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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