Urry releases Grunthal book; I attend 2 launches in 8 days

A few years ago, Andrew and I were at a conference at the University of Winnipeg. James Urry was speaking via Zoom from his home in New Zealand as he no longer travels. And he mentioned his forthcoming book, his great life’s work, zeroing in on Grunthal.

Andrew and I looked at each other, wide-eyed. GRUNTHAL?!

I’ve been waiting for this book ever since. And that day has finally arrived.

There are a few reasons this is significant in general, and then also to me personally.

In general, just real quick: James Urry is an anthropologist and a historian. Whether you can be both at the same time is another question I suppose. It’s his study of anthropology that led him to discover Mennonites. But “Mennonite” is too broad. In academia you also need to get real specific. And so… Grunthal.

(Yes, I’m glossing over it all. I’ve heard this twice now and still can’t remember and as usual my notes are crap, but I do recall he mentioned this led him to become friends with such people as Al Reimer and Harry Loewen, who was the first Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, I believe. And Urry met Roy Vogt who suggested he study the community of Grunthal. And so James Urry began visiting the community from the 1970s to the 90s. There is my attempt at being specific… wherein I risk getting it all wrong.)

Personally, I have deep (yet honestly tenuous) connections to Grunthal: my great-grandmother lived there, and I attended the Grunthal EMB Church as a girl. So I’ve been eager to discover what this academic from the other side of the world would have to say about this place.

And I wasn’t the only one!

The Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies facilitated two events for the launch of Urry’s latest, On Stony Ground: Russländer Mennonites and the Rebuilding of Community in Grunthal – and both were well attended.

(By me. I went to both. Like a nerd. But this is also how I knew they were well attended by many others!)

First, I went to the in-person launch at the Mennonite Heritage Village on April 18th. I was late, and more chairs were being added for latecomers such as myself. This was a delight to see!

I perched in the overflow. Still had a good view of the screen!

Now, I say “in-person” because although Dr. Urry was Zooming in from New Zealand, the only way to see the conversation that he had with Ernie Braun was to be there at the MHV.

In conversation, there were a few times I had to laugh at his remarks. And it was great to see the joy on his face, at the launch of this long-awaited publication. But part of the fun for me was also interacting with other Grunthal enthusiasts, including my brother’s childhood friend from Grunthal whom I haven’t seen in many years. It was fantastic to find out that he’s discovered the joys of the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve!

But one book launch wasn’t enough for me. I also registered for a Zoom link to the following week’s virtual launch, which I expected to watch on my computer at home like a normal person. There would be no in-person event for this.


A friend from Grunthal told me there would be a “viewing party” (my words, not theirs) at the Elim Mennonite Church.

At first I didn’t think I’d go, because walking into a church in a small town is uncomfortable. Or so I thought. Thankfully, I had a change of heart as I began reading On Stony Ground – Urry had a lot to say about that church in particular, including a great many thanks.

I decided to crash the party.

At some point in my life I realized that learning new things, hearing people talk about their research, while sitting with a group of people in person, is valuable. I love being there to hear and see the human reaction to the information (and jokes!) presented. I love turning around to see people mentioned, and seeing the looks on their faces. I love applauding when we as a group of people feel like that’s what we want to do now. (Times that people feel like clapping are very interesting to me and sometimes surprising… like the time everyone on the plane applauded when we landed safely. Andrew and I were like “ummm is landing safely not a normal occurrence?”)

Also… I feel like for me, every time I return to Grunthal, I’m exorcising some of my own personal demons. Combatting with ghosts. Diluting memories. Replacing old with new. If that makes sense.

So I returned to Grunthal, stepping into a church I do not attend. And my experience… was delightful!

Jake Janzen was mentioned personally by James Urry many times… and he was sitting behind me, so I could turn and see the look on his face as he nodded to affirm that what Urry said was true. He and his wife looked happy and pleased. They had hosted Urry many times in his visits to Grunthal as he conducted his research.

It was a strangely warm and windy day. The night before, Andrew and I had noticed the moon was very full and large. It looked like a giant orange in the sky, hovering just above the horizon. The wind continued violently throughout the day Thursday, whipping my hair and picking up dust. As I drove toward Grunthal, the trees were dancing and the town was shrouded in a sort of mist… but it wasn’t mist. It was dust. It was a beautiful, strange evening.

I tried to assess my feelings as I approached the town. Was it smart or stupid to return? I could see the giant gravel pile looming in the distance, and experienced a few stabs of fear in my gut. Maybe I should turn around. I did not.

The moment I got out of my car in the parking lot, I was greeted by someone I know, who also does not attend this church. My comfort level immediately increased. I had made the right decision.

Stepping inside, I was pleased to see so many historical books laid out! (More about these in a different post.) I was definitely in the right place.

There were THREE other tables full of history books! This captured my attention though. More on this later.

It wasn’t quite 6:30 and the pews were already full. I knew there’d be room at the front (there always is! ha) so I marched past everyone to get a prime seat (apologies for my giant head, to the people behind me! Hopefully my lack of height was at least helpful…). From my perfect perch I enjoyed hearing a former pastor of the church explain why this book was significant to them, and what the people of Grunthal thought of this British/Kiwi scholar who had taken such a keen interest in their community. It was hugely valuable to me, to be able to sit there in this place, with these people, and hear what they had to say.

A few notes from this portion of the evening (before the Zoom link went live):

The original Grunthal village street had been Church Avenue (apparently? I’ll have to go look again and see if this lines up with what the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve has to say!)

In the 1940s, in Hanover, it wasn’t clear whether Steinbach or Grunthal would grow and ascend to become the major center of commerce for the area. It could’ve gone either way. (This is new information for me… I love learning about what the world was like at these times — the world in which my ancestors lived and breathed… they did not have the hindsight information that I do. Which makes me think this applies to looking forward as well… we don’t know the future and things can turn out so very differently than we had ever thought. Things are not obvious when you are in them. We often forget this when looking at history.)

Regarding boundaries… Urry had heard there was a Catholic cross in the woods between Hanover and De Salaberry — marking the boundary between Mennonite and Catholic. He actually found it! (Does it still exist? Could I go see it, somehow???)

The chat ended at 6:55. We were encouraged to get a coffee before the Zoom launched at 7. By the time I was hurrying back to the front pew with my coffee, I could hear the voice of Dr. Aileen Friesen projected into the auditorium. It’s starting!

Even though I was sitting there in the Grunthal Elim Mennonite Church, I still managed to get FOMO though, because Dr. Friesen was reading out the names of people saying hello in the chat. This I could not do. I could not participate virtually because I was actually present at a church watch party. (And it was the best!)

Colour version of feature photo. We all sat in the back half of the church for optimal viewing. (I sat as far to the front as I dared.)

I took some notes during the evening, including Dr. Urry’s response to the question: “Why Grunthal?”

“In a sense, Grunthal chose me. I also felt that any place that produced Jack Thiessen would be interesting.”

At one point there was a question posed from the virtual world to Dr. Urry: “Was there intermarriage between Russlaender and Kanadier?” This elicited big laughter from those gathered in Grunthal. (Because the answer is, of course 😊)

He also reflected that, in his book, “I had to be careful not to identify who I’m talking about in some cases but people in Grunthal will know…” This elicited a different kind of laughter, a knowing kind of laughter, from those gathered in the church. Yes, they will know!

Also a highlight, for me, was the applause at the end. That’s something you wouldn’t have known about if you hadn’t been there. I was glad that I was.

And then, food! I had read it was a potluck so I awkwardly brought crackers and dip that I had quickly picked up from Shoppers Drug Mart before heading south down Highway 12. Here was one item that I couldn’t stop thinking about and will be attempting to locate the recipe:

Cheesy red pepper. Genius!

And then, the books! Which I will tell you about in a different post.

And my face, as I stepped out of the church, into the enchanted night: