Altkolonier Mennonitengemeinde, Mexico
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Old Colony Mennonite (Car): 18 colonies
Old Colony Mennonite (Car): 16,525
Old Colony Mennonite Church (Car) (Altkolonier Mennonitengemeinde)
This group was part of the 1922 migration of Old Colony Mennonites of Dutch-Russian background from Canada to Mexico. These tradition-minded Mennonites left Canada because they were threatened by new education laws in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that required all children to attend English-language schools. Many Old Colony members eventually left Mexico for British Honduras (now Belize) and Bolivia. Some impoverished members returned to Canada in the last quarter of the 20th century. This is the largest and most progressive branch of Old Colony people in Mexico. They accept rubber tires on tractors, travel by car and truck, and use electricity. They speak Low German and continue many traditional religious practices of their Old Colony heritage. The group has about 16,525 members in 18 colonies. Twelve of the colonies are in Chihuahua, and the rest are in Coahuila, Durango, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. Other congregations related to this group are in Belize, Canada, and the United States. 
Old Colony Mennonite Church (Horse) (Altkolonier Mennonitengemeinde)
Beginning in 1922, some 7,000 Old Colony Mennonites of Dutch-Russian background, who had settled in Canada in the 1870s, migrated to Mexico. They established three colonies: Manitoba and Swift in Chihuahua, and Patos in Durango. These tradition-minded Mennonites left Canada because they were threatened by new education laws in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that required all children to attend Englishlanguage schools. Many Old Colony members eventually left Mexico for British Honduras (now Belize) and Bolivia. Some impoverished members returned to Canada in the last quarter of the 20th century. This is the most traditional subgroup. Members speak Low German, use steel-wheeled tractors, reject electricity, and travel by horse and buggy. The group has 3,200 members living in 12 colonies, seven of which are in the state of Campeche. Other congregations related to this group are in Belize, Canada, and the United States.
The Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico (Altkolonier Mennonitengemeinde) can trace their roots the more conservative branch of the Russian Mennonites in Choritza Colony. In the early 1870s, the czarist government revoked the right of the Russian Mennonites to be exempt from military service. While a delegation was sent to Moscow to restore this privilege, and was successful in doing so, more conservative bishops saw this as a sign that it was time to move. A delegation was sent abroad to secure new land where they could settle, educate their own children, and be exempt from military service. Land and a Privilegium was found in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada. The Privilegium stated, among other things, that the Russian Mennonites would not to subject to military conscription, and that the colonists could run their own schools. This migration to Canada took place in around 1874. The colonists established three major colonies, Manitoba and Swift Current Colonies in Manitoba Province, and Hague-Osler Colony in Saskatchewan.
Immigration to Mexico
In 1892, Canadian law stated that public schools could be founded and supported by the government if a majority of people within a town voted to establish one. Attendance was in no way compulsory. Old Colony Schools were already well established, though an influx of non-Mennonite settlers began to desire public school systems. The Mennonite majority was able to vote these plans down again and again, but the first public school in Old Colony territory was established when a vote was held during the construction of a major mill. Construction workers were allowed vote, and the Mennonite majority was overruled.
Ordinary Canadian citizens began to become frustrated with Mennonites for stopping the creation of public schools. In 1902, the government recommended to local officials that voting districts be drawn so that Mennonite residences would be outside of the district, while their land was inside, allowing them to be taxed, but not vote in elections.
Some Old Colony members saw the improved quality of these new public schools and desired for their children to educated in those schools, rather than in colony schools. Old Colony leadership maintained that only colony schools were permissible, and promptly excommunicated members who sent their kids to public school. Many families were bankrupted after their excommunication over this issue. INSERT QUOTE?
In 1908, after the complaints of at least 12 excommunicated members and the broader community, a Commission of Inquiry was assembled to investigate Old Colony practices. The commission threatened to revoke ministers ability to solemnize marriages if they continued to excommunicate members over public schooling. Old Colony leadership ignored this demand, referring to Deuteronomy 6:7, Romans 16:17-19, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14, as a biblical basis for their practices. The government ultimately did not enforce this threat, though schools continued to expand into Old Colony territory. One education minister remarked that schools are not in place to make Mennonites, but “intelligent and patriotic” citizens.
The spring of 1917 brought the passage of the School Attendance Act, which became the major reason behind the later migration to Mexico. It stated that all children between the ages of 7 and 14 must attend a public, English speaking school if the child lived within a school district. Initially, many Old Colonists avoided this issue simply because they lived outside of major towns. If they did not, children were often sent to live with relatives who were not within a district.
The Old Colony leadership sent a delegation to Ottawa to ask that the Privilegium they had been granted be respected. Canadian officials responded that the provincial governments were not violating the agreement, as it was an agreement between the Mennonites and the federal government. When the wealthier Manitoba colonists took the law to court, it was declared that the Privilegium was in violation on the constitution and would not be upheld. In the summer of 1918, the Saskatchewan government send contractors to build schools within the colonies, regardless of Old Colony protestation.
Next, the government began fining families in violation of the law. In 1920, in one colony alone, fines amounted to 22,500 dollars. Mennonites were also subject to taxes in support of the schools. In some cases, government officials seized and auction property.
The Old Colonists came to two conclusions, first that the Canadian provincial governments were committed to enforcing public schools, and second that their Privilegium would not protect them. It was time to search for a new homeland. In the summer of 1919, a delegation from all three major colonies (Hague-Osler, Manitoba, and Swift Current) was sent to Latin America in search of land and a new Privilegium. This initial search was unsuccessful. The Hague-Osler group worked with John D.F. Wiebe, a Mennonite Brethren business man in contact with the Mexican president, to secure land there in 1920. In January of 1921, all three colonies went to Mexico City to meet with the president. While he was hesitant to grant them a new Privilegium, he was ultimately convinced. The Old Colonists had a new homeland, where they would be better able to live within their conscience.
Manitoba and Swift Current colonies bought 225,000 acres of land in Chihuahuaha state in the fall of 1921, without Hague-Osler Colony. They did this because Hague-Olser was considerably less wealthy, and they feared that they would be stuck with extra costs. In March of 1922, 5,000 colonists on 6 charted trains headed for Mexico from Manitoba. Hague-Olser Colony remained in Mexico for a few years, but in 1924 purchases land 500 miles south of the Chihuahua settlements in Durango. Over the next ten years, colonists slowly moved south as they were able to sell their land. Only a quarter of Hague-Osler colonists made the move, but the percentage from the other two was much higher.
Those who remained behind were in a strange position, as the bishops who had migrated south believed that the migration was a migration of the church, not just people. New leadership was formed, and in some cases, there was spiritual revival.
Colony Life and Customs
Much of colony life in Mexico can be described in part by a commitment to the way things were in Russia. Decisions made are often done so in light of how it was done in Chortiza and other Russian Mennonite colonies. The villages are set up with purchased land divided in two by a wide, central street, along which the farm houses and buildings are built. Behind each farmhouse is a garden, and behind that,the farmers land. A large section of pasture is kept for all of the villages cattle, rather than individual pastures. This layout closely mimics the Russian colonies. The homes are built together with the barns, and nonfarming structures were initially built out of wood, despite a lack of that resource in the area. When the colonists diversified, they increased their success greatly. New ventures included general stores, box factories, and most importantly cheese factories.
Dress is simple, as with most conservative groups. All women wear modest clothes designed to make the wearer less physically attractive. While young women may wear printed fabrics, married women wear black or dark earth colors. Men wear good quality black suits on Sundays, but wear whatever is cheapest during the week. Overalls are particularly popular. Men are always clean shaven.
Colonies are structured like a theocracy, with a bishop (or Altester) as the religious head of the colony, and a secular manager of business matters. The Waisenamt is a system devised by the colony that functions as a bank and regulates business. Colonies have their own fire insurance, mechanics, and sometimes even physicians.
Religious ceremonies are held as they were in Russian as well. Colony churches are built of wood, despite it being a poor construction method in the Mexican climate. There is a simple reading stand for the pastor, who reads a prewritten sermon, most often on the topic of repentance or submission. There is a platform towards the front of the church where the song leader directs two hymns towards the start of the service. Before and after the singing, Scriptures from the New Testament are read. Preachers who are delivering the sermon wear knee-high leather Wellington boots, another tradition that is carried over the from Russia.
Men sit on one side of the church, women on the other. Children are not allowed to attend the service, as they are considered to be too much of a distraction. It is assumed that they will receive their religious instruction from schooling, and that they will join the church services when they are around 14. Marriage takes place at a relatively young age, and love has not historically been a requirement for marriage.
Daughter Colony Formation
The village-colony system is set up so that villages and colonies are constantly dividing and replicating. When a colony is established, there are several hundred families spread over multiple small villages. When a man marries, he is traditionally given a home and land. When the colony grows to a point where land is scare, the mother colony purchases land in an other remote area, and divides the residents of the mother colony in half, with some staying behind, and the others heading to the newly established colony. The new colony is paid for in full by the mother colony, and the mother colony always sends along one ordained minister to start up the church there.
There have been many issues with this system, however. From the start, land was expensive, and with colonies expanding as rapidly as they were, daughter colonies were expected to be mother colonies before they themselves were properly established. Many young families could not receive land, and jobs in industry were almost nonexistent. Often, colony divisions occur over religious issues. Typically the mother colony has become too progressive—whether it be with the allowance of rubber tires on tractors, electricity or automobiles. A conservative group of bishops and their followers will leave, and be established somewhere else where they can better maintain the tradition as they see fit. The failure of the colony system to support the rapidly expanding Old Colony population contributed in part to the return to Canada.
The education of their children is the main cause of the Old Colonies presence in Mexico today. They feel they have a biblical mandate to educate their youth, not as citizens of a country or of the world, but as effective members of colony life. Today, Old Colonists are heavily critiqued for their inadequate schools. In Canada and in Mexico, their schools were shut down due to ineffective teaching and curriculum. The curriculum of these schools is simple: there are only a few textbooks. They are the Bible, a song book, the “ABC” book, a catechism book, and a collection of simple arithmetic problems. Often, after leaving school, Old Colonists are barely literate and can do only simple math. MCC and the Amish have been working towards improving their education system in a variety of ways.
The Return to Canada
Early Old Colony life was not easy, and many colonists returned to the life that had in Canada. By 1969, 18% of each new generation was returning to Canada, rather than stay in the colonies. In 1977, 1,500 Mexican Mennonites per year returned to Canada. By 1996, 35,000 Mexican Mennonites had emigrated back to Canada.
The extreme drought of the early 1950s, coupled with land pressure caused Mennonite families to begin returning to Canada during the summer to harvest crop in Ontario. The first seasonal trip was taken in 1952, and the trip quickly became almost a necessity for some families. Migrant work continues to this day. A seven-member family can earn up to 10,000 dollars a month working in the fields or in Canadian industries. Those returning to Mexico brought with them a new ideas and beliefs that often clashed with traditional values. The tight knit community aspect was significantly damaged by yearly trips to Canada.
Often, though, families stay in Canada. Immigration and citizenship in Canada has become a large problem with Mexican Mennonites today. Mennonite immigrant communities have struggled to assimilate into Canadian society. Migrant families often clash with school officials over truancy, and their negative view of education. Canadian culture has negative stereotypes of seasonal workers, much as in America. There are problems with alcoholism, gender roles, and a macho attitude picked up in Mexico. Old Colonists are attracted to Canada for many reasons. Landlessness, droughts, the value of the peso, and strict leadership all drive colonists away. Canada draws them in because of high wages, access to social programs, Medicare, MCC assistance, and a claim to citizenship (regardless of the challenges involved in obtaining this). MCCC (Mennonite Central Committee Canada) has had an impact on the return to Canada. They readily assist immigrants in filing correct paper work for citizenship, lobby the Canadian and Mexican governments, and provide additional social programs to the migrant Mennonites.
Three Major Differences Between Old Colonists and other Mennonite Groups
1) While most Mennonites at one point believed in a strict physical separation from the world, most do not today.
2) Old Colonists believe that the evangelical assurance of salvation is “prideful and boastful talk.” They emphasize a hope that God will save them.
3) Old Colonists do not evangelize.
The Old Colony Mennonites are descended from Russian Mennonites, who descended from Prussian Mennonites, and so on back to the very emergence of Anabaptism. As such, they have a direct ethnic tie to the tradition, though the is little indication of their Anabaptist identity. They believe strongly in the Truth of the Bible, the separation of church and state (though they set up a theocracy for themselves), believers baptism, and in most cases, nonresistance. They often speak of doing things either because it was the way things were done in Russia, or because Menno Simons said so. In some cases, though, their strict hierarchy of rule can be contrary to accepted Anabaptist principles. Inner dealings with alcoholism and abuse fall short of biblical principles, although these problems pervade all societies.
Yet their commitment to their understanding of what it means to be Christian is profoundly Anabaptist. Behind the at times strict legalism is a powerful desire to maintain their religious heritage and preserve it from outside influences. At times, their efforts have been successful. But at others, their methods have seemed oppressive and backwards. It is exceedingly hard to judge the merits of their methods, but their commitment in unquestionable.
The challenges facing the Old Colonists today are many. Starting with the yearly migration to Canada in the 1950’s, the colony’s close knit community system began to crumble. Seeds of doubt and new ideas began flowing into the colonies, and families flowed out into Canada. Excommunication has lost much of its utility as members take it less and less seriously. The systems that hold the colonies together are, on some levels, failing. Education also remains a significant challenge to the Old Colonists. A negative view of education and its influence on the colony has created generations of relatively illiterate members. Education is improving, but will remain a problem until attitudes are changed. With the help of MCC, an alcohol abuse and addictions recovery center has been opened in the past few years to deal with the growing alcoholism on the colonies themselves.
MCC has been a blessing, and in some views, a curse to the Old Colonist way of life. Their involvement started with a desire to bring spiritual renewal to the church, but colonists quickly had them removed. Today, they function to “Assist the Low German-speaking Mennonite communities in Mexico in their efforts to become viable, self-sustaining economic communities, encourage and assist the colonists to preserve their faith and to rejuvenate their Anabaptist heritage, encourage the exchange of ideas in the area of education, religion and civic affairs helpful to the development of viable communities.” Some argue that this interaction has contributed to the breakdown of colony order, as members reject the colony lifestyle and move to Canada.
Another surprising challenge to the Mennonite colonies are the interaction with the drug trade. As they travel to and from Canada, some have been involved with drug smuggling. In 1997, Canadian customs officials stated that the Mexican-Mennonite drug connection was the largest source of marijuana smuggled into Canada. The drug war has also had an affect on colony life. Between September 2009 and June 2010, 6 Old Colony men were kidnapped, and two were murdered in drug related violence.
What the Future holds
Despite a seemingly long list of challenges, the Old Colonists have a strong history of holding the line. With families still expanding, and help from MCC, life in the colonies will improve and expand. It is unlikely that the group will disappear. The colonies themselves may slowly fade, but even those who have returned to Canada have attempted to maintain their Old Colony way of life.
Timeline of Significant Events
Important Individuals in the Life of the Church
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Giesbrecht, Kennery. "New Library Signifies Changing Attitudes in Mexico Colony." Mennonite Central Committee. http://acommonplace.mcc.org/news/news/2006/2006-03-27_library_popup01.html.
The Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba Colony, Mexico open a new library, which, as the title suggests, signifies changing attitudes towards literacy.
Hoover, Amos B. "The Old Colony Mennonites of Mexico and Some Parallels Found to Old Order Mennonites." 1984. MS, Mennonite Historical Library.
An essay on the customs and traditions of the Old Colony Mennonites, compared to the customs and traditions of the Old Order Mennonites
Janzen, John, comp. MCC Low German Newsletter 6 (February 2010). This newsletter featured a more in depth description of the Low German program in Mexico.
Janzen, John, comp. "Update on the Kidnappings: Durango Colony." MCC Low German Newsletter 6 (June 2010): 2.
Newsletter about MCCC work in the colonies. This newsletter was especially interesting as it informed me about the impact of the drug war on Mexican Mennonites, something I hadn't initially considered.
Janzen, William. "The 1920s Migration of the Old Colony Mennonites from the Hague-Osler Area to Mexico." Speech.
Description of the events leading up to the migration of the Old Colony Mennonites to Mexico. Features some fascinating letters written between Old Colony ministers, the Department of Education, and dissenting Old Colony members.
Krahn, Cirnelius, ed. Mennonite Life 11, no. 2 (April 1947).
Half of issue is dedicated to an overview of Mennonites in Mexico, from their migration to agricultural practices (circa 1947), health conditions, etc. While certainly dated, it does provide a lot of information about their initial struggles.
Krahn, Cornelius, and Leonard Sawatzky. Global Anabaptist Encyclopedia. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/O533ME.html#section-8.
What the creators of the Mennonite Encyclopedia thought was important about the Old Colony Mennonites! Lots of statistics.
Quiring, David M. The Mennonite Old Colony Vision: under Siege in Mexico and the Canadian Connection. Steinbach, Man.: Crossway Publications, 2003.
An entire book covering the Old Colony Mennonites from Canada to the present day.
Sawatzky, Harry L. Mennonite Colonization in Mexico: A Study in the Survival of a Traditionalist Society. Berkeley: University of California, 1967.
An exhaustive retelling of the colonization of the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico. Details for just about every colony, village, and happening in the first 40 years of the colonies.
Terichow, Gladys. "Mennonite Colonies in Mexico Expand Addictions Treatment Centre." Mennonite Central Committee, June 11, 2007.
A news article put out by MCC Canada about the opening of the alcohol and drug abuse treatment center in Mexico.
Towell, Larry. "The Road to Bountiful: Thousands of Mexican Mennonites Leave Their Impoverished Colonies Every Year to Harvest Ontario's Fruits and Vegetables."Canadian Geographic, April 1999, 46-47.
Brief look at Old Colony Mennonite's yearly trip to Ontario to work on Canadian farms to keep the mexican colonies viable. Fantastic images of this (from the Canadian Geographic photography issue)
Archives and Libraries
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- Donald B. Kraybill, Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 233-234.