AT A SMALL petrol station outside Dunmore East on a beautiful April morning, there are two men outside the shop. One of them is carrying planks of wood from a van.
“We are working on the ceiling”, says Pastor Wendell Hochstetler. Pastor Hochstetler is a part of the Amish-Mennonite community in Dunmore East in Waterford.
The group came to Dunmore from the United States 25 years ago after being invited by a local family. They are known as Anabaptists, which shares some beliefs with Catholicism. The pastor explains that the main difference is that “we believe in a believer’s baptism and that baptism should occur at an older age.”
Members of the church abstain from using television and radio, but are more accepting of technology and modern society than some Amish followers – they even have their own website. Most community members are from the United States with others originating from Ukraine, Romania, and several from Waterford, along with a family from Wales. Pastor Wendell is from South Carolina and finds the weather in Ireland “a lot colder”.
The pastor’s sons have been up since 5am this morning. “We start early so we can finish before the shop opens,” he says.
When entering the shop at the petrol station, there is a wonderful aroma of baking. “That’s our bakery,” Pastor Wendell says. Inside, there are two women working at the bakery. There is a foot-long cinnamon roll on the table chopped and ready to enter the oven.
“We usually start around 6am in the morning but sometimes earlier,” says one of the women. They are making cakes for the accompanying shop and the local retail store.
Beside the cinnamon roll is a large industrial mixing bowl. “We are making madeira cake,” says the second woman. A man arrives with more cakes and hot cross buns. “This is our first week selling hot cross buns,” says Pastor Hochstetler. On the main shop floor his sons are still working on the ceiling.
Next door to the shop and in front of the bakery is the book shop. It is stocked with an array of biblical books, pictures and pottery. “We bring most of our stock over in big containers” from the States, he says.
The cases sitting on a nearby shelf contain Bible covers. “We sell lots and lots of those, actually,” the pastor says, smiling.
Back on the shop floor the men are finishing up their work and leave the place in immaculate condition. “On a day like today we can get quite busy,” Pastor Wendell says. The shop, which is famous for its ice-creams, can sell 22,000 cones every summer. “We tend to keep our mix very thick, we don’t water it down and we have a very good ice-cream maker.” The store is also famous for carrot cake, and can make up 200 carrot cakes a week.
There is a display of sheds outside the shop, which is part of the wood crafts business run by the religious community. “A lot of these sheds are made over in America by our people. It’s a big business for many of our families,” Pastor Wendell says.
The pastor says that two men can build an average shed in a day. The sheds are very durable and hold a corrugated metal roof. “We use heavy timber framework and we insulate the roof,” he says. Beside the sheds is a newly built pergola which is similar to a big wooden canopy. “This is something new and we have just sold one,” he says.
A few miles up the road from the petrol station is the community hall and church. “Our school is located here”. The school teaches children to Leaving Certificate level, and the students sit the actual exams in another local school.
Inside there is a large meeting hall where members meet for service. “Sometimes we have people come over from Germany and stay here with us for a while.” The hall is very basic and plain; it doesn’t carry a lot of decor or objects. It is a calm place, with a sense of peace about it.
In the classrooms just off the hall, the kids are learning Irish and maths. “The teachers are trained in America,” says the pastor. In one of the classrooms the teacher is helping one of the children with algebra.
At the back, outside the community centre is a mural of the children’s favourite books that they painted on the side of the workshop. Inside the large workshop is a selection of high powered tools and stocks of wood. “We are very quiet today as we have been working on the shop ceiling”. He explains that a lot of the furniture would be made in the winter, so the summer is free to work off-site fitting decking and fencing, which can be extremely popular during the warmer months.
There is a giant-sized game of Connect Four in the corner of the workshop. “My son made this last year when he was bored – he was fourteen at the time”.
At the back of the workshop there is a large door which is used for unloading containers that deliver supplies from the United States. “Last week we had one that backed up to the door and eight of us had to empty it piece by piece,”he said.
All of the sawdust and wood shavings are sucked through a vacuum system which compacts the waste into pellets, “We put the pellets in a burner which is used to heat the shop and our house”.
On the other side of the workshop there is a barn that is home to a number of cows and pigs. “It’s not part of our beliefs but we tend to grow our own fruit, veg and supply our own meat,” he says. The cow is munching away on its morning hay. “We will be sending it out to graze soon.” Beside the animals is a large red tractor. “You always need a good tractor to get work done,” he notes.
The church tries to integrate more with the local community and they do this through the Comeragh wilderness camps in nearby Rathgormack. The camp is set up to help troubled young teenage boys. “The initiative is based on a program we have in America,” he says. The teenagers have the option to take part in the two-week summer camp consisting of one or two week sessions.
Activities that the teens would take part in include hiking and arts and crafts. There is also a summer event for children which they can attend in the morning and go home in the evening. “We have around 40 children a week that comes to that programme, so it’s a big event,” he says.
The community that came to Waterford city 25 years ago is still going strong with a growing population. The pastor explains the thinking behind it all.
“It’s not about having our little American community – it’s about reaching out to others and sharing the love of Jesus.”
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