The Clash of Cultures

When Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union immigrated to Ontario beginning in 1924, they forever changed the character of the Mennonite community. Although Ontario Mennonites had briefly hosted and otherwise assisted Mennonite immigrants on their way to Manitoba from Russia in the 1870s, most Ontario Mennonites had lost touch with these religious “cousins.”

Prior to 1924, almost all Mennonites in Ontario still had their cultural roots either in Pennsylvania or the Amish communities arriving from Europe or parts of the United States. Their customs and religious lives were quite settled. The Old Order Mennonites and Amish and the more assimilated Mennonites understood each other, even if they disagreed on theological and lifestyle issues.

Refugees walking up Erb Street.

Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union approaching Erb Street Mennonite Church, July, 1924. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Over a thousand Mennonite immigrants arrived in Ontario in July 1924, many more than their Mennonite hosts expected. These hosts knew little of the trauma their guests had suffered in the previous decade of the Russian Revolution and the following famine. They found their guests’ customs and worship styles strange, and were likely surprised that their guests had more formal education than they did. They found their guests were unaccustomed to the mixed farming culture of southern Ontario. The cultural differences showed up immediately.

Eight hundred fifty immigrants arrived by train in downtown Waterloo on July 19, 1924. They walked up the street to the Erb Street Mennonite Church where they met their hosts and were served sandwiches, coffee, doughnuts, and dessert squares in the driving sheds located behind the church. They were not accustomed to sandwiches, or to pie, or other staples of North American culture. This was only the beginning of education for both groups.

The hosts and guests even had some difficulty communicating. Most host families spoke no High German, and their Pennsylvania German was difficult for the guests to understand. This sometimes led to conflict. Nicholas Fehderau, who was initially hosted on a Mennonite minister’s farm, on one occasion misunderstood his host’s direction. The host became angry and shouted, “Kannscht du nett Deutsch versteh”? [Can’t you understand German?]. Fehderau, who had trouble understanding his host’s Pennsylvania German, replied “O, ich wuerde schon verstehen wenn du Deutsch sprechen wuerdest.” [Oh, if you would speak to me in German I am sure I would understand].

Jacob H. Janzen

Jacob H. Janzen at the time of his immigration to Canada. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

The problems with language extended to worship. It soon became clear the immigrants were not comfortable worshipping with their English-speaking hosts. They soon began their own services. Their differing languages were not the only issues in worship. One time, Jacob H. Janzen, an immigrant minister, hitched a ride one winter day into town with an Old Order Mennonite man.  Their conversation included the subject of music in the church. When Jacob noted that their congregations in Russia used pianos or organs to assist in worship, the driver ordered him out of the sleigh, and he had to walk the rest of the way. Most Mennonites in Ontario in the 1920s did not allow musical instruments in their churches.

Some of the relationships between hosts and guests were very positive, and led to long time friendships. But the nostalgic memories of half a century later often omitted the real difficulties experienced when the two cultures first met.

Learn more about this transforming relationship in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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7 thoughts on “The Clash of Cultures

  1. Pingback: An open letter to Mennonites of Swiss descent

  2. Surprise – My personal early relatives of Lancaster County PA were involved with Russian Mennonites beginning about 1870 until 2015. I keep a growing file of those collected stories. Google my name for additional details. For certain there were cultural clashes. At the same time, there were great mutually shared blessings. Bending to blend… and just this Christmas a grand, close friend in her 90’s gifted to me a bag of her own homemade pepper nuts.

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  3. My Grandparents, Peter and Elizabeth Nafiziger, hosted a Wiens family from Russia during this time for 6 months. My Grandfather was a minister at the St. agatha Amish Mennonite church. Their farm was just west of St. Agatha. My mother , aged four at that time, remembers playing with the children. She remembers a baby being born to the family. Many years later my mother and father visited ‘Old Mrs. Wiens’ in the Rosthern Mennonite nursing home, and ‘Old Mrs. Wiens’ held my mother’s hand and wept, and thanked Mom for the the wonderful reception they received at my grandparent’s home. I now live in Rosthern, and count as my friend Duff Warkentin, the son of the baby my mother remembers being born in her home. My mother and Duff’s mother have met each other here in Saskatchewan. They are now 93 and 89 yrs of age. I have also had the privilege of passing on to Duff’s mother a letter her father wrote to Grandpa Nafziger thanking him and telling him of their new home in Saskatchewan. I am grateful for the friendship, love, and joy our families share, thanks to the coming together of these two families.

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  4. Thanks, Sam. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the perception that all Mennonite groups were related to each other in some way. I’ve read similar sorts of cultural clashes between Swiss and Dutch Mennonites in the seventeenth century.

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  5. Sam, I am enjoying these so much. They are easy to read and I am learning so much. Reading these posts is motivating me to look for something like this about Mennonites in Illinois and Ohio.

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