Mennonite Maids

“One couple I worked for often fought at supper time. They would actually be hurling knives and forks across the table at each other!”

“On Mondays I got up at five a.m. to do the laundry. I had to be finished by seven, so I could begin preparing and serving a hot breakfast to a family of eight.”

“The young men who lived in River Heights knew that Thursday was ‘maids night off.” They used to stand at the streetcar stop and wait for us. They never got anywhere with the Mennonite girls.”

“We didn’t need aerobics classes to get in shape. We were well muscled from scrubbing hardwood floors, lifting children, dusting and sweeping. We were on our feet from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m.”

“I barely knew any English, so I had to keep my eyes and ears open and learn as quickly as I could. I remember once my employer laughed at me because I said, ‘I’ll ‘broom’ the floor. I didn’t know the word ‘sweep.’”

“The lady of the house always had a crystal vase of cut flowers on her piano. It kept getting knocked over and she’d blame me, when all along it was the family cat who was tipping it.”

“One man I worked for had the habit of sleeping in till noon, yet his wife insisted all the upstairs bedrooms had to be cleaned by twelve. I just couldn’t go into a bedroom with a man sleeping in it! So when I started my upstairs cleaning chores I would sing as loudly as I could, “Can’t go to heaven in a rocking chair, God won’t take any lazy folks there.” That always got him out of bed and gave me just enough time to clean his room before I had to start preparing lunch. “

Five former Mennonite maids from left- Betty Krahn, Anna Rosenfeld, Helen Warkentin, Barbara Banman and Katie Rempel

Those are excerpts from interviews I did with five Mennonite women who worked as maids for wealthy people when they were teenagers, in order to help pay back the travel debts their families had incurred by immigrating to Canada. I wrote an article about the five women pictured above which was published in the Mennonite Mirror in May of 1989. I believe all the women who I interviewed have since passed away. I’m posting the article I wrote below because I think their story is an important one of family loyalty, female independence and faith. 

I am spending an unforgettable evening with five interesting and intelligent Steinbach grandmothers. Gathered around a dining room table they talk and reminisce, while I write furiously to capture all the details of the interesting anecdotes, humorous stories and memorable experiences coming at me from two or three directions. All the women I am chatting with have several things in common.  They were all born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as youngsters. When they turned fifteen they all left their family’s farms in rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan and went to live in the city to work as maids.

Their reasons for seeking employment and wages in Winnipeg and Saskatoon and Swift Current were much like those of hundreds of other Mennonite girls their age who made the same decision. Their families were poor and owed a large transportation debt (Reiseschuld) to the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Of the five, only Mrs. Anna Rosenfeld made the move from Herbert, Saskatchewan, to a housekeeping position in Swift Current for a different reason – her mother needed surgery and she took the job at $10 a month to help her father pay for their $100 medical bill.

Another thing the women all have in common is that they still remember the fear they felt at leaving the warmth and security of their homes and moving far away from their parents. “Now that I have raised a teenager of my own, I can just imagine how my mother must have felt sending me to Saskatoon,” says Betty Krahn.  Barbara Banman agrees. “I knew Mom was crying at home in Grunthal when I left. I was crying too. But I had to go. There was no choice.”

“I will never forget how scared I was,” says Helen Warkentin. “My mother and father sent me from Gretna to Winnipeg on the train with a Mr, Bueckert. He never spoke to me on the long trip. I was literally shaking when we arrived at the train station in Winnipeg.” Anna Rosenfeld recalls that the horse and buggy ride from her parents’ home in Herbert, to Swift Current took almost an entire day.  Her Dad was pretty quiet the whole time but at one point he offered her this bit of advice, “Don’t do anything you would be ashamed of and don’t do anything your mother and I would be ashamed of.”

Arriving in the big city which they had always been taught was a place of immorality and a haven for every kind of sinful behavior the girls entered a whole new world. For some, like Helen Warkentin, it was first to the Maedchenheim or girls home.  Established in the mid 1920’s by the General Conference Mennonite Church in Saskatoon and Winnipeg, these homes were a refuge, a place of socialization and worship, and an employment agency for young Mennonite women. While Helen Warkentin waited at the Ebenezer Girls Home in Winnipeg, perspective employers phoned Helen Epp, its headmistress. She carefully questioned the callers and if she approved of them she would send Helen Warkentin or one of the other young women who had just arrived in the city, to take the job. Some girls found their employment in different ways.  Barbara Banman’s older sister Katie had been working in Winnipeg for several years before Barbara turned fifteen. When Katie was offered a better paying position she told her former employers about her sister and they gladly hired her.

The homes these young women entered as servants were very different from the ones they had left behind in Grunthal and Gretna and Tugaskee and Herbert.  “We’d never seen running water, electric lights, an electric iron or a washing machine,” remembers Anna Rosenfeld. Barbara Banman recalls the culture shock she experienced, “Suddenly I was wearing a black and white uniform and emptying ashtrays and serving cocktails at a dinner party. I’d never even heard of hors de ‘oeuvres  let alone made them- and a cucumber sandwich?  What kind of thing was that to eat? At home we had always spoken German and now I had to answer the phone, place orders at the butcher shop, and deal with the milkman, the baker and the Eaton’s delivery boy.  I learned English pretty quickly.”

Another adjustment for the girls who all came from exclusively Mennonite communities was an exposure to the varying religious faiths of their employers. They worked for United Church members, Jewish people, Christian Scientists, and families that had no church affiliation whatsoever.

For the most part the young women were treated well by their employers, but each can recall incidents that weren’t very pleasant. Katie Rempel was working for a wealthy family prominent in the newspaper business. She recalls that “once, after a party an expensive silver tray was missing. The children’s nanny told me our employers suspected I had taken it. When I came home from Bible study at the Maedchenheim on Thursday night I could tell they had been through my room looking for it. Later I found the tray on a high shelf in the basement.  My boss remembered then that the night of the party he had put it up there so it would be out of the way when he played pool with his friends,” No one ever apologized to Katie for falsely accusing her.

That is a story most of the women can reiterate.  One of Barbara Banman’s employers routinely lost his gold cuff links and would roar at her,” Barbara things are starting to disappear in this house!” He’d always find his cuff links but never told Barbara he was sorry for having suspected her.

Helen Warkentin can remember when the police were called in to investigate because she was under suspicion for stealing about $20 in quarters from her employer’s oldest son. As it turned out the boy’s father, in need of some ready cash had taken the coins. 

There were other hardships for the girls.  Young, innocent and attractive, they often received unwanted attention from the River Heights boys on the streetcar. They also tell me about “the milkman who put a hand on my leg,” and their employer’s male friends who got drunk at cocktail parties and made unwanted advances. Barbara Banman recalls how at one such party she was working in the kitchen when her boss came up behind her and started rubbing her neck.  “I whirled around so fast”, she remembers, “And I said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’ And he never did. “

Mostly the young women felt alone and scared. “I would always lock the door of my room at night,” says Helen Warkentin. “One woman I worked for insisted I come in the back door,” remembers Barbara Banman.  “She would get very angry if I used the main entrance. When I came home after my Thursday evening off it would be pitch black in that alleyway behind the house. My mistress refused to leave a light on for me. My heart would just be pounding as I tried to fit my key into the lock in the dark. To this day I have night mares that I am in that back lane and something jumps out at me.”

It wasn’t always easy for the girls to make the transition from beloved daughter in a large and happy family to a “servant” who had to eat alone in the kitchen and “keep her place.” Mrs. Katie Rempel had one mistress who was fond of reminding her that she had been to finishing school. They had taught her how to “handle” maids there. Mrs. Anna Rosenfeld had one employer who was always critical. “She told me I never did anything right.  She had this sour look on her face whenever she spoke to me. Finally I said to her, “If you can’t even smile at me, I’m leaving.  And I did.”

All five women have some fond memories too of good times and kind employers. Barbara Banman remembers a gift of perfume she was given by a man she worked for. “He had to go away on a business trip and asked me to give up my day off to stay with his wife who had just had a miscarriage. The perfume was his way of expressing his gratitude for my kindness to his family.” Anna Rosenfeld has a special place in her heart for a young boy she looked after who had hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid on his head. “Nowadays they can correct that sort of thing with surgery, but at the time he was bedridden. He was so sad he couldn’t do the things the other boys did.” Mrs. Bettv Krahn recalls a judge and his wife who employed her. “They treated me more like a daughter than a maid.” Katie Rempel tells of her unique relationship with a deaf woman she cared for. ” I learned to interpret when her friends called on the phone. We had our own kind of sign language and I mouthed the words very carefully.” Mrs. Helen Warkentin enjoyed the children in the homes where she worked. “I loved to sing to them and tell them stories. They were very sad when I left.”

Many of the women’s good times during their years of maid service revolved around the Maedchenheim or girls home.  Every Thursday night hundreds of Mennonite girls from all over the city flocked to the Maedchenheim for Bible study and socializing. In Winnipeg Rev. Benjamin Ewert gave the devotional sessions at the Ebenezer Girls’ Home. In Saskatoon Rev. J. J. Thiessen was in charge. After the meeting the women ate a lunch they had brought along. On both Thursdays and Sundays truckloads of young men from the girls’ home communities would arrive at the Maedchenheim to take the young women for rides, to go to the park to have picnics or even step out to a movie. The girls in Winnipeg recall how Pastor Ewert would deliberately lengthen his prayers and devotions if he knew the boys were waiting outside.

The girls’ homes hosted Christmas parties and bridal showers. They were a place to go if you were sick, or in between jobs or just needed someone to talk to. All the women agreed it was good to know that someone cared about you and was concerned about your welfare. Mrs. Betty Krahn remembers how Rev. J. J. Thiessen, who was the pastor for the home in Saskatoon, kept careful track of all the Mennonite girls in the city. “If you missed a Thursday night Bible study for any reason you could be sure Rev. Thiessen would phone you the very next morning to find out why you had been absent and if you were okay.  Helen Epp, who was in charge of the Winnipeg home, was no different. If Miss Epp didn’t see a girl or hear from her for two weeks she would get on the phone or the streetcar to track the girl down and find out what was going on. Barbara Banman and Katie Rempel are sure their parents felt a little more secure in sending them to Winnipeg knowing the personnel at the Maedchenheim would keep an eye on them.

Besides the socialization provided by events at the girls’ home the women had little other leisure time or activities. Two of them recall, however, that books were an important source of solace and enjoyment for them. Since all of the women had left school to work in the city they missed out on a high school education.  Barbara Banman worked for several people who had extensive libraries. She read voraciously.  Anna Rosenfeld worked right across the street from the public library in Swift Current. A Mrs. Rice who was the librarian there helped her to select books and she read late at night after all her work was done. “That’s how I got my education,” she says.

The wages the five women worked for varied from $5 to $20 a month. “I made $10 a month at my first job,” recalls Anna Rosenfeld. “But my employer only started paying me after a four-week trial period during which I received no wages whatsoever.” Helen Warkentin earned $5 a month. “I sent $4.50 home to help pay for the Reiseschuld.  I gave 35 cents to the Maedchenheim and saved two cents for the stamp for a letter to my family. That left me with 13 cents of my own.”

Mrs. Betty Krahn also earned $ 5 a month. She reminds me though “that you have to remember a new dress at Eaton’s was $4.95. We worked a long time to earn enough money for luxuries like that.”

All five women eventually quit their jobs in the city. Katie Rempel returned home after her family’s Reiseschuld was all paid. Anna Rosenfeld went back to her parents’ farm because her mother was expecting another baby and needed her help. Betty Krahn decided to attend Bible school in Rosthern for a year and Barbara Banman and Helen Warkentin both left their employment to get married.

Although at the time they were often scared and lonely all five women feel the years spent working in the city were important in shaping their characters and setting a direction for their lives. Barbara Banman sums it up for all of them.  “It was a very hard experience but it taught us to cope with things. I know what I learned living in the city and working as a maid, has helped me to cope with other difficulties in my life. What saw us through was our security in our family and in our church. A man once came to our home to do a survey about the members of our household.  One of the questions he asked me was if I had any sort of educational degree.  I said, “Yes, I did. I had earned a degree in home economics. I didn’t lie. Those years I spent working for the wealthy of Winnipeg gave me an education that has served me well throughout my life. Unlike many other young women of my time I was forced to learn to be responsible for myself and make my own decisions.”

Mrs. Katie Rempel chuckles and adds, “When my husband married me some people who knew how many years I had worked in Winnipeg asked him, “And what do you want with a city girl?”

After spending an evening with these five special women I know their husbands were fortunate to find wives with such strong determination and lively spirit. They made the best of a situation they could not change and learned and grew because of it. The men they married were lucky indeed to have wed a “city girl!” 

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