Minutes away from Ontario’s tech capital is where you’ll find St. Jacobs Country. This picturesque village abundant with lush green farmland is home to Canada’s largest population of Old Order Mennonites. It’s a place where past and present fuse together as Old Order Mennonites go about their day shunning modernity for their way of life.
What’s fascinating about St. Jacobs Country is that it’s just 20 minutes away from an entrepreneurial hub. In the bustling small city of Waterloo, Kitchener, startup owners push the boundaries of applied sciences, but in the contrasting idyllic streets of St. Jacobs Country, many locals forgo technology for the sake of their beliefs.
The nomadic Mennonite story can be traced back to a 16th-century Swiss Protestant sect who roamed about Europe because of religious grievances. After being promised a chance to practice their faith freely in Pennsylvania, USA, they laid down roots. According to history, cheap land and a reluctance to fight for America lured Mennonites to southern Ontario in the late 19th century where many of them still live today, maintaining many of the same practices as their ancestors.
On a bright sunny day, the drive to St. Jacobs Country is stunning. Once you pass a sign for the Terre Bleu Lavender Farm, the highway becomes lavishly green. The lavender fields are a heavenly pit stop worth your buck; walk through a yellow door to rows and rows of blooming purple buds. The innovation at Terre Bleu Lavender Farm is their sweet seasonal lavender ice cream, which tastes the way you think it should.
When you reach St. Jacobs Country, start at the Visitor’s Centre. It’s the place to begin unraveling the Old Order Mennonite story. On the basement level, there are materials, multi-media and other sensory experiences detailing elements of history, culture and the Mennonite religion. The manager, Del Gingrich, who almost serves as a gatekeeper to the small town, is an excellent resource for information and tips on the area.
If there’s ample time, it’s best to do a tour with Gingrich or hop in a car and drive along a winding country road through the Mennonite territory, past their homes, schools, and churches. If you plan your trip, he’ll even take you to the home of an Old Order Mennonite.
As a member of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, Gingrich explains that their sect is more modern than the others. “Other sects in this area are far stricter with how much technology they allow into their lives. The Independent Old Order David Martin Mennonites found around the Wallenstein area are more closed off; they are not connected to electricity but will use their generators.” Even within the Old Order, there are different groups. Not all choose to isolate themselves, and each group moderates in their own way.
Gingrich says in order to catch sight of the German-dialect-speaking Old Order, visitors should come around the time Sunday church service ends. “That’s when the street outside the church will be filled with horse buggies taking their owners back to farm homes or for visits within their community.”
There is plenty to do in and around St. Jacobs Country, especially if you are visiting for the day. In the central town area, there are plenty of cute cafés and boutiques selling heritage and local goods. Check out the freshly made treats at Stone Crock Bakery, a Mennonite-run bakehouse that sells pies, cakes, loaves of bread as well as an assortment of house-made preserves. In Elmira, which is a quick drive from St. Jacobs Country, you can uncover the story of Canadian liquid gold at the Maple Syrup Museum.
One of the best ways to get a taste of the small town is by visiting the local indoor and outdoor market. St. Jacobs Country is home to Canada’s largest farmers’ market. On Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the year, you can taste and discover regional produce, imported goods and shop for crafts. During the summer months, it’s also open on Tuesdays.
You can also visit Nauman’s Farm in St. Clements. If they have it, don’t leave without buying some crunchy sweet cabbage, locally grown strawberries, asparagus, and honey. You’ll have to drag yourself away because the shelves are teeming with many more goodies. There’s also a peanut wonderland called Picard Foods, where visitors can munch on peanuts in all kinds of flavors while shopping for crunchy salty snacks.
There’s so much more to St. Jacobs Country than horse buggies, bonnets, and photo opportunities. It’s a place where the past and future have found a way to harmoniously merge. At times, it may look like something out of a storybook, but to discover the richness and depth of this unique community, visitors must let go of their expectations. Seeking to understand Mennonites offers a chance to reflect on existence, something that hits home in a room full of mirrors at the Visitor’s Centre. Images flash across the mirrored panels, wiping out your technological reflection and leaving symbols of peace and harmony behind instead.
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