history are likely to find it at one of several archives in Winnipeg.

For Mennonites food is an important form of expression. It is seen as a gift of god, to be valued and not to be wasted. Many of the foods are Ukrainian variations like Borscht, or Cabbage soup, Vereneke or Perogies, and Holopschi or cabbage rolls.

Along with the freedom to practise their own religion was the freedom to run their own schools. School attendance was compulsory for Mennonite children from the first year of settlement, thirty years before it was a governmental requirement.

Mennonites believe in leading productive lives. This religious dictum results in people who have a purpose in life, a people who are hard working and industrious, and a people that find economic success. But to a Mennonite work is about more than a paycheck. Its about a sense of well being. Its about meaningful activity and a sense of contributing to society. Educated by the church, the home and the school to lead productive lives, the Mennonites are remarkable for what they have achieved in Manitoba. A good work ethic is one reason southern Manitoba is booming economically. With a zero unemployment rate, expansion of value added food processing, and increased diversification, Mennonite country is amongst the most prosperous in Manitoba. And the wealth is shared here. Mennonite communities regularly appear at the very top of the tax statistics, for the highest level of charitable donations anywhere in Canada.

Early businesses provided purely local services in the village: stores, blacksmiths, millers and teamsters. After WW2 and with the move to the cities Mennonites began to be active in the construction industry and in transportation. Today you will find Mennonite business in almost every area of life. Businesses that have grown to become thriving concerns all the way from building products, furniture manufacturing, printing, recreational vehicles, and trucking. Mennonites in the professions and business struggle to walk their talk and apply their religious beliefs to the competitive market system.

The bible calls for Mennonites to help the hungry, the thirsty and the sick. They are taught that their faith cannot lie dormant. It is not good enough to have good intentions.

Together with the Mennonites’ experience of suffering thorough history, they have developed a sense of compassion for those in need in the world. Today, this is reflected in their many service organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee. MCC was founded in 1920 in Elkhart Indiana in order to help those Mennonites fleeing Russia. Overall, $700 M has been raised since then, $63 M in Canada. MCC recognizes that more than money, people are its greatest resource. More than 12,000 people have volunteered since then. The first thrift store was established in Altona in 1972 and now Canadian thrift stores raise more than $4M annually. And donations through the Canadian Food grains Bank are multiplied four times. MCC works overseas in areas of education, health. It promotes agricultural projects and helps develop self help crafts. Other organizations include MEDA or Mennonite Economic Development Associates.

Can Mennonites widen their sense of community beyond those of the faith? Mennonites continually struggle to be relevant in changing times. And to meet the challenges and opportunities awaiting Mennonites in the next millennium.

In their 125 years here, Mennonites have contributed much to the prosperity and character of southern Manitoba. Who would have thought that this group of Russian farmers would have such an impact on the land. Mennonites settled the virgin prairie and made it the bread basket of Canada. Today numerous successful Mennonite businesses operate across North America, energizing Manitoba’s vibrant economy.

And if Manitoba can be thought of as having a soul, the Mennonites have done much to cultivate and enrich our qualities as a caring, peaceful, and generous people. Manitoba’s Mennonites! Manitoba’s Prairie Angels!

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