The Mennonite region in southern Ontario around the Village of St. Jacob’s is a captivating traditional, rustic area yet with the amenities of the modern age. For those who enjoy history and the traditional pre-modern way of life, St. Jacob’s is the place to visit. The Village, a 1 1/2 hours drive from Toronto, represents the living remnants of a European Christian sect that was persecuted in Europe then found a home in the U.S.A. and then Canada with the freedom to practice its traditions.
Mennonites share the same historical roots with the Amish, the latter group predominantly having settled in Pennsylvania. Both groups grew out of the Anabaptist movement which arose in Europe in 1525 in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Protestant Reformation movement brought on by Martin Luther.
A group of these Christian zealots seeking a better life and more freedom especially in religious matters, decided to move north from Pennsylvania to the St. Jacob’s area in Ontario, Canada during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Hard-working and leading a frugal life, they stood aside from the modern age and in this respect did not join in the majority of activities practiced by the larger society surrounding them. Although many through the years assimilated into the Canadian multicultural population, a good portion still followed the traditional Mennonite way of life.
The group known as the Old Order Mennonites are 4,000 strong in St. Jacob’s area, having arrived in the early 1800s in Connestoga wagons from Pennsylvania. The members still practice their traditional lifestyle that revolves around farming.
Today we would be touring the area of this unique community to discover the features that draw the visitor to this Mennonite region. My familiarity with the Mennonites was that of a group of people who lived the life of tradition, hard-working, and with no amenities of the modern age. A good hardy people who basically kept to themselves.
The first stop on our tour was the St. Jacob’s Farmers and Flea Market in the heart of the Mennonite countryside located about 8 kms (5 mi) from St. Jacob’s Village. It is Canada’s largest year-round farmer’s market, and is a symbol of Mennonite life in Ontario.
The Market is the venue where many of their farm products and crafts are displayed and sold.
The original 2,230 sq m (24,000 sq ft) building built in 1936 that attracted annually some one million visitors burned down on Labor Day of 2013 but reopened as a spacious and bright 3,159 sq m (34,000 sq ft) structure in June 2015 which will undoubtedly attract even more.
This image of a rural quiet traditional people faded away somewhat as we entered the market through automated sliding-doors combined with a sudden gust of cold air from a central air conditioning system. I thought it’s finally happened – the Mennonite community has entered the modern world of comfort, for them and for us. But then it got even more confusing. The first stop we made was at a booth selling the foods of Egypt. I had to double-check my coordinates to make sure that I was in the Mennonite Market. Following the aroma of donar kababs, better known as shawarma, and falafel we next ended up at a booth surprised to find a pleasant Mennonite young lady taking customers’ orders. This, plus pizza in the market, and Moroccan mahajeb, was an interesting take on the new Mennonite world of the 21st century. The effect of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s multi-cultural policy was alive before us. The ethnic foods of Canada were becoming united under the auspices of the Mennonites.