This past Saturday my wife, Sue, and I attended the 49th annual edition of the New Hamburg Relief Sale. Among other things we saw a quilt with African themes sell for $42,000, followed by a rousing rendition by the crowd singing “Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow.” This has not always been the universal response to Mennonite relief sales.
Relief sales on behalf of Mennonite Central Committee began in Pennsylvania in 1957. By the time Ontario began its relief sale, seven others were in operation in North America. J. Winfield Fretz, the Conrad Grebel College president, proposed in 1966 that Ontario Mennonites also hold an “ethnic fund-raising festival.” Ward A. Shantz, a successful Waterloo County dairy farmer, accepted the challenge and chaired the committee for fifteen years until his death in 1982. A Mennonite ethnic festival implied food and handicrafts, especially quilts. It also meant the sale relied heavily on women volunteers who created the products to be sold. Fretz asked Margaret Brubacher to help. Brubacher had experience with the Women’s Missionary and Service Auxiliary (WMSA) cutting room, which interacted regularly with congregational women’s groups. She agreed to head the relief sale’s women’s activities committee, and by October 1966 she had arranged for nine congregations to help. Mennonite Disaster Service would erect tables, tents, and chairs. Mennonite women also helped with publicity for the first sale by donating a quilt to Ontario Premier John Robarts two weeks before the sale. On May 27, 1967, the first sale at the New Hamburg arena and fairgrounds attracted ten thousand visitors and raised over $31,000 for MCC. One hundred thirty-six full-size quilts and sixty crib quilts were auctioned that year, though the 1967 sale prices did not achieve the prices of later years. The average full-size quilt sold for just under sixty dollars and the average crib quilt for twelve dollars. The highest-priced quilt was $240.
Food also became a relief sale staple. By 1968 MCC Ontario chair Aaron Klassen reported sales of thirty-two hundred chicken legs, 260 strawberry pies, two thousand other pies, a smorgasbord for one thousand persons, as well as pancakes, apple fritters, zwieback, and other edible goods. Although the sale continued to grow through the years, it faced criticism. Some Mennonites believed the sale pandered to North American consumerism in the face of suffering in other parts of the world. This criticism returned when the More-With-Less Cookbook, which lauded reduced consumerism, was published in 1976. But the relief sale worked because of all the volunteer labor and donation of goods that would be sold, frequently to members of the Ontario Amish and Mennonite community. Other relief sales also emerged in Ontario, though New Hamburg remained the largest: the Black Creek Pioneer Village Relief Sale held near Toronto (1967), the Leamington-area sale and auction (1970), and eventually another in the Aylmer area (2001). In 1982 an Ontario Mennonite relief heifer sale was launched, following the pattern of the other sales.
John Drescher, the editor of the Mennonite Church’s weekly paper, Gospel Herald, raised concerns about relief sales in March 1968. He questioned the money required for preparation and holding the sales and wondered if the money should be given directly to relief. J. Winfield Fretz promptly responded, saying the sales were a “supplement” to regular charitable giving, not a substitute. Fretz also emphasized the opportunity for inter-Mennonite cooperation.
In the last 49 years, the relief sale has changed dramatically. This year raised over $350,000 for Mennonite Central Committee despite being interrupted by a torrential rain storm early in the afternoon. The over 30 food venues included Hispanic pupusas, Hmong spring rolls, Laotian sausage and sticky rice, as well as traditional fare like fleish peroski, vereniki, strawberry pie, watermelon and rollkuchen, summer sausage and tea balls. Two hundred quilts and wall hangings were auctioned, and events included a “run for relief.”
To learn more about Mennonites and relief sales, read In Search of Promised Lands.
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