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Last updated November 24.

June 22, 2009 issue

From pioneering to prosperity

By Rich Preheim For Meetinghouse

Among Fernheim’s residents was a group that escaped Russia via China. During the winter of 1928-29, Mennonites living in far eastern Russia snuck across the frozen Amur River to the Chinese city of Harbin, where they remained until they could immigrate to other Mennonite locations. Nearly 400 went to Paraguay in 1932, while others moved to the United States and Brazil. In 1937, about 750 people, frustrated by their economic prospects and internal dissent, left Fernheim and created Friesland, the country’s third Mennonite colony and the first in eastern Paraguay.

Gerhard Giesbrecht baptizes seven Enlhet men in a lagoon near Filadelfia on Feb. 24, 1946. It was the first baptism resulting from missionary work in the Chaco. — Photos provided by Herald Press from <em>Like a Mustard Seed: Mennonites in Paraguay</em> by Edgar Stoesz (2008).

Gerhard Giesbrecht baptizes seven Enlhet men in a lagoon near Filadelfia on Feb. 24, 1946. It was the first baptism resulting from missionary work in the Chaco. — Photos provided by Herald Press from Like a Mustard Seed: Mennonites in Paraguay by Edgar Stoesz (2008).

Refugees from war

The end of World War II produced still more Paraguayan immigrants. Displaced by the hostilities and knowing the dangers of remaining in Soviet lands, tens of thousands of Russian and Prussian Mennonites fled to Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. Reprising its role from 15 years earlier, MCC again assumed responsibility for caring and finding new homes for as many Mennonite refugees as possible. About 4,500 were settled in Paraguay in 1947-48, organizing Neuland Colony in the Chaco and Volendam Colony in the central part of the country.

The Mennonite refugees, and subsequently Paraguay, received considerable attention in North America, particularly when MCC sent Elfrieda and Peter Dyck on speaking tours across the United States and Canada.

The Dycks, instrumental in shepherding the refugees from Europe to South America, went on their first itineration in 1947, shortly after taking the first ship of Mennonites to Paraguay. Between August and November, the Dycks spoke at 118 places from coast to coast, where they were heard by nearly 110,000 people. Paraguay was unquestionably in the Mennonite limelight.

From Canada and Mexico

At the same time the Russian and Prussian refugees were arriving, so were more conservative Mennonites from Manitoba. They had remained when their brothers and sisters moved to Paraguay in the 1920s, believing they could withstand the pressures to acculturate. But by the mid-1940s, they didn’t think that was possible any longer and started looking to emigrate. Land was found in eastern Paraguay, and the Bergthal and Sommerfeld colonies were started in 1946 to continue the traditional life.

New arrivals would continue for the next four decades, also looking to maintain their separation from the world. Between 1969 and 1983, four groups of Old Colony Mennonites relocated from Mexico, forming four colonies in eastern Paraguay. These Mennonites had moved from Canada to Mexico starting in 1922, but like the Bergthal and Sommerfeld founders, had been dismayed at the worldly influences creeping in over the years.

Through the mid-1960s, all immigrants were descended from the Russian Mennonite religious and ethnic branch of the faith family tree. But 1967 saw the arrival of two groups from the Swiss tradition. U.S. Old Order Amish purchased property in Fernheim Colony that was vacated by Mennonites relocating to Canada, but the settlement lasted barely a decade. The Beachy Amish, meanwhile, started a health clinic and still have a small presence in eastern Paraguay. In 1969, a group that split from Lancaster Conference moved to Paraguay and was eventually joined by a few members from the Bergthal Colony.As a result of these many migrations, the Paraguayans have many familial connections around the world.

Aid from the north

continued on next page »

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