Even during festival week, the Mennonite traders remain low-key

Ontario Letter: A religious group with German roots contributes much to urban culture

Driving west from Waterloo, Ontario, through vast fields of corn and occasional patches of pumpkin, the landscape seems unnaturally flat. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Driving west from Waterloo, Ontario, through vast fields of corn and occasional patches of pumpkin, the landscape seems unnaturally flat. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images


It’s festival week, but the twin cities of Waterloo/Kitchener are calm and quiet in the evenings. Restaurants are somewhat busier than usual and cabs a little slower to arrive, and there is no hint of drunkenness or even mild raucousness on the streets.

But then this is Canada, a byword for all things moderate. Waterloo/Kitchener is in the province of Ontario, situated some 125km northwest of Toronto. There are three universities here, lending a distinctly youthful, student air to the metropolis (making the lack of festival madness even more remarkable).

I am here to visit my daughter who is attending Wilfred Laurier University.

Kitchener was known as Berlin until 1916, reflecting the origins of the original immigrants. German Mennonite families from Pennsylvania purchased land here in the early 1800s, looking to settle in an area where they could peacefully follow their religious beliefs. Immigration accelerated until the 1870s, with many of the new settlers coming from Germany and Switzerland. Abraham Erb was one of the original Mennonite settlers and part of his land now forms the centre of Waterloo. However, German settlers overtook Mennonites by the 1840s, leading to the development of the area now known as Kitchener. Meanwhile the original settlement was named after the Battle of Waterloo, which ended the Napoleonic wars in Europe.

As I drove through the city, street names such as Weber, Erb and Cressman are a constant reminder of its roots. But for a real feel of the past, I headed to St Jacob’s market on a Saturday morning. Just on the edge of Waterloo, St Jacob’s village is a small community surrounded by farmland which seems to go on forever. You might see a horse-drawn, small, black carriage trotting in your direction. This is driven by one of the approximately 4,000 Old Order Mennonites who farm the surrounding countryside and who come to the market to sell their farm produce, exquisite quilts and solid furniture every week.

Eye contact avoided
What struck me most as I wandered through the market is how the traditional Mennonite traders, dressed in prayer caps and straw hats, do not seek to make eye contact with browsers. If you indicate an interest in something they will converse with you; but dyed-in-the-wool street hawkers they are not.

Not all Mennonites have retained the Old Order way of living. Many are indistinguishable from their neighbours, having decided to embrace modern conveniences while retaining their religious beliefs. However, the Old Order continue to live the way their forefathers did – without electricity or cars, while dressing in simple clothing.

Mennonites are a Christian group who take their name from their founder, Menno Simons. Originally a Catholic priest, Simons also rejected the Lutheran Church because of its emphasis on “faith-alone”. He developed a theology of martyrdom and of suffering for God. This led to the persecution of Mennonites by various Catholic and Protestant states; as Mennonites are committed to non-violence, it means they would rather flee a country than fight for their rights or join the armed forces of that country.

Meanwhile, at the corner of Erb and Caroline streets, in the heart of Waterloo, stands the Seagram distillery. By all accounts the Guinness of the city, it was seen as “the place” to secure a well-paying job. Just as was the custom in the Dublin brewery, family members followed in the footsteps of relatives in getting employment at Seagram, knowing they would be treated well. The distillery building is still there, although production has moved elsewhere since 1992.

Driving west through vast fields of corn and occasional patches of pumpkin, the landscape seems unnaturally flat. Thirty minutes away, Stratford, Ontario, has a reputation as a centre for theatre and the arts. Whether it’s Shakespearean drama, musicals, opera or modern plays, it’s done here to an extraordinarily high standard.

Bieber ’s cradle
Unsurprisingly it has become a mecca for those seeking short breaks with a culinary or literary twist. And whisper it: Justin Bieber is a Stratford native. There is even a map showing the schools he attended, the ice cream parlour he went to after soccer games and the skate park where he learned his moves.

The retirees from big city Canada are playing down this aspect. But if teenyboppers and Shakespeare are to mix anywhere, then Canada – natural home to tolerance and egalitarianism – is the place.

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