Grand River - Old Order
Mennonites set their own pace of change
Drive along a country road on a summer Sunday near St. Jacob's
and you will surely be surprised by scenes that seem to jump
out straight from the past.
Young men dressed in identical white shirts, fedoras, trousers,
and suspenders spend the afternoon playing baseball outside
their Mennonite meeting house. Then, at the approach of milking
time, they quit the game and climb into their black, horse-drawn
buggies for the ride home.
Surrounded by the rush and urban sprawl of southern Ontario,
the Mennonite communities of the Grand River valley have determined
their own pace of change. Mennonite commitment to a simple,
self-sufficient life dates back to the German Protestant Reformation
of the 16th century. They were radicals, then, in their demands
that the church give up its worldly wealth and political powers.
Today they seem to be extreme conservatives in their attachment
to older ways of life.
The first Mennonite settlers in Ontario travelled from Pennsylvania
in Conestoga wagons in the 18th century in search of religious
liberty and inexpensive land. They were not pioneer settlers
in the truest sense because they purchased their land from
a speculator who had acquired it from the Six Nations Reserve.
The Mennonite newcomers created autonomous agricultural communities
in which they could practise their religion freely. New Mennonite
groups joined them from Europe. These were Amish Mennonites
who followed a stricter code of behaviour.
There was not a strong emphasis on higher education for young
people. Hard work, without the benefit of electricity or modern
technology, was the rule. The rules of the community were respected
as much as the laws of the country.
The Mennonite community in the late 1800s divided into one
group ready to accept a faster pace of change and another conservative
collection of “Old Order Mennonites.” Horses still
cultivate fields of Old Order farms that prosper without electricity
or motors. Women still dress in bonnets and long dresses that
were in fashion a century ago. But the Old Order represents
only about five percent of the total Mennonite population.
The Old Order desire to live apart includes their refusal
of government programs such as old age pensions, family allowances,
and medical insurance. The rules of their church and Order
dictate that the community provide the social services and
security for its members - things most Canadians expect of
St. Jacobs is the commercial centre of Mennonite life in the
Grand River valley. Located just upstream from the Grand on
its tributary, the Conestogo River, St. Jacobs is where Mennonite
farmers and businesses trade with each other and with the tourists
who crowd its streets on summer days.
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