“Roots, Nostalgia, and Gratitude: An Ode to My Mennonite Heritage”. by Henry Regehr
I am filled with gratitude for my Mennonite roots. At age ninety I have spent more than half of my life
away from that community, but the anchor of my life has always been the deep, unfathomable, and
permanently sticky, connection to that community and its special people.
A sociology professor once explained “marginal man” as people born to the immigrant parents who had
decided to live in a new and unfamiliar country. Their children have learned to live partly in the country
of their parents’ origin and its beliefs, language, and culture, partly in the new country. Theirs is a dual
identity, he said, so very many years ago, in my glorious student days. It made sense.
Kudos to Gerhard Lohrenz and John A. Toews who were enthusiastic and keen observers and teachers of
the Mennonite narrative. From Anabaptist history in Holland’s Reformation times to the Mennonite
Brethren pilgrimage in Canada, the story was colorful, filled with triumph, missteps, and bloody tragedy.
And we are the product of that lineage. I am proud of that heritage.
The Regehr name has grown out of its Dutch origins, beginning as Reijer. As language changed, the ij
became y, and the name was then Reyer, the y pronounced hard, like a guttural g. (You can see the
connection with Ryerson University in Toronto). When the Mennonite community, having suffered
deadly persecution by both established religious groups in Holland, in 1595, moved en masse to Prussia
and the Vistula Delta, it was, quite reasonably, decided to make the y into a g and the name was
changed to Regier. In order to make the name look and sound more German, some families decided to
add an h to their name, and it became Regehr. Families then, quite by personal choice, and without
legal complications, switched their names to either spelling. There is an old drawing/map of a traditional
one-street village situated south of Danzig where every home was owned by a Regehr family. The name
There is a quiet pride in knowing that I come from a group of somewhat eccentric, determined
Dutchmen who were willing to buck the religious systems, which were made up of the two dominant
groups of the day. They courageously created a truly rebellious, unique, group of their own. I can
strongly identify with them. They were original thinkers, and I am grateful to them for their courage and
tenacity. The thick tome, The Martyrs’ Mirror, describes in abundant and gruesome detail, the cruel
persecution so many of them suffered. One man, by the name of Reyer, was tied hand and foot, and
thrown into the river. He was apparently innocent since he did not bob to the surface. Had that
happened, it would have proven him guilty of heresy, and he would have been burned at the stake.
These people were my ancestors, both genetically and spiritually. And I am proud of them. I stand on
the shoulders of giants, both male and female.
I have on several occasions, told my granddaughter that she comes from a long line of magnificent,
strong women. Despite the cultural second-class position in which women have found themselves over
the centuries, they have been the strong fiber that has held the family and community together. My
mother, like so many others in her position, saw herself as weak and ineffectual, but she raised
daughters who were able to come to respect themselves. She raised sons who learned, with difficulty
but with success, to respect women, and all of us to raise daughters who have proven themselves to be
truly outstanding people. Their descendants, too, will stand on the shoulders of great women.
Where I parted company with the Mennonite community was around the issue of raising questions
about traditional beliefs, just like my Anabaptist ancestors. I have no regrets about that separation, just
as those early independent thinkers saw no alternative. At the same time, I am fully aware that the
foundation for that willingness to embark on a journey of discovery was laid in my experience with the
community. Just as children, in adolescence, need to find their own identity apart from their family of
origin, and just as young adults need to develop their personal values and beliefs to reach adulthood, so
it was important for me to go on the, sometimes remarkably painful, voyage of discovery. It was always
with the awareness of the roots that were planted deep in the ground of my heritage.
I think of the early life experiences with nostalgia and profound gratitude.
And now I am ready to celebrate, enthusiastically, my ninetieth birthday.