Category Archives: Women's lives

A gesture and a death

A gesture and a death jostle for my attention at Borrowing Bones this morningso I think I’ll let both of them be and if they illuminate one another in any way, well, so much the better.

Like so many other ‘watchers from afar’ I followed news of the papal conclave and the election of Pope Francis with keen interest, then satisfaction. It’s too early to know how, or if, he’ll manage the challenges facing the church, but media reports are full of pleasure at the signs of difference and new direction: the name, the simpler quarters, the calmer clothing (black shoes, not red), the washing (in the ritual footwashing ceremony just past) of two women’s feet as well as a Muslim’s, his warmth with people. Much of this is gesture, perhaps, though genuine gesture, it seems, and thus: so far so good. (I like Martin Marty’s take on it with an April Fools theme at Sightings.)DownloadedFile_2

One gesture on Easter Sunday was especially moving — the one where he kissed the handicapped child. The way the child embraced him in return and how he then stayed with that embrace seemed to me not so much a sign of Pope Francis’ ‘new style’ as it was an unplanned revelation of his essential spirit. (It can be seen near the end of this short news clip.) Continue reading


Filed under Current events, Women's lives

Speaking of women…

In a kind of offshoot from my previous post, I find myself checking in at my 2006 journals, to see whether my memory of the awe, even euphoria, I felt when the Mennonite Brethren conference I was part of passed a resolution freeing women for ministry leadership (this after a long process of debate and study over many years) is accurate or if it has been imagined into stronger color over time.

I find it’s accurate enough. I was trembling through the final discussions of that particular convention, I noted, because it mattered that much, and then came the surprise, even shock, of the resolution passing, solidly enough (the news report here), a sense of “wow” as it began to sink in. “I feel that something has been loosed on earth, as we prayed…” my private pages said, bursting with gratitude.

Nearly six years later, I confess I’m disappointed in the “since then.” My impression — anecdotal, I realize, since I’m no longer involved in the conference — is that while women’s participation goes on a-pace in some congregations, the ethos of the Mennonite Brethren denomination as such has not changed to reflect that decision — or “the spirit, the direction” it represented, as one of the men who worked hard on that process put it to me recently. Perhaps it’s even regressed. Continue reading


Filed under Church, Mennnonite Brethren, Women's lives

Olden-days Sophia online

Here’s some excellent news. Sophia, a magazine produced by a volunteer collective of mostly Mennonite Brethren women between 1991 and 2003 is now available for reading online, in PDF format.

Thank you, Conrad Stoesz, archivist, for your ongoing interest and efforts to provide, as you put it in a letter some time ago, “a new level of access to the unique content of Sophia.” It was  unique, I think, looking back, and I’m grateful – and proud of – the work, friendships, and energy it represents, and grateful too to have been part of the Sophia collective for some time. In 2006, I wrote a brief overview and assessment of Sophia for  the Mennonite Historian, but each woman who was involved will have her own perspective and memories, I’m sure. (One of my friends responded to Conrad’s note about the project, “Yikes! Those old rants of mine…” though believe me, she was gracious and articulate.) At any rate, I’m glad the magazine is available this way, and who knows, perhaps some day a grad student who needs a thesis topic will find a fascinating one in these women of the “olden days.” Continue reading


Filed under History, Mennnonite Brethren, Women's lives

A Certain Woman: for IWD

A small stop along our Lenten journey to celebrate International Women’s Day — with a poem, first published in Sophia in 1999, slightly revised here. Continue reading


Filed under Women's lives

The many, and the one

Mennonite Heritage Tour (Last of 8).

“Pilate” (Stn. 1) by Jerzy Duda Gracz

In a room above the Black Madonna shrine at Jasna Gora, Czestochawa (Poland), I was startled by probably the homeliest Jesus I have ever seen. He appears there in a series of 18 remarkable Stations of the Cross paintings by Jerzy Duda Gracz. Here the incarnation of God is truly of “no form or comeliness…no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, Women's lives

Finding our names

The former Mennonite church at Thiensdorf (Jezioro), now used for storage.

Mennonite Heritage Tour: encounters with women (part 7 of 8).

As my reflections on our Mennonite Heritage Tour wind their way into Poland and soon to an end, I have to confess in advance that this post is a bit of a stretch as far as the “encounters with women” theme is concerned. Poland — or “Prussia” as we also think of it in Mennonite history – made its connections to me through place(s) rather than people. Continue reading


Filed under Mennonite, Personal, Women's lives

Who was Anneliese Walter?

Mennonite Heritage Tour: encounters with women (part 5 of 8). Introduction.

Berlin was one of my favourite stops. We did a hop-on-and-off-the-bus city tour and the weather was perfect, sunny and pleasant but not hot, and maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment you get riding the top of one of those double-decker tourist buses, as if you’ve actually grasped the important places, all those sights you’re rolling by. An illusion of course, but a very pleasant one while it’s happening.

Brandenburg Gate

We also roamed on foot around the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, went into the startling valleys and alleys of the Holocaust Memorial, and had an interesting visit to the roof terrace of the Reichstag Building, with its panoramic views. Berlin seemed to me all energy and confidence. So much of it looked smart and new. Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, Women's lives

“Owning” Muenster

Mennonite Heritage Tour: encounters with women (part 5 of 8). Introduction. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

At dinner on the evening before our Mennonite Heritage Tour’s visit to Muenster, one of the people in our group remarked that we needed to “own” Muenster even as we “own” Auschwitz (where we would stop later).

By Auschwitz, of course, he meant the Holocaust, and by Muenster, he meant the historical events of 1534-35 in that city – the “rebellion” of radical Anabaptists in which they tried to establish the “New Jerusalem” there, complete with a king (Jan van Leiden), polygamy, extreme violence, a long siege, eventual victory by a Bishop’s army on the outside, and the killing of hundreds, with the leaders’ bodies displayed as a warning in three cages that still hang on the city’s Lamberti Church. Continue reading


Filed under Mennonite, Personal, Women's lives

If only I were younger!

Mennonite Heritage Tour: encounters with women (part 4 of 8). Introduction. Part 2. Part 3.

If only I were younger! Because — if I were — I might try to learn Dutch. Then I could read Anne Zernike’s autobiography, Een vrouw in het wondere ambt: Herinneringen van een predikanate, as well as the biography of her currently being written by PhD student Froukje Pitstra.

Plaque noting Anne Zernike was ordained here

Anne Zernike (1887 – 1972) was the first female pastor in the Netherlands. The 100th anniversary of her ordination on November 5, 1911 in the Bovenknijpe Mennonite congregation, where she served from 1911 to 1915, is one of the anniversaries the Dutch Mennonites are celebrating this year. Continue reading


Filed under Mennonite, Personal, Women's lives

A pioneering eccentric

Sien van Hulst (internet image)

Mennonite Heritage Tour: encounters with women, Part 3 (of 8). Introduction, Part 2.

Sien van Hulst (1868-1930) was a single woman, daughter of a prosperous Mennonite family in Harlingen, NL, who made a positive difference in the maternal death rates of her time.

We hear about Sien from Jan Meester. Jan is a Harlingen Mennonite who brims with knowledge and enthusiasm. He takes us on a brisk walking tour of relevant sites in his town. (The day before, he showed us the Pingjum Mennonite Church, where Menno Simons lived and worked, as well as the local, formerly Catholic church where Simons learned as a priest.)

The "hidden" Mennonite church of Pingjum, NL.

There are two strands of Dutch Mennonite (Doopsgezinde) history that keep bumping against each other for me during these days. One is the great persecution the Anabaptists experienced. We’re reminded of the outcome of that, as many fled to other parts of Europe (such as Poland/Prussia, which we will visit the following week); the Witmarsum church, in fact, currently has an exhibition on the Mennonite diaspora. We notice the secrecy it necessitated. Meeting places (called vermaning or Admonitions) often resemble houses or were hidden in other ways to escape detection.

The other strand is how those who remained in Holland eventually became accepted, respectable, and many of them wealthy and influential. Crossing the Afsluitdijk that connects north Holland and Friesland, for example, we see a statue of Cornelis Lely, engineer and designer of the plans for the Zuiderzee works. A Mennonite. There were the Honigs and the Breets. And the Harlingen van Hulsts and their daughter Sien.

The Harlingen Mennonite Church

Back home, I google Sien van Hulst to learn more about her. Most of it’s in Dutch, but the translations tell me she was a “contrary woman” with “a great sense of social justice.” Another sentence speaks of her “eccentric personality.” Maybe so, but she was a pioneer. A change agent. She founded a Society for District Nursing and Health Care in 1896, expanded the work of Green Cross across her region when it was founded in 1902, gave courses in maternal care and hygiene, paid attention to the importance of breastfeeding, and trained midwives and home nurses. She became a threat to the medical establishment of the time with her ideas, but perhaps it was her “eccentricity” that kept her going in her radical commitment to the poor. I want to think that it was also something in her Mennonite origins and beliefs.

Statue of Cornelis Lely, poised against the sea that his "works" hold back.

(P.S. This post is especially for my engineer son and doula/maternal-care expert daughter-in-law!)


Filed under Mennonite, Personal, Women's lives