Founders of the first Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Thrift shops - Selma Loewen, Sara Stoesz, Linie Friesen, Susan Giesbrecht and dozens of women

Teachers. Entrepreneurs. Wives. Mothers. Thrifters. Trailblazers. These resilient Mennonite women mobilized their communities to help those in need locally and globally. Their creativity, determination and drive to make a difference sparked a network of MCC Thrift shops with locations across Canada, the United States and even inspired a thrift shop in Lebanon. In 1972, Selma Loewen, Sara Stoesz, Linie Friesen, Susan Giesbrecht, Agatha Friesen and Justina Baerg opened the very first volunteer-run thrift shops in support of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC); a non-profit organization that works locally and globally alongside communities to meet basic human needs and work for peace and justice.

In the early 1970s, MCC’s material resources aid program shifted its scope. The second-hand clothing collected from Mennonite congregations in Manitoba to be sent worldwide was no longer viable as attention shifted to supporting local economies in developing nations. Loewen gathered her friends together, and they brainstormed what to do about the bundles of good-quality clothing they had been collecting from their church congregations. Out of that conversation came a creative and timeless solution: to sell the clothing and give the profit to support MCC’s global relief, development and peacebuilding efforts.

The team brought their idea of a thrift shop to the women’s group at the Altona Mennonite, Bergthaler Mennonite and Evangelical Mennonite Mission churches. Together they fundraised $125 to cover the first month of the shop’s rent and called it the Altona Community Self Help Centre. Opening the doors to the public in 1972, they exceeded expectations and collected $1,000 in the first six weeks of sales.

This “mustard seed” of an idea sprouted quickly after their store opened. Around the same time, Steinbach’s Agatha Friesen gathered the presidents of different women’s groups, and together they organized and opened the second thrift shop for MCC in Manitoba. The Altona and Steinbach shops both held grand openings in the spring of 1972.

Similar plans were in motion under Justina Baerg’s leadership, who opened MCC’s first thrift shops in Winnipeg’s west end neighbourhood. Thanks to her energy and initiative, a thrift shop opened on Watt St. in July 1972, and a second shop opened on Sargent Ave. in November of that same year.
From there, it was only a matter of time before MCC Thrift shops were opening across the province and country. Communities embraced these thrift shops as a creative and engaging solution to local issues of poverty and isolation while also bringing people together to bolster their own neighbourhoods and support communities worldwide.

Today, there are 16 MCC Thrift shops throughout the province, contributing nearly $3 million annually toward MCC’s work in Manitoba and worldwide. Currently, there are nearly 100 shops in Canada and the United States, and together they contribute $19 million annually towards MCC’s local and global relief, development and peace projects.

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Left to right are Linie Friesen, Selma Loewen, Susan Giesbrecht and Sara Stoesz, the four women initially responsible for starting the MCC Self Help Centre in Altona in 1972, now the Altona MCC Gift & Thrift Shop. (MCC photo)