From the early 1930’s until the 1960’s, young immigrant Mennonite women worked as maids in Vancouver’s upper-class households. The decisions to send these young women into the city to work as maids was made more out of necessity than choice, as many of these families owed large debts to the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR played a large part in financially assisting Mennonite families wishing to immigrate to Canada to escape religious persecution, revolution and war. This arrangement benefited the Canadian government, in that they could now settle large parcels of land that had yet to be used for agriculture.
Canada welcomed two big groups of Mennonite refugees from the former Soviet Union and Europe. One group arrived in the 1920’s when families escaped the persecution of the emerging Communist regime. The second group arrived in the late 1940’s after WWII, when traumatized families hoped for a new beginning in a new land. Once the families arrived, however, crop yields and odd-jobs did not provide enough to sustain a family and pay off the debt to the CPR. Maids were in high demand in the cities, and as a last resort, Mennonite families sent their daughters into the Canadian cities to look for work.
Working in the City
These young women faced many challenges once they arrived in the city. The languages they spoke included Russian, Old German and High German, but very little English. Communication with their employers, as well as day to day tasks was difficult owing to the language barrier. In the early years, most young women had no relations or friends in the city. They had to navigate their own way to find employment. Often spending their first night in train stations or boarding houses, the girls searched “Help Wanted” ads until they could find live-in employment. The uncertainty and challenges assimilating into a new environment for the girls concerned their families and Church officials. Through both the women’s independent initiatives and church assistance, two girls’ homes came into being.
The Bethel Home and Mary Martha Home
The Bethel and Mary Martha Homes were two houses set up for Mennonite maids working in Vancouver. These houses provided a few rooms for boarding, help in matching girls with employers, and a place to commune on Thursdays when all the girls would meet up at the house, share lunches, socialize, play board games, and hear a devotional from a visiting minister.
The Bethel Home was established in 1931 when a group of young Mennonite girls rented a house on 6363 Windsor Street. This house was initially funded by and hosted by the young women of the Mennonite Brethren Church. In 1936 the girls and resident matron saved enough money to purchased the same home they were renting. A few years later in 1943, the church assisted in moving the Bethel Home to 545 East 49th Avenue to accommodate the growing number of young women arriving to work as domestic servants.
In contrast to the Bethel Home, the Mary Martha House was supported by the General Conference Mennonite Church from its beginning in 1935. Similar to the Bethel Home, this house too was used as a hostel, employment agency and gathering place for the girls on their days off.
The Bethel Home functioned in this manner until 1961 when the Mennonite Brethren Conference closed the home. The Mary Martha Home moved to 605 East 49th Avenue in 1956. It was sold in 1959 and closed in early 1960. Changing patterns in the nature of domestic help resulted in the demand for more day-jobs instead of live-in maids, and so both Mennonite churches decided that the Homes were no longer needed as much as they had been. Many former maids expressed their dismay at the closure of these homes. For these women, the Girls’ Homes played a much larger role in their lives from simply being a boarding house and employment agency. This was a community of young women who found a refuge and shared life’s experiences for three decades.
Detailed accounts about the lives, challenges and history of Mennonite Maids in Vancouver can be found in book, Daughters in the City, Mennonite Maids in Vancouver, 1931-1961 by Dr. Ruth Derksen Siemens. Visit the website here.
VHF Places That Matter Plaque Presentation #89
On June 17th, 2021, VHF presented the plaque to Mennonite Maids during a virtual presentation. A recording of the event can be viewed below.