The meetinghouse that makes up the center of the first permanent settlement of Mennonites in America has opened its doors to the public once again.
The Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust, located at 6133 Germantown Ave., is testament to over three centuries of perseverance and history for some of the original settlers of Germantown. This history began in October 1683 when 13 Dutch-speaking families, many of them former members of the Mennonite church in Crefeld, Germany, settled alongside the Quakers in the area, according to Christopher Friesen, the Historic Trust program director. The burial grounds around the house were built in 1704, while the meetinghouse, still a center of community for the Mennonites of Germantown, was constructed in 1770.
The meetinghouse is home to an important artifact from Germantown’s early history: the table on which America’s first protest against slavery was drafted in 1688. Four men, three of whom were former Mennonites and one who would later rejoin them, demanded “justice for all people,” according to the Historic Trust, in a document which predated the Emancipation Proclamation by nearly 200 years.
Despite a dedicated following and a long history, Friesen said that obtaining the funding to maintain the historic meetinghouse has often been a challenge.
“Currently our funding comes from a couple of different areas. The historic trust owns both of those buildings [neighboring the meetinghouse] and both of those are rentals with a total of seven rental properties. We have donations and formal tours with a small fee. I go out and do some speaking and so the congregations send some money. Individuals and congregations make up the majority of our funding and it’s always pretty tight.”
Still, this has continued to present some valuable outreach opportunities, he said.
“I usually go speak at Mennonite Sunday school classes, conferences, events… there was a recent conference on the relationship between urban and rural Mennonites here in the Philadelphia area and I sort of laid the historical foundation for that by showing some of those tensions that took place even in the early 1700s.”
The meetinghouse contains a number of small exhibits depicting life for the original residents of the area. Open houses take place on the third Saturday of each month from 10 a.m to 2 p.m. and tours are available by appointment. For more information, visit www.meetinghouse.info.