We recently returned from a vacation that included a quick trip through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Most people know Lancaster for its Amish and Old Order Mennonite population, and the horses and buggies that share the roads with cars. The same is true here in southern Ontario, where town names like St. Jacobs or Elmira conjure up similar images.
By contrast, my family and many friends, although Mennonite, live in the 21st century, linked to the world around us by media and technology, but it hasn’t always been so. When I was a child, my parents, grandparents, and nearly everyone I was related to, were members of the Conservative Mennonite church, a group that was outwardly identifiable by their dress, black cars, and lack of radio or television, although we had electricity, and modern appliances and farm equipment. This warm and supportive community worshiped together and socialized together, a comfortable life for a child.
When I was about eight years old, the younger families, around my parents’ age, split from the conservative group and I’m told that although generations were divided, the process was remarkably amicable. Although I’m thankful not to be bound by the rules and traditions that we once were, I was delighted to be able to enjoy the best of those days when I attended the annual anniversary service at Altona (Ontario) Mennonite Meeting House a couple of weeks ago.
For reasons rooted in historical practicality, members of the Markham-area conservative Mennonites attended church on a circuit — each Sunday at one of three buildings. Altona, one of these small churches, has been well-preserved and remains exactly as it was when I attended as a child.
The men entered through the center door, directly into the church. Hats were hung above the benches and coats were laid over the bench backs. My father and grandfather wore fedoras, but many of my grandfather’s peers wore broad-brim black hats.
Women and children entered through a side door into a small anteroom or kemmerli (literally translated as ‘small clothes room’) as it was called in the Pennsylvania Dutch language we all knew how to speak. Seeing the kemmerli now, I find it impossibly small for the number of people it accommodated, especially in the winter with coats and boots, but it remains exactly as I remember.
Two ministers and two deacons sat behind the long pulpit, and they led the congregation through a service that was two hours long. We children were expected to sit nicely, but not without small entertainments. We rolled up clean hankies to make tiny babies, played join-the-dots games, balancing the paper on top of a hymn book, or looked at picture books. It couldn’t have been that difficult because I don’t have any direct memories of being bored.
One thing that I do miss from those days is the singing. Conservative Mennonites sing in unaccompanied four-part harmony that is learned from generation to generation. Older children and teens listen to the adults and learn to harmonize by ear, or by following the shaped notes in the hymn book. The sound of this singing is full and rich, and the memory of it brings tears to my eyes. I’ve sought out recordings of congregational music, powerful in its simplicity, but have only found CDs of trained choral groups, which is no surprise. Unfortunately, it’s just not the same.
I know that most memories are better when filtered through time, but the singing at little Altona meetinghouse was everything I remembered, and more. Part of the time I sang the old familiar songs with the rest of the congregation, and part of the time I just listened. Tears were close to the surface.
These days, the face of the Mennonite church has changed. In the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and across Canada and the US, the majority of Mennonite congregations are invisible, hopefully identified now by their positive impact on others, both locally and globally. This doesn’t mean, though, that I’m not thankful for my experience of a world so different from the life I live now. The memories have helped shape who I am and will always be with me, a quiet part of my soul that can be revisited whenever I want.