HB Pauls painting of a house in Rosenthal

In October it will be
My Church’s Anniversary
With prayers for you and cake for me
Happy once, Happy twice
Lots of happy Mennonites*


*with apologies to Maurice Sendak

The Church I attend turns 75 this year and we are having a party. Or at least a potluck on Sunday and a “sit-down dinner” on Saturday.

Yes, this is the meal’s official title. “Sit-Down Dinner.”

The organizers have been hard at work for months and I imagine that they discussed long and hard just what they should call the Church dinner that they were planning for this Mennopalooza. To call it a gala would raise expectations far too high. “Banquet” was the term favoured when I was young but perhaps the word has fallen out of favour in recent years. Or, I suspect, it was imagined that it, too, suggested something a little fancier than the pink plastic tablecloths I am anticipating.

And I suppose they feared that saying just plain “dinner” would fail to convey the novelty that we would be expected to sit.

Certainly, some of my earliest memories of Church dinners involve a fair amount of running around. If the committee feared that we might all fall into a pique of nostalgia and start running in circles as we did when we were four or five, we may well need to be told to sit down. There are dangers inherent in an anniversary celebration.

I admit that I’m a little underwhelmed by the whole “75 years” thing.

Earlier this year, we marked 100 years of Russlaender Mennonites in Canada. I’ve also been digging about in my own family history, finding old family documents from my great-grandfather who talks about his grandmother’s memories of the Crimean War (spoiler: it was bad). Which was 170 years ago. And then, in two years we’ll be celebrating 500 years of Anabaptism (give or take a bit depending on when you want to date our beginnings). And I will gladly admit that 500 is a number worth celebrating.

But, 75 years? It’s worth a cake, sure, but, well. I know people who are older than that. As far as institutions go, 75 years is just infancy. And birthday parties for babies are always a little odd.

Also — there is rightly some question about dating our beginnings to 1948.

At a recent Church dinner at which I sat (even though it was not called a “sit-down” dinner), we were asked to raise our hands if we were there when the Church was founded. No hands. Then, if we were the children of founders. Mine was the only hand. But I realized later that I had erred. My mother started attending the Toronto church in 1955, seven years after its official founding. When she arrived on the scene, there was already a core of people on hand busy planning a Church building and there were just enough children to warrant a Sunday School.

We claim 1948 as the beginning because some 11 people got together that year and wrote up the letters of incorporation.


Seriously? That’s smaller than the average Mennonite family gathering.

By a long shot.

I don’t think that those eleven people were all siblings but I do wonder that at least one of them thought that even though they had barely enough people for a potluck, it was high time to get some legal paperwork done.

My own home Church (my parents moving to KW shortly before I was born), can date its origins in the more traditional Mennonite fashion — from the date of its schism.  In 1924, Urias Weber and his 115 hat-wearing followers marched up the hill from First Mennonite Church and started anew. That Church only got around to letters of incorporation about 70 years later, nearly causing another schism in the process. But that’s a story for another day.

It wasn’t entirely the fault of those Original Eleven that they built the church without having first enacted a schism. To have done that, they would have needed to first attend The Danforth Mennonite Church and then break away from them. They could have done that — the Danforth Church dates back to 1910.

But. That little group of Mennonites who got together in 1948 were working within a long-established schismatic system. The Danforth Mennonite Church was created by the so-called “Old Mennonite” Church of Ontario. The Original Eleven would not have dreamed attending that Church. Similar theologically by then, it was of the wrong side of schismatic railroad tracks. Fortunately for them, however, one of the other major North American Mennonite conferences, the “General Conference” Mennonites had established their own urban mission in 1941. And the “GC” conference was on the right side of the tracks for the Original Eleven.

So, although the Toronto United Mennonite Church did not begin with a schism, we can take comfort in knowing that it was, nonetheless, still very much the child of a schism.

By 1955, when my mother moved to the city and began attending Toronto United Mennonite Church (Incorporated), the Church had shifted its focus from urban missions in general to wayward Russian Mennonites in particular. Most of the people who attended were like my mother — the children of Mennonites who had fled the Soviet Union in 1923. Some of the older members had done the fleeing themselves. They were still a people grappling with the trauma of war, famine, disease and death. The four horsemen.

And also, the loss of their communal dreams and identity. They had been a people once. Their ethnic identity was intertwined with their religion — they ate the same foods (zwiebach etc.), sang the same German songs, and prayed together for all their family members left behind in Ukraine or lost in Siberia. The Church didn’t give that back to them, but I expect it helped them cope.

Nowadays, most of the Church is not made up of the descendants of Russlaender Mennonites. Zwiebach very rarely appears at Church dinners (whether we sit down at those dinners or stand) and the German language only comes out once a year for a carol sing.

After all, the people coming now have their own lived and intergenerational trauma to work through, and it is remotely possible that zwiebach won’t help with it at all.

Nah. I don’t really believe that. And I’ll be bringing the zwiebach to prove it.

The Menno 75

Do you know what else turns 75 in 2023? The Margarita. I have a “Migratarita” in Menno-Nightcaps that could be used to celebrate both our history of celebration and this very special 75th anniversary. That recipe is available here.

But also, there’s a classic cocktail with the Number 75 right there in the title. And, yes, there’s a version of it in Menno-Nightcaps. But as there are as many cocktail variations as there are Mennonite schisms, there’s no reason to stop now.

  • 2 oz gin
  • 1 oz rhubarb simple syrup
  • 3 oz sparkling white wine

Pour gin and rhubarb simple syrup in a cocktail shaker, half-filled with ice. Shake thoroughly and strain into a coupe or flute glass. Top with the sparkling wine. Garnish with something pretty like a ground cherry, or whatever’s in season when your own Church is celebrating the anniversary of its schism, er, founding.


I suggest making up a pitcher of this to serve yourself and ten of your closest friends. Draw up some articles of incorporation after your second serving.