As a young Catholic boy coming of age in Eagle Creek, Oregon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bill Idlewine took German lessons and spent time reading the translation of the Bible by Martin Luther. This activity, he said, proved to be very beneficial in the following years as he embarked on his journey of faith.
In his youth, he aspired to become a Catholic priest. However, his beliefs began to change after attending services with a local Mennonite congregation, where he discovered a faith better aligned with his own understanding of scripture.
Graduating from high school in 1973, he moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1975 when he was hired by Parkview Press, a publisher that produced Christian Light Publication. It was while working at this job that he met a family that inspired him to move to Mid-Missouri.
“This family had moved to Virginia from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the gentleman was also a former Catholic turned Mennonite,” Idlewine said.
“Around the beginning of 1977, this family moved to the Latham area, and I came to visit them,” he added.
Taking advantage of his visits, Idlewine moved to Latham in 1978 and joined the Groffdale Conference. This conference represents the largest Old Order Mennonite group that, although shying away from the use of automobiles, has welcomed conveniences such as electricity into their homes.
The men of the Groffdale Conference are dressed in traditional attire such as plain slacks, shirts, suspenders and hats while the women generally wear a head covering and long robes with a cape or apron. Also, the mode of travel they adopt is the black horse-drawn buggy, in addition to bicycles.
Members of the Groffdale Conference advise against posing for photographs as it is considered a violation of the Second Commandment’s prohibition against engraved images and may promote pride.
“One of the reasons we use the horse and buggy is because we think it helps keep our families and communities closer and closer together,” he said. “Furthermore, we believe that the overall use of a vehicle brings a lifestyle that is not conducive to simple, godly living.”
Shortly after moving to the Latham area, Idlewine traveled to Tipton with other locals to work in a shoe factory. He soon met Anna Mary Leid of Pennsylvania while she was visiting her two sisters and a brother who lived near Latham. She and Idlewine then began to correspond.
“We got married in March 1980,” he said. “As part of the practices of Old Order Mennonites, we were married at his family’s home in Pennsylvania.”
Idlewine said that in addition to his job at the shoe factory, he briefly dabbled in farming. For 10 years he worked for a wood products company in Eldon before being hired at Martin Machinery (now Martin Energy Group), where he spent the next 24 years.
He and his wife went on to raise six sons and a daughter, all of whom are still part of the Mennonite community. As Idlewine said, his children have now given him and his wife 50 grandchildren.
“In 2017, I went to work for my son-in-law at Diesel Track Service, and that’s where I continue to work,” he explained.
Many misleading perceptions of Mennonites, Idlewine said, were popularized by photographs showing women wearing bonnets, long dresses and aprons while working in the garden or around the house.
“These types of photographs really give the wrong impression because they don’t reveal all the hard work that’s actually going on,” Idlewine said. “It’s hot and sticky outside, their backs hurt and they could get blisters on their hands.” After a pause, he added, “It’s certainly hard work, but it’s rewarding.”
A member of Burris Valley, Idlewine said they call their churches “meeting houses”. During services, Mennonites sit in groups according to age, gender, and marital status. Also, there is no Sunday school because parents are responsible for teaching their children about the Bible. Their ministers are lay pastors chosen from the congregation.
“Mennonites began in the 1500s to practice believer’s baptism,” he said. “I wanted to be part of a congregation that I felt was more focused and aligned with the scriptures.”
Many of those who choose to convert to a Mennonite conference, he said, don’t stay long because of the austere and laborious lifestyle. Still, Idlewine acknowledged that the greatest number of out-of-town converts tend to be Catholics, who often join Mennonite and Amish churches.
“I think maybe it’s because they’re used to a regimented structure,” he said.
Their congregation sings primarily in German while their worship services are held in a mix of German, Pennsylvania Dutch, and English. He also noted that Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible is considered one of the best scripture translations and is regularly used in their services.
His journey from Catholicism to Mennonite is a rather rare event, Idlewine admitted, but it reminds him of a statement made by the Mennonite bishop who married him and his wife decades earlier.
“The bishop said it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you go that really matters,” he said.
“It was a blessed trip and I guess in simple terms you can say I love the Mennonite lifestyle. We don’t go to the movies or watch TV but there is a peace that comes with it. quiet life and being part of a close-knit, extended family.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.