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The Mennonites: A Life of Work and Simplicity

For the week of Monday July 28, 2003

On July 31, 1874, a Hudson’s Bay Company steamboat docked in Manitoba carrying the first group of Mennonites who had come to settle in the region. The new arrivals did not take long to set up villages according to a unique style and layout.

Mennonites arriving in Manitoba (1874)
© Archives of Manitoba / Transportation-Boat-International 1 (N13944)
The Mennonites originated in Switzerland in 1536 with the conversion of a Dutch Catholic priest, Menno Simons, to the Anabaptist religion. After his death, his followers, who called themselves Mennonites, continued to practice a way of life characterized by work, simplicity, mutual assistance and pacifism. Enduring persecution, their faith spread through Germany and northern Europe. In the 1780s, many Mennonites migrated to Russia which was seeking agricultural settlers. Others looked for religious freedom in America but, because of the American Revolution, many pushed northward to Canada. The first permanent Mennonite community was established in Ontario in 1786.

When Manitoba joined Confederation in 1870, the Canadian government tried to attract agricultural settlers to the region. The Mennonites were ideal candidates. However, the United States was competing with the Canadian government to attract these farmers. The Canadian government, knowing that the Americans were ahead because of the superior quality of their land, offered numerous advantages to attract the Mennonites. Religious freedom, the right to their own schools, and exemption from military service tipped the scale in favour of Canada for approximately 7,000 of the 18,000 Mennonites migrating to North America in the 1870s.

Thus, in the summer of 1874, some 385 Mennonites from Russia arrived in Canada. From Toronto they travelled the United States, then down the Red River via the S.S. International to southern Manitoba where land was reserved for them. They quickly built a series of villages on the traditional Russian Mennonite model. The first years were rather difficult for these newcomers, but the surplus they soon produced as the result of their co-operative work placed it among the most prosperous communities in the region.

The Peter P. Hamm housebarn in Neubergthal, Manitoba, is an exemple of a typical Mennonite architecture
© Courtesy of P.G. Hamm
More than one hundred Mennonite villages were established on the Manitoba prairies before the turn of the 20th century. Among those that still exist today, the Neubergthal village, founded in 1876, is particularly noteworthy. Although there have been changes over the past 125 years, this village has maintained its distinct characteristics such as a single street layout, a pattern of gardens and the traditional house-barn architecture. For these reasons, the Neubergthal Street Village was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.

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