Daughters in the City

Daughters in the City

May the hour soon come when none of our people can be found in Vancouver, or any other large city, except for a few missionary companions. I am eager at the thought of a Mennonite `proletariat’ in the city. May the Lord guide us back into a quiet country life, and help us to serve Him in simplicity… I must report some shadows, some stumbling and falling. Two of our young friends have fallen as thorough as a girl can fall. The slippery sheet of temptations in a large city is treacherous, especially when it is a port city…. I looked up (a young woman) and found her reading a novel. In answer to my question, she admitted to attending the cinema, the filth hole of the city…. I cannot refrain from pleading with parents, “Don’t send your daughters to the city unless you are in dire straits” (Protocol, November 1942).

Who were these “daughters” in the city? Why did they relinquish their families and their cherished, rural way of life? Despite the warning of Brother Jacob Thiessen to Mennonite Brethren at the General Conference in November 1942, it is apparent from historical records and personal accounts that hundreds of young Mennonite women came to Vancouver in the late 1920’s to work as domestic servants in the homes of wealthy families. Most were adolescents – some as young as thirteen. They slept in bus depots, parks and aim stations until they moved into the home of an employer. Some arrived directly from Russia, having survived the dramatical change and Civil War. Some had families, distant relatives and friends in the rural areas to depend on, but others had no connections, no jobs, and no parents. These young women were the first to improving the barriers of city living and considerably affect the settlement patterns of British Columbia. These women, along with their matrons, were considered to be the first urban missionaries in Canada.

The movement of women to the city was pushed by the desperate financial need of their families and the guarantee of employment. Mennonite women were highly marketable and greatly desired as servants by the British. The need for them far outweighed the supply. Domestic work was ideologically suited for single women who had the stamina, standards of cleanliness and purity of morals required by upper-class families. Although most Mennonite women did not speak English, their skin was white and they could be taught to emulate “Britishness”. They were hard-working and their lifestyles were as clean as their floors.

Due to the large number of women moving to the city, it was not long before they began to live together. The women needed each other for financial, moral and spiritual sustain. It is clear by the interviews of the Mennonite women who worked as domestics in Vancouver that the first Mädchenheim (Girls’ Home) began at 6363 Windsor Street in the mid 1920’s. The women named the residence the “Bethel Home” and in collaboration with the first matron, Sister Elizabeth Rabsch, they modeled the newly formed community after the Winnipeg Girls’ Home. Although the Mennonite Brethren Church must have been aware of the Home’s existence in Vancouver, the first recorded comment is only found in June, 1931. The Minutes of the Mennonite Brethren Conference of BC state that “many positive comments have been made about the Girls’ Home in Vancouver”.

One of these positive aspects about the Bethel Home was that it was maintained financially by the women. Although wages were minimal, the women paid for the heat, light, rent and telephone service. The remaining salaries were returned to their destitute families who needed to pay the “travel debt” to the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Minutes of the General Conference of November, 1933 state that, “To date, the girls have taken care of the operational expenses of the Home. The girls who sustain their parents with their hard-earned money, feel it is often a heavy burden to come up with all the finances for the upkeep of the Home”. One woman recalled how their matron, Olga Berg, heated the house only on Thursdays afternoons when all the young women visited the Home. Although Olga had arthritis and needed the warmth to reduce her pain, she insisted on contributing to the upkeep of the Home in this way. The churches responded with financial sustain for the matrons, fruits, vegetables and clothing. They also appointed a minister to make monthly visits to the Home “with a special emphasis on soul-care” (Nov. 1933).

by their thrifty practices and the help of the church community, the women managed to save enough money to buy the house they had before rented, build an addition and buy the nearby lot. One matron reported in February, 1937 that, “Our oldest sister who is 63 contributed such a large sum that numerous others were put to shame”. But the house was too small and decrepit. Due to this difficult situation, the Bethel Home of Vancouver moved to 595 East 49th method in 1943. At this location, it carried out its function: it was an employment agency, a hostel for orphans and refugee women, and a sustain centre for hundreds of young Mennonite domestic workers.

In considering the impact of these Mennonite women on the City of Vancouver, it is important to comprehend the number of women associated with the Bethel Home. In May 1934, fifty-three women were registered. In 1936 the number had grown to eighty one. At its peak in 1956, three hundred and fifty Mennonite women were equaled with 1700 employers. The Bethel Home was also overflowing with long-lasting residents. Matron Tina Lepp reported that “Presently, we have ten girls who have no parents and no home” (June 1936). In another example, fifteen women were turned away for without of room.

How could the Bethel Home possibly respond to all the needs of these women? The dominant responsibility lay on the shoulders of the matrons who considered it to be their “service to God”. The matrons cooked meals for the long-lasting residents, managed the Home’s finances, coordinated the employers and employees, escorted the young women to their new places of work, and organized the maintenance of the house. One matron remembers carrying wood and coal from the backyard into the basement and stoking the furnace. The consequence was a warm house, but “the curtains collected so much coal dust… they always had to be washed”. Another matron contributed eighty dollars from outside jobs that she donated to the treasury of the Home so the payments could be made. Many matrons shared the load. Sister Rabsch, Olga Berg, Maria Thiessen, Katharina Lepp, Sara Wiens, Tina Goossen, Betty Esau, Susie Warkentin, Tina Krause and Elsa Isaak all reflected a clear sense of “calling” to their work. Many of them referred to themselves as servants of God with a strong sense of their function as missionaries in the “evil” city of Vancouver.

Within this frame of reference, the matrons provided protection for the young women in their care. The character of the protection was two-fold: they guarded the young women from harassment in the workplace, and they regulated their behaviour within a tight parameter of social and moral controls. The motto of the “Bethel Home” describes the occurrence well. “Thou God seest me” was a metaphor which assured them of Divine protection on one hand and of an internal surveillance device on the other. The motto insured that “a girl from Coaldale would never use a dress with just little flaps over her arms” and that “we wouldn’t do anything in Vancouver that we wouldn’t do at home”.

This regulation, guidance and protection occurred chiefly on Thursdays. It was the only “maid’s day-off”. The girls came from all over the city with sack-lunches. They came to visit, proportion stories of their week, listen to a sermon and sometimes have a picnic. Board games were not allowed for they could generate loud laughter. The girls were to be “Die stille im Lande” (the quiet ones in the land), but this did not deter the strengthening of the bond of sisterhood between them. A matron remembers “the hard, backless wooden benches lining every room. Some girls sat on beds. There were hardly any chairs…but no one seemed to mind. This was a place where we belonged”. One fifteen year old worked in North Vancouver and although it was a long trip by ferry and tram, she never missed a Thursday. The bond of sisterhood was strong and the isolation experienced by most women was relieved only by the Thursday visits.

“We always had a pleasant haven to go to, to proportion our burdens and experiences with all the other girls. We made many new friends, some which remained for the rest of our lives. Thursday afternoons, maid’s day-off, were great times! When the evening was over, we’d take the bus together back to our places of work. If a girl got sick, she was looked after […] The Home was a great boon to hundreds of girls and will never be forgotten. We needed each other then and the Mädchenheim was our oasis in the desert”

however in spite of of the strong bond between the women, the large number of domestic workers needed, and the efficient operation of the Bethel Home – it was closed. In 1961, a notice from the Conference of Mennonite Brethren was handed to the resident matron. The notice of closure gave the women one month to vacate the premises. The new Bethel Home was to function as lodging for university students. The matron recalled her anguish. “One month! After all those years! We nevertheless had 600 employers to match with workers”. But the matrons, residents and women employees associated with the Bethel Home did not consider protesting the order. They had embodied the values of submission, keeping the peace and obeying those in authority over them. The packing and sorting of thirty years of memories began without question. In the time of action, many valuable records, photographs and artifacts were lost or destroyed. The final report of the General Conference in June 1961 states, “At present, our Mädchenheim is not functioning in any capacity”.

One women’s poignant reflection discloses the ambiguity surrounding the closure of a community which had functioned competently for over thirty years.

“Where could we go on our days off? We couldn’t provide to go to restaurants. I remember when it closed. We were all lost. The Home was supposed to be for young people now. Of course, we girls were welcome to go there, but we didn’t feel comfortable with them. I don’t think they enjoyed our company either. Now there was a husband and wife, boys and girls. I remember the first Thursday after it closed. We came to the corner of Fraser Street. What should we do? Where could we stay? The men thought it didn’t pay well anymore, not enough to pay the matron. But we could have paid her! Maybe the young people needed it more because we were smarter by then. “

Many questions appear about the character and necessity of this Home, questions of authority, of audience, of modes of communication – questions of how Mennonite women have come to be who they are throughout history and how this implicates future generations of women.

However, in spite of of the unanswered questions, it is apparent that a historically responsive and powerful unity among Mennonite women has risen out of the shared experience of the Bethel Home. It is also apparent that the occurrence of this “Girls’ Home” will validate Mennonite women’s historical role as urban pioneers as they entered the frontiers of an “evil” city.

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