The First shall be First

First Menno closeupThere are a lot of Firsts among Mennonites.

I don’t mean firsts like record-breaking athletes, aviation inventors or even the first person to think of using rice flour for portzelky.

We can talk about them another time.

I mean – there are a lot of Firsts. There’s a First  in Kitchener, a First in Vineland, a First in Edmonton, a First in Winnipeg, a couple of Firsts in British Columbia — we’ve got Firsts all across Canada.

And it doesn’t stop there. The United States is literally peppered with Firsts. All across the US Mennolands, from San Francisco to Philadelphia, there’s always a congregation ready to jump up and call itself First. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia lists over 75 congregations in North America calling themselves the First Mennonite Church of someplace or another.

For a relatively small faith group, I call that a lot of Firsts.

By contrast, there are remarkably few Second Mennonite Churches. Nor are there Third and Fourths. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, no congregations in all of North America have chosen to call themselves the Last Mennonite Church, despite the obvious appeal of the name since, as we all know, the last shall be first.

Mind, I suppose it would be awkward if another group showed up later and wanted to start another Church. Then the previous one would have to change its name to the First Last Mennonite Church or maybe the Second from the Last Mennonite Church, and I can’t imagine that happening without bad feelings all around.

Each First Mennonite has its own story but it goes without saying that most would not have been the only congregation in the area at the time when it took on the moniker First.*

First Mennonite in Winnipeg went about thirty years under the name of the Schoenwieser Mennonite church, a perfectly respectable name which – roughly translated – means The Beautiful Meadow and could be imagined as a Heavenly metaphor. It wasn’t, of course, meant as a metaphor. The Church was named after the Russian village from which one of the founders hailed.  That Russian village might have had a beautiful meadow nearby; I’m pretty sure the Winnipeg Church never did.

That’s why it could only have been a metaphor. Perhaps the Schoenwieser did not think it an apt metaphor. Maybe if it had meant Righteous Wheat fields, it would have been a name that could have held.

At any rate, in 1951, the Schoenwieser Mennonite Church of Winnipeg got rid of its deceptively cheerful little name and grabbed onto the title of First. Something like fourteen other congregations had sprung up since Schoenwieser’s urban mission beginnings, some of them not much later than the Schoenwieser. Only one, however, could claim to have been in Winnipeg first. And Schoenwieser claimed.

That congregation was, by no means, the first Mennonite congregation in Canada. It was just the first in Winnipeg. The first Mennonites to Canada went to Vineland. Because it really was the first in  all of Canada, that congregation gets the privilege of calling itself The First Mennonite Church, while the others need to drop the definite article. It’s a rule.

That First Mennonite Church is, of course, only the first Mennonite Church in Canada. The honour of being the first Mennonite Church in all of North America goes to the congregation in Germantown, Pennsylvania — and it doesn’t even call itself First. The closest First Mennonite to the bona fide first Mennonite is on the other side of town.

A quick scan through Google maps will show that Pennsylvania is not, however,  the capital of First Mennonites. Perhaps some historian of US Mennonite settlement patterns will correct me on this but on the basis of google maps alone, I can only assume that when Mennonites settled Kansas, they systematically founded a First Mennonite Church wherever two or three were gathered.

Or perhaps not so systematically.

I once heard a story about a region that had two First Mennonite Churches. The tale went that the Churches were originally members of different branches of the Mennonite faith and so, though both called themselves First, they were distinguished from each other by the name of the subsect. But, just as schisms rift us apart, every now and then the larger Church bodies come together and heal the rifts that drew them apart. Yet, when these two branches of the Church came together, there remained two First Mennonite Churches just blocks from each other and though both readily dropped the subsect names that differentiated them from each other, neither would relinquish the title of First.

And so, the story goes, to this day, there are Mennonites who go off to First Mennonite Church while their neighbours go off to First Mennonite Church and they never meet each other at services or potlucks, though they may pass and nod at each other in the street. And none of them think anything odd about it at all.

This is a true story – It happened to some friends of a friend of mine.

Well, maybe not. But maybe.

Judging from the data on google maps, I’m confident that if it happened anywhere, it happened within a thirty-mile radius of Newton, Kansas.


To honour the First Mennonites everywhere, I propose that this week we indulge in, not just any cocktail, but the first cocktail. Not counting wine punches, most people say that the Old Fashioned is the first cocktail ever made. I’ve varied this ever so slightly by using rhubarb bitters instead of the traditional angostura. If possible, use a whiskey with Mennonite provenance.

The First MennoniteFirst Mennonite Cocktail

  • 1/2 tsp sugar or 1 sugar cube
  • 3 dashes of rhubarb bitters
  • 1 splash of fizzy water
  • 2 oz Canadian rye whisky (or Old Oberholt American rye whiskey)
  • ice
  • maraschino cherry or orange wheel to garnish

Drop the sugar into the bottom of an old fashioned glass. Add the bitters and muddle. Toss in the splash of fizzy water and  swirl it around. Add a big chunk of ice and pour the whisky over. Garnish with cherry or orange peel (or stalk of rhubarb if you’re making this in the spring). Stir as the ice melts and sip. Make this now and pride yourself in being the First in your area.


 

*I trust my readers are clever enough to recognize that the history presented in this blog post is nothing but wild speculation draped casually upon the shoulders of a few recorded historical certainties.

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