February 25, 2021

While many religious groups have faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hit Waterloo Region’s Old Order Mennonite communities a little differently.

On Nov. 30, the Region of Waterloo’s medical officer Hsiu-Li Wang put in an order closing all churches and schools that are part of the Old Order, Old Colony, Markham or David Martin Mennonite communities, in response to a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in these groups over the course of the month.

While there are roughly 59,000 Mennonites in the province, only around 20 per cent are Old Order. These groups eschew some modern technologies and adhere to a more conservative lifestyle. In Waterloo Region, many of the Old Order Mennonites live in the small communities to the northwest of Waterloo.

According to Wang’s order, there had been 93 cases linked to the Mennonite community, while Public Health also received reports of individuals either not self-isolating or not going in for tests. The order came on the heels of one from the top doctor in Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health office, following a similar spike in that region.

According to Marlene Epp, a professor of history and peace & conflict studies at the University of Waterloo, the rise in cases can be tied to some of the communities not taking the restrictions seriously, though she added that it wasn’t the case in all Old Order Mennonites

“In some schools and some churches, they did wear masks, in other churches and schools they didn’t wear masks. And that might depend on the particular region they were in, the locale,” she said. “The bishop would be the highest sort of minister or clerical role in their churches and some leaders would be more stringent about encouraging people to comply with public health regulations and others were less so.”

The Winterbourne Old Order Meetinghouse sits empty on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions put in place for the Mennonite community in Waterloo Region. (Sean Sutherland/Spoke News)

That difference can be seen in the communities in Waterloo Region. Amsey Shantz, the minister of the Conestoga Old Order Meetinghouse in St. Jacob’s, Ont., said those in his community have been trying to comply with the restrictions placed on them by Public Health since the pandemic started.

“In this area we had masks on in church and public places,” he said. “We had outdoor services. We didn’t have church for some time. We couldn’t worship the way we used to, we had 30 per cent capacity.”

Epp said these changes are hard on the Mennonite community since worshipping as a group is a large part of their lives and culture.

“Community is even more important to them particularly for those groups who separate themselves from modern society,” she said. “Their separation also kind of creates a certain kind of community where they rely on each other for a whole range of services and needs and they’re relatively self-sufficient within their community for social life or economic life.”

She added that coping with the pandemic with a lack of technology makes things more difficult for the Old Order Community, since they are unable to use it to deal with any changes brought on by COVID-19.

“I think we have to recognize how much more difficult it is for the most conservative groups to adapt in the ways most of us are,” she said. “But I have a feeling that after these orders that there will be strong pressure from the leadership to comply. Once they see the effects of the virus it will be a wake-up call. It will be a hard, hard winter for them.”

For now, Shantz and the rest of his community are cautiously optimistic about what the coming weeks will hold for them.

“We’re taking it a while at a time and seeing what we can do,” he said. “We’d really appreciate it if we could have church. It’s a real big change not socializing. We miss that and hope that can start again.”

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