A new plaque honours the young Mennonite women who worked as domestic help in Vancouver in the mid-20th century.
An initiative of The Places That Matter, this is No. 89 of 125 commemorations erected by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation plaque project, launched in 2011 with a grant from the Government of Canada’s Celebrate Vancouver 125.
The plaque, located on the streetlight at the corner of 49th Avenue East and St. George Street in Vancouver, reads in part: “From 1931 to 1961, young Mennonite women were sent to Vancouver seeking work as domestic servants by their families, many of whom were indebted to the Canadian Pacific Railway for their passage. Most had come to Canada as refugees from Stalinist Russia.
“These young, single women were pioneers in their ethnic and religious community who broke through the barriers of the ‘evil city,’ finding their independence through learning the English language and experiencing a new culture. They shaped settlement patterns of not only Vancouver but also of western Canada.”
On June 17, a virtual presentation introduced the plaque, sponsored by the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford, B.C. Speakers included Deputy Mayor Melissa De Genova; Richard Thiessen of the Mennonite Heritage Museum; and Ruth Derksen Siemens, author of Daughters in the City: Mennonite Maids in Vancouver 1931-61, published by Fernwood Press in 2013.
Thiessen gave a brief history of Mennonites and how they came to the Fraser Valley.
Derksen Siemens told the stories the of young Mennonite women, some as young as 14, who came to work in Vancouver beginning in 1929, and again after the Second World War, when more refugee families arrived.
With their families indebted to the railroad for paying their travel costs, the young women worked to help their families repay the debt. They bravely left their families to find work in Vancouver, at first sleeping in places such as the railroad station because they had no money.
Eventually, two residences were purchased—one for the Mennonite Brethren and one for the General Conference Mennonites—to be a home away from home for the young women who struggled with the English language and homesickness. The homes, said Derksen Siemens, were places for help with “safety, shelter, language skills and employment.” Matrons provided a motherly presence and helped the young women find work.
Prominent upper-class Vancouver families, including mayors, doctors, business owners and professors, employed the young women.
“The demand was so great—everyone wanted Mennonite girls . . . because they worked hard and they were so honest,” said Derksen Siemens.
This article appears in the Aug. 16, 2021 print issue, with the headline “‘Everyone wanted Mennonite girls.’” Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in B.C.? Send it to Amy Rinner Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Young Mennonite women served as domestics to help their families repay debt. (Photo courtesy of Ruth Derksen Siemens)
A group of young women from the earliest Mennonite Brethren Girls’ Home (Bethel Home). (Photo courtesy of Ruth Derksen Siemens)
Women enjoying some music at the General Conference Girls’ Home (Mary Martha Home)(Photo courtesy of Ruth Derksen Siemens)