For the past five years, people have been asking Barb Draper when her book will be out. At long last, the answer is “soon.”
Draper spent 10 years researching and writing a book on the history of Mennonites in Woolwich Township that should finally be published this spring.
“It’s been a long time in the making,” she said.
It was her interest in genealogy and researching her roots that led Draper into Mennonite history. While working on her history degree, she took a sociology course at Conrad Grebel College, University of Waterloo. The professor’s first assignment for the class was to research their ancestors and do a family chart.
Draper is Mennonite – her maiden name is Frey – and she is connected to the Martins, Brubachers and Baumans. Most of her ancestors came to this area from Pennsylvania in the first half of the 19th century, while the Freys arrived in Canada from Germany in 1848.
Mennonites didn’t record a lot of their history, she said, but what they did was often in the form of family histories. She has been able to trace her family as far back as the 1700s, and some branches as far as the 1600s.
About 10 years ago, Draper went back to school for her master’s degree in theology. She was fascinated by changes in worship pattern among Mennonites and how they reflected changes in theology. When she ran into the publisher of Pandora Press, she told him that she was considering writing a history of Mennonites in Woolwich Township.
“If you write it, I’ll publish it,” he told her.
There hasn’t been an academic study of Mennonites in Woolwich, so Draper relied on what writings there were and a number of interviews with members of different churches.
The first chapter of the book details the origins of the Mennonites in Switzerland and their moves to Pennsylvania and then to Woolwich. She has also put together a description of what Mennonite daily life was like in the 1800s, when the groups were still reasonably homogenous.
The next chapters describe the different groups as they appeared, beginning with Old Order Mennonites and moving through David Martin Mennonites, Markham Mennonites and then the Conservative Mennonites, who split off in the 1960s. Another chapter is dedicated to Old Colony Mennonites, dubbed Mexican Mennonites, who have immigrated to Canada from Mexico in recent years.
The schisms and splits followed years of contention, Draper explained, and at the root are changes in theology.
“I get frustrated when the differences between Mennonites are down to what they allow and don’t allow, because the differences are deeper than that. That’s why I passionately wanted to write this book.”
She wrote the book with her friends and neighbours in mind, Draper explained. It’s not aimed at tourists, but at people who know about different groups of Mennonites and want a deeper understanding of their history and culture.
She acknowledges that by the time the book is published, it will already be out of date. There have been changes to worship practice, new congregations formed and the migration of others. Land is a driving force for many of those changes; agriculture is still closely tied to theology in conservative Mennonite communities, but it’s simply too expensive to farm in Waterloo Region. In some communities, that has led to more diversity of occupations; others have migrated to land that is more marginal and less expensive.
Draper finished making final changes to the book last spring, but she hasn’t been sitting around waiting for a printed copy to arrive. She works two days a week for the Mennonite Church of Canada magazine and edits a newsletter for the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario. A ringette player, she has also promised to write a history of ringette in Woolwich Township.
As well, she’s toying with the idea of writing another book at some point. She would like to interview Old Colony Mennonites who came here from Mexico and collect their stories. Also under consideration is a collection of stories from Woolwich Township firefighters.
For the moment, those are just nebulous ideas; one book at a time, after all.