Category Archives: Religion

Utterly Fascinating

It has been a long time since I have been so utterly fascinated with a book! I just finished reading The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar.

I was so engaged by this book because of the fantastical but true story at its heart about a group of hundreds of Russian Mennonites who in the 1880s left their Molotshna colony in Ukraine and travelled to Uzbekistan.

They were led by a man named Claas Epp who had convinced them that Christ would return in 1889 and they needed to be in Uzbekistan to meet him. After many trials and tribulations, which Sofia Samatar describes in graphic detail, Epp and his followers established a village in a place called Ak Metchet- the White Mosque and lived there for some 50 years before they were all arrested by the Bolsheviks and sent into exile.

Sofia Samatar- photo from her website

I was moved by this book because of the way it describes things near and dear to me from my Mennonite heritage. Take for example Sofia Samatar’s description of Mennonite hymn singing.

“The beautiful harmony of Mennonite singing, taken in like breath in childhood so that even young children show a wonderful facility and ease with music…….

Music that most transportable of the arts accompanied the early persecuted Anabaptists, it murmured in their nights as they fled, it carried their stories from place to place, it sheltered their history, it bore them like an ark.”

Ella Maillart- photo from Wikimedia

My curiosity was aroused by this book because it introduced me to so many intriguing real-life characters that I want to learn even more about…….

– the Mennonite photographer Wilhelm Penner who helped birth the art of photography in Uzbekistan

Irene Worth a famous star of stage and screen, who was a descendant of one of the Mennonite families that trekked to Uzbekistan

Ella Maillart a Swiss photographer, travel adventurer and Olympic athlete who found her way to Ak Metchet in the 1930s and took photos of the Mennonite settlement there

-Diary keeper Elizabeth Unruh who was just a teenager at the time of the Claas Epp Trek but who writes about it in evocative powerful language

I was intrigued by this book because besides being a history book it is also a travel diary and personal memoir.

Sofia with her brother Del, a tattoo artist. They created a book Monster Portraits together.

Sofia Samatar is the daughter of Lydia Glick, a Swiss Mennonite from South Dakota whose masters thesis on Beowulf left a life- long impression on her daughter, and Said Sheikh Samatari a prominent Somali writer and scholar, and a professor at Rutgers University who worked for the American news show Nightline with Ted Koppel.

In the book, you learn about what it is like for Sofia to be part of a family with parents from such different places and backgrounds and religious heritages. How do you find a place to fit in? Sofia compares growing up amidst this diversity to being in ‘an electrical storm.’

Sofia Samatar – photo from the Free Social Encyclopedia

Sofia is a fascinating person. She is a professor of Arabic and African literature at James Madison University and the writer of four award-winning fantasy novels. She and her husband Keith Miller, who grew up in Kenya, lived in South Sudan for three years and in Egypt for nine. They are the parents of two children and I laughed out loud when Sofia illustrates their style of parenting with an image of them running after the school bus with their kids’ forgotten lunches.

The White Mosque is also a travel diary because Sofia describes in her beautiful and lyrical way a tour she went on to Uzbekistan in 2016. She was with a group of people some of whom were descendants of the Claas Epp pilgrims, to find the places important to their almost unbelievable trek across harsh and unforgiving terrain and the unique settlement they finally established at Ak-Metchet.

Sofia’s book also made me look at things from my religious heritage in a new way.

After reading her reflections on the Mennonite devotion to the Martyrs Mirror, I wondered why the people of my religious heritage are so enamoured with stories of suffering.

Her reflections on North American Mennonite service workers made it clear that their assignments in other countries perpetuate the false notion of people ‘saving’ those assumed to be less fortunate when really what service work does is provide rich opportunities for personal and professional growth for those who sign up for it.

Her story about Johann Drake who tried to swallow a Bible whole, made me think about why so many of us were taught to swallow the stories of the Bible whole without asking hundreds of questions about their origin and purpose or realizing the current Bible was a book of stories cobbled together over time by men with a political agenda.

I could probably write a dozen posts about different aspects of The White Mosque, and maybe I will, but this will have to do for now.

Huge thanks to Erin Unger who reviewed this book on her blog Mennotoba in October and brought it to my attention.

Other posts……….

Is It Wrong to Die for Your Faith?

Five Wives

A Carpet Conversation About the Universe

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What’s Microchimerism and What Does It Have to Do With Christmas?

I learned about microchimerism for the first time in a sermon I read by Pastor Carol Penner given at First Mennonite Church in Vineland Ontario.

The Visitation by Raphael in the Prado in Madrid

Microchimerism occurs during pregnancy when cells from the mother are transferred to her fetus and………… this was something I never knew before…………… cells from the fetus are transferred to the mother.

In her sermon, Carol talked about how each of us has a unique DNA signature in all our cells. Our bodies can’t tolerate cells with someone else’s DNA which is why when people have organ transplants they have to take potent anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives to fool their bodies into accepting someone else’s cells.

But……. pregnancy is an amazing exception. A mother’s body not only tolerates the cells with foreign DNA that exist in the child growing in her uterus, she actually nurtures those cells and……….. her body does not destroy the baby’s cells with alien DNA that transfer into her body and remain there for the rest of her life.

Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca

The microchimeric cells that transfer from baby to mother don’t just sit in the mother’s body they grow and multiply and travel to many different places, especially to places where the mother’s body has been injured or damaged.

Scientists are discovering that if a woman gets cancer even decades after she has given birth, microchimerism cells from her child that remain in her body help fight cancer. This may explain why women who have been pregnant have a better prognosis when they get breast cancer.

Morning Star- photo by Kristyn Brown from her Modern Portrayal of Catholic Saints Project

But……….. and this was the most amazing thing for me……… the cell transfer from your child to you doesn’t happen when you give birth it happens in the very early stage of pregnancy.

So even if a woman loses a child that transfer of cells has already happened and the mother will carry the DNA of the child she lost for the rest of her life.

I had three lost pregnancies and even now forty years later, I find comfort in knowing that some cells from those children I never knew are still part of me and will be till I die.

Statue of a pregnant Mary I photographed in a cathedral in Evora Portugal

Carol Penner uses microchimerism in her sermon as an example of how amazing our created bodies are and how during pregnancy love is a two-way street between mother and child as they exchange cells that can nurture and heal. She thinks it is no accident that the Jesus of the Bible came into the world via the body of a pregnant woman.

I am reminded that during his life Jesus encouraged us to make love a two-way street running between God and us and our neighbour.

Other posts………

What If God Is Just a Stranger on a Bus?

She Was 13 Years Old

A Pregnant Mary and a Mary With Knives in Her Heart

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Filed under Health, Religion

All Those Mennonite Names!!

I was doing some research for a writing project and wanted to know what the most common last names in the province of Manitoba were. I found this site called Forebearers: Names and Genealogy Resources and it had a page for most common surnames in Manitoba.

I couldn’t believe it! At least 10 of the top 20 most common surnames in Manitoba were Mennonite names like Penner and Klassen and Reimer. Four other names that have English as well as Dutch Mennonite roots like my own maiden name Peters and names like Martin and Miller and Brown which are often considered Mennonite names, were also in the top twenty.

From what I could find online there are about 80 or so Mennonite churches in the province but of course not all attendees would have names traditionally considered Mennonite and many people with Mennonite names might not attend church at all.

Apparently in 1998 there were 60,000 Mennonites in the province but I couldn’t find any statistics for 2022. I did read that Winnipeg is the city in Canada with the most Mennonites.

I knew Mennonites had a big presence here in Manitoba but I was still very surprised to discover that the top twenty list of most common surnames in our province is dominated by traditional Mennonite names.

Other posts………..

Mennonite Humour

Mennonite on the Titanic

What Does a Mennonite Look Like?

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I am glad I saw the television series Unorthodox before I read the book of the same name that inspired it- the memoir of Deborah Feldman. In the filmed version Deborah’s role is played by a very talented actress Shira Haas and her name is not Deborah but Esty.

The series and book are about an orthodox Jewish woman living in New York who leaves her strict Hasidic community in order to start a new life for herself.

The television series begins in a dramatic fashion as Esty is planning her daring escape. The viewer’s interest is engaged almost immediately.

By contrast I found the book’s opening chapters somewhat slow as Feldman gives a long first person narration of her life as a child. She has been raised by her grandparents.

In the book Deborah has a child of her own when she leaves the community. In the film version Esty is pregnant.

I will be honest and say that while I greatly admire Deborah Feldman for what she did in seeking a new life where she would no longer live with the oppression of her misogynist religious community I felt more empathy and connection with Esty the character in the movie.

I also liked the way the film version portrayed the other characters in a more balanced way so we could see their positive traits and their struggles and understand why they acted as they did. In the movie version there weren’t strict ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ the way there seemed to be in the book.

Perhaps I was also influenced by the fact that after I read Unorthodox I found many criticisms of the book online written by people who knew Deborah Feldman and her family and say she distorted and embellished and some cases outright lied about her past experiences.

In the film version one does not need to worry about authenticity because it is first and foremost a dramatic story. As the advertising for the television series makes clear it is only loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s book.

I would highly recommend the television series Unorthodox. If you have to choose to either watch it or read the book I’d definitely watch the series.

Other posts……..

Movie or Book? The Hate You Give

Six Things Jane Austen Movies and Books Have in Common

A Violent Movie About A Violent Story

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Filed under Books, Media, Religion

The Woman’s Bible

My copy of The Woman’s Bible was a gift from my aunt, Margaret Froese some four decades ago. The Woman’s Bible was such an eye-opener for me. It introduced me to many Biblical women whose names I’d never heard before.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton editor and author of The Woman’s Bible

Published in 1895 the book provided commentary on every single woman mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. Editor Elizabeth Cady Stanton enlisted the help of twenty-six other women to write The Woman’s Bible. They looked at the Biblical texts about women in a new way, no longer assuming that women were inferior to men or should be subservient to them. Some of the commentaries encouraged the use of feminine names for God and suggested that Biblical materials which had been written and selected by MEN had a clear anti-female bias.

The Woman’s Bible became a bestseller even though it was widely criticized when it was first published particularly by the male clergy. Some called it, “the work of Satan.”

A number of the women I was first introduced to in The Woman’s Bible will be the focus of the course I will begin teaching this morning in McNally Robinson Booksellers’ Community Classroom.

Two of the women I will be introducing to my class this morning are this pair bowing down to Pharaoh in a 1900 painting by French artist James Tissot. Do you know who they are?

Another woman we will look at is the prophetess at the forefront of this artwork by Sister Marie Claire an artist from Bangalore, India. Do you know who the prophetess is?

And who are the five Biblical women in this acrylic and silk work by Yael Harris Resnick? We’ll find out in my class this morning.

If you’d like to know about these women there are still a few hours left to sign up for the course. Why not join us?

Other posts………..

Mary and Martha

In Praise of Church Organists

Join My Class At McNally’s

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Another Invitation

The date is drawing near for the course I will be teaching in the McNally Robinson Booksellers Community Classroom in November on Monday mornings. It’s called Learning About Biblical Women Through Art.

Huldah the Prophetess by Dina Cormick 1989

We will be meeting women like Huldah a respected Old Testament prophet and teacher

Priscilla and her husband Aquila by Silvia Dimitrova -2013

And Priscilla, a skilled artisan, brave traveller, wise theologian and welcoming hostess.

Windsock Visitation” by Brother Mickey McGrath

We’ll explore the friendship between Mary and Elizabeth

Together we will examine a cadre of artworks from over the centuries and from across the world that will help add to our appreciation of a variety of women we find in Biblical and apocryphal texts.

I’d love to have you join the class. I’ve taught the class before in a different setting and here is what one participant had to say……

This is probably one of the best classes I have ever taken. MaryLou was extremely well prepared. I loved the variety of Biblical women she sourced out and the accompanying artwork and the way MaryLou invited participants to respond to art pieces she showed.  It was just SO good’!!!

You can sign up for the class by clicking on this link and scrolling down. Hope to see you in November.

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The Date is Drawing Near

In my post today I’d like to invite you all to join my course in the McNally Robinson Community Classroom which begins on November 7 Learning About Biblical Woman Through Art.

We will be exploring the lives of some women whose stories you may not have heard of before by looking at artworks from across the centuries and from many different countries.

Joseph and Asenath by Hugo van der Goes1475

We will meet Asenath whose life was changed by a magical honeycomb.

Susanna and the Elders by Israeli artist Alexander Gurevich-2014

We’ll explore the courage of Susanna

The Child Mary with Joachim and Anne- St. Romain Parish- Rouen- Photo by Sergio Hollmann

And we will learn all about the childhood of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

There are still plenty of spaces left in the class which meets from 10:30 to 12:30 the first three Mondays in November. You can register by clicking on this link and scrolling down to my class.

And this not just a course for women. Men will enjoy it as well. We would welcome the perspectives of those of all gender identities in the class!

Hope to see you in November!

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The Part of the Story That Makes Me Cry

Performance of St. John Passion at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church directed by Kathleen Allan as part of the Winnipeg Baroque Festival

I went to listen to Bach’s St. John Passion yesterday afternoon. An Easter story in October? Yes, it might sound a little strange but this was a concert that was to have been performed on Good Friday in April but had to be postponed due to an impending snowstorm.

October 2 was the date things aligned for the choir members, soloists, instrumentalists, and conductor to reconvene to present the work. My special interest in attending was the fact my daughter-in-law was lending her gorgeous voice to the soprano section of the choir.

Christ on the Cross with Mary and John by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1512

There is a part of the passion story unique to the Gospel of John that always has me in tears and it did yesterday as well. It is when Jesus is near death and the very last thing he does is ask his best friend John to look after his mother.

I think it is so moving and important that Jesus’ final thought wasn’t anything theological or political, no last-minute reflection on his legacy, but rather thoughts of concern and love for his mother and feeling the need to be sure she would be looked after and cared for once he was gone.

The Crucifixion by Gerard David -1510

Perhaps it is because I am getting older and am the mother of sons who may someday need to care for me, or perhaps it is because I am a child currently having to care for a parent, that this scene which is unique to the passion story in John, strikes such a chord with me.

It was the part of the two-thousand-year-old story I heard again yesterday which brought a tear to my eye.

The Crucifixion of Jesus by Wang Suda- 1937- both Jesus’ mother and his friend have their hands over their hearts

Other posts……..

The Family of Jesus Portrayed in a Controversial Way

What Did Jesus Look Like?

Mother Standing

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Filed under Music, Religion

In Praise of Church Organists

My Mom was a church organist for decades. She played for countless weddings, funerals, worship services and choral concerts. I have no photos of her playing the organ and I don’t think there is any record anywhere about her hundreds of hours of volunteering as a church organist.

I do remember hearing Mom play on so many occasions and marvelling at the way she would segue from piece to piece, hymns and classical music intermingled.

Mom often played from memory the music flowing from her mind and heart to her hands and feet on the organ keys and pedals as she brought an added beauty to the moment, but in such a subtle way that the people listening may not have realized the vital role she played in the sacred experience they were having.

I thought of my Mom on our recent cycling trip on Pelee Island when we visited St. Mary’s Church built in the 1860s.

One of the stained glass windows in the church featured an image of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

Many famous artists have painted Saint Cecilia holding a whole variety of instruments.

I work at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and we have this 1630 painting of St. Cecilia in our collection by Giuseppe Puglia where St. Cecilia is playing the violin

In this painting by Artemisia Gentile from 1620 the musical saint is playing the lute.

And in this Fanny Paelinck Horgnies painting from 1829 Saint Cecilia plays the harp.

But in the stained glass window in St. Mary’s Church on Pelee Island Saint Cecilia is holding a pipe organ.

A plaque at the bottom of the window explains the reason for the organ. The stained glass window has been installed by the congregation on Pelee Island in appreciation for the long service of their church organist Mrs Mary A. Dixon.

I looked for a picture of Mary Dixon online. I searched for any mention of her ever having lived on Pelee Island or her musical contributions but none could be found. Like my mother, she probably played at countless church celebrations and functions over the years.

Many people do voluntary jobs in churches that don’t land them in the spotlight. They work behind the scenes or in my mother’s case, and Mary Dixon’s case, behind the organ keys, to add beauty and meaning and inspiration to worship experiences and the celebrations of life’s milestones.

Their contributions are worth noting and remembering.

Other posts………..

My Mom’s Mennonite Hymnal

An Artist’s Date For My Mom

Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore


Filed under Art, Music, Religion

Hutterite Life- Stunning Photography

Children playing tag on straw bales after a shower
Spring Valley Colony – 2010

Last week my friend and I went to visit The Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery on the Canadian Mennonite University Campus to see the exhibit In the World, But Not Of It. In a series of absolutely stunning photographs Tim Smith reveals the intimacies and intricacies of life on Hutterite colonies. Smith has spent thirteen years building relationships with Hutterite families and photographing them at many different moments on their life’s journey.

Chantel Hofer plays with her niece in a wheat field. -Deerboine Colony- 2015

Hutterite colonies are patriarchal and so what struck me about the collection on view at the gallery is the way Smith has captured Hutterite women. He presents them as daring, capable, independent, happy and quirky.

Kelly Waldner on her quarter horse- Baker Colony – 2016
Hadassah Maendal practices headstands on the Baker Colony in 2016
A young Hutterite woman displays a henna tattoo she designed -2018
Doria Waldner from the Green Acres colony on a midway ride at a fair in the city of Brandon-2018
Lissa Wurtz head gardener on the Deerboine Colony- 2018
Hadassah Maendal takes her horse for a swim- Baker Colony -2016

This is just a tiny sample of the wonderful photos you can see in the exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery. The exhibit will be there till November 12.

You can also view Tim Smith’s stunning photography on his website.

Note: I took the photos of Tim Smith’s photos used in this blog when I visited the gallery.

Other posts……..

Hutterite Artists

Could I Be A Hutterite?

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