Who knew that hundreds of Mennonite girls and women joined Vancouver's domestic workforce to help their families pay travel debt after immigrating to Canada? Ruth Derksen Siemens brings these women to life with many high quality photographs in her award-winning book, Daughters in the City.
The author explains that Mennonites were welcomed to Canada in two major groups. The first fled the cruelty of Russia's emerging Communist regime in the 1920s. The second group, which included my family, arrived after World War II.
My father, Peter Plett, told me how demanding it was to arrive penniless and in debt for the fare on the Steamship Scythia and the train from Quebec City to Bassano, Alberta. Rural work in the nearby town of Gem didn’t always pay cash when farm products were still growing, but my father found enough work to quickly pay off our family’s debt.
Others struggled for years, while everyone pitched in. My father’s second wife, Margaret (née Lammert, then Koop; 1921-1997), joined the ranks of domestic workers in Vancouver. None of the women the author interviewed were resentful for helping their parents. They felt they were doing the Lord’s work. That attitude would have helped when they had to work on Sundays!
What also helped enormously were two community homes sponsored by the churches. Most domestic workers lived in the homes they served, but on Thursdays off, they would gather at the church-sponsored home for fellowship, meals and other activities. “Here, they were able to escape from their terrifying past and the harsh responsibilities of the present. If only for a short while, they were able to act like the young girls they were, speak their native German tongue, and learn about their new culture and language from one another.” Matrons coordinated employment and screened employers to ensure that placements were safe, among their many duties caring for their charges. My stepmother, Margaret, made lifelong bonds with women she met at the Mary Martha Home.
Oddly, the Mary Martha Home and the Bethel Home had little contact with each other, even though for a time, they were around the corner from each other (at 6460 St. George St. and 6363 Windsor St.). They were connected to separate Mennonite denominations, General Conference (GC) and Mennonite Brethren (MB).
The churches' involvement also differed in their level of support. The Mary Martha Home was founded by the GC church, while the Bethel Home was founded -- and funded -- by women. In 1936, after a rent increase motivated the women to buy the Windsor Street home, they sought the advice of the MB church. The church helped with the purchase price and became the property owner. The property was later sold when a larger home was purchased at 545 East 49th Avenue.
Many women were dismayed when the homes closed in 1960 and 1961. The reasons for closing the Mary Martha Home weren’t provided, but meeting minutes of the MB church described the Bethel Home as a “telephone employment service” that was in decline. This was when there were still “six hundred employers to match with workers.” The home was then converted into a student residence, where the girls no longer belonged. Annie Martens shared, “Where could we go on our days off? We couldn’t afford to go to restaurants…. We were all lost.”
Although the homes were missed, the author notes that times were changing. Fewer domestic workers lived in the homes they served. New immigrants from other countries took on domestic work. More Mennonite families were living in the city, and new churches provided spiritual respite and community. The original need to pay off travel debts must have been satisfied, for the most part.
The role of the homes in creating community brought to mind another Vancouver ministry, the Menno Simons Centre. Shortly after it was created in 1986, I met the university professors and others who were keen to keep Mennonite students connected with their faith when they were away at university or college. These leaders purchased a former convent to become a student residence, with attached chapel. By offering a safe, affordable place to live, with a loving community and an open-minded church experience, students might see that faith wasn’t inconsistent with learning and knowledge. Rather than faith falling away, it could grow! The ministry is still going strong, welcoming not only Mennonite students but also those of other Christian traditions.
The small church attached to the Menno Simons Centre, Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship, is also unique. It crosses the divide of both Mennonite denominations! Men and women lay ministers speak on Sundays. Decision-making is by consensus, not hierarchical and better than democratic. When I was involved in 1987, the experience forever changed the way I look at decision-making in groups. It’s worth visiting if you are in the area!
Modern cities are filled with lonely people, as our culture values independence and individual effort. We need more communities like the Mary Martha Home, the Bethel Home and the Menno Simons Centre, where people can gather, perhaps even overcome trauma, and forge lasting bonds. Where love can be felt, seen, shared, and keep rippling out in all directions.
- Irene Plett
Topics: Mennonites, domestic workers, immigration, community, Mary Martha Home, Bethel Home, Menno Simons Centre, Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship, Vancouver, history
Details: Ruth Derksen Siemens, Daughters in the City: Mennonite Maids in Vancouver, 1931-61 (Fernwood Press, 2013, ISBN 9780991711703). Awarded honourable mention in the British Columbia Historical Federation's competition for historical writing in 2014.