Menno Colony, located in the Chaco district of Paraguay, was the first Mennonite settlement to be founded in the country, its first settlers arriving at the colony site in April 1928, from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. After the passing of the Canadian School Act of 1915, which was to enforce the use of the English language for all instruction in schools, and because of the Canadian war effort during those years, of which the Mennonites also felt the effects, there developed among their settlements along the Red River and in Saskatchewan a desire to find a new homeland for themselves and their children. On 11 February 1921 six delegates from the Red River settlements went to Paraguay to investigate settlement possibilities and returned with a very favorable report, contrary to that given by the delegation of five Saskatchewan Mennonites who had made the same trip in 1920. Through the help of a New York banker, Samuel McRoberts, the Paraguayan government was approached with a request for granting of certain privileges which the Mennonites demanded. The Paraguayan government reacted very favorably and on 26 July 1921, passed Law #514, giving them all the requested privileges and freedoms. The Mennonites today refer to this law as the "Privilegium." However, economic conditions in Canada delayed Mennonite emigration until 1926, when McRoberts formed the Inter-Continental Company in Winnipeg to buy their land in Canada, and the Corporación Paraguaya in Paraguay to sell them lands there in return. Their first Chaco land purchase consisted of 137,920 acres, lying about 500 ft. above sea-level.
The first group of 51 families (309 persons) left Altona, Manitoba on 23 November 1926, followed by other groups, totaling 279 families, in all approximately 1,765 persons, by 1930. Upon arrival the first group in Paraguay was welcomed by President Eligio Ayala on 29 December 1926 in Asunción, and then continued its journey to Puerto Casado. There the immigrants discovered that the Corporación Paraguaya had not surveyed the land they had bought while still in Canada, and the group had to wait until April 1928 to take possession of their land. Many became discouraged and 355 returned to Canada, while 147 died of a typhoid epidemic and the difficult climate. It was undoubtedly the most difficult period any Mennonites in Paraguay have ever experienced. The 1937 population was 1,722 in 309 families. The January 1950 population of the colony was 3,370 in 52 villages with 560 families. The July 1955 population was 4,006 with a land area of 800,000 acres owned by Menno and its daughter colony, about six times the original area.
The eastern border of the colony is located 110 miles due west of Puerto Casado. The distance from Puerto Casado to Sommerfeld, the capital of Menno Colony, is 155 miles (250 km). The first villages to be established shortly after their arrival in 1928, with an average of more than the intended 16 families each, were Bergtal, Laubenheim, Waldheim, Gnadenfeld, Weidenfeld, Reinland, Bergfeld, Osterwick, Blumengart, Schöntal, Halbstadt, Strassberg, Chortitz, and Silberfeld (abandoned in 1934). In 1950 Menno Colony had 43 villages in the old colony and an additional 6 villages in the new daughter colony located approximately 70 miles (115 km) south of the colony. In 1955 the total number of villages was 60. As in other Chaco Mennonite settlements the chief cash crops were cotton, sorgo, peanuts, and for home consumption such crops as beans, watermelons, mandioca, and other vegetables. The colony had many orange, lemon, and grapefruit orchards. The houses were usually built of adobe brick and frequently in two-story style as formerly in Canada.
All the immigrants came to Paraguay in one of the three church groups—Chortitz Church under the leadership of Martin C. Friesen; Sommerfelder Church under Heinrich Unruh, and the Bergtal Church under Aron Zacharias. The first two groups together numbered 1,535 souls and the latter only 227. Later the Sommerfelder, Chortitz, and a part of the Bergtal group merged into the Chortitz Church, the latter group, however, retaining its administrative independence. After the death of Zacharias the rest of the Bergtal people joined the united group. The colony has one church building at Osterwick, the village of Elder Friesen, the schools serving as meetinghouses in the other villages. While still in Canada these church groups elected a committee to discharge all business in connection with emigration and resettlement, which consisted of the following: Martin C. Friesen and Abram A. Braun (East Reserve), Heinrich Unruh and Abram J. Friesen (West Reserve), Peter Peters and Peter J. Dyck (Saskatchewan, Canada). In 1928 in Paraguay this committee was changed to include Jakob Braun, Johann Derksen, Isaak K. Fehr, Bernhard Penner, Kornelius Wiebe, and Jakob Neufeld. In the 1950s the committee, called the Chortitzer-Komitee, was made up of one representative from every three leguas of land, totaling nine members. The secretary was elected out of the committee members by themselves, and the administrator (Vorsteher) was elected out of the committee members by the colony. The secretary and administrator were salaried. This committee was entirely responsible for all colony affairs of whatever form, except church matters, which were handled by the leading ministers. Disputes were settled by the ministers and elders. Its 1951 administrator was Jakob B. Reimer. Previously Jakob Braun had filled this post for many years. There is also the traditional Waisenamt (office to care for widows and orphans, and the inheritance of property) brought along from Russia via Manitoba.
Instruction in the schools was carried on by self-educated laymen, and there were usually four classes in each school; namely, Fibler, beginners; Katechismer, Katechism class; Testamentler, the older students studying the New Testament; Bibler, the Bible study and graduating class. The average school attendance was for five years. In 1947 the colony built its own 30-bed hospital, and after 1949 had its own doctor, either German or Paraguayan, as was available. All surgical work was done in Filadelfia, Colony Fernheim, in return for which Menno Colony shared the expenses of that hospital. The colony had also its own co-operative store that handled all buying and selling, and a small industrial establishment, including a sawmill and cotton gin, operated by the co-operative.
Because Menno was the first colony to be established in the Chaco its settlers suffered untold hardships and reverses. It was creditable indeed that, coming from a more abundant life in Canada, more of them did not become discouraged. In contrast to subsequent Mennonite immigrants to Paraguay from Russia, few people of Menno Colony had a desire to emigrate to Canada. Although the colony had a difficult financial struggle most of its people were happy and satisfied. In 1955, however a group of some 50 conservative families, dissatisfied with the change gradually coming into Menno's life under the leadership of the more progressive elder and Chortitzer Komitee, decided to migrate to the Santa Cruz region of Bolivia, where a few families from Fernheim had settled a few years earlier. -- Cornelius J. Dyck
The 1927 emigrants to Paraguay from Canada came from three different Bergthal Mennonite groups: 70 percent from the Chortitz congregation (Manitoba East Reserve), 20 percent from the Sommerfeld congregation (Manitoba West Reserve), and 10 percent from the Saskatchewan Bergthal congregation (Rosthern area, closely related to Sommerfeld Mennonites). Ca. 1950 the joint name "Chortitzer Mennonite Church of Menno" was changed to "Mennonite Church of Menno." While the original settlement comprised 550 sq. km. (211 sq. mi.), in 1986 the settlement comprised 4,350 sq. km. (1672 sq. mi.) with a population of ca. 6,600 persons (1,450 families) in 80 villages. The birthrate rose to 60 per 1,000 inhabitants, then sank to 25 births per thousand (1986). Deaths were 10 per 1,000 until 1950, but fell to an average of 5 per 1,000. During the pioneer years this latter figure was 100 per 1,000.
In the 1980s colony administration was based on Paraguayan law number 514 of July 1921 and was known as the "Sociedad Civil Chortitzer Komitee." This administration was responsible for all economic and social affairs of the colony and was the legal agency for colony issues. The chairman of the colony administration was the "Administrador General" Oberschulze). The Chortitzer Committee is the legal owner of all lands, making them available to individual families as needed.
The colony administration was responsible for schools, the hospital, road maintenance, insurance, and the operation of the colony's producer-consumer cooperative. This cooperative was in turn responsible for the industrial and agricultural development of the colony. It secured credits and arranged for exports, imports, and all nonprivate business enterprises. It employed more than 500 people in 1987, including more than 100 Indians. Offices and marketing facilities for colony produce were maintained in Asunción. The primary sources of income for the settlers was from cotton, peanuts, milk products, and cattle.
Eleven schools were in operation with ca. 1,100 students and 50 teachers. An accredited secondary school was operated in Loma Plata, with six branch schools in other areas. Fernheim and Menno Colonies together maintained a teacher training school (located in Fernheim). and an agriculture school (located in Menno).
Development of the colony was southward until ca. 30 percent of the colony population was located in South Menno. In 1980 the large North Menno congregation was divided into six local units and the South Menno congregation into three units. North and South formed separate "conferences" and together made up a joint "conference," or congregation—all nine local groups were considered part of the Mennonitengemeinde (Mennonite congregation) of Menno Colony. This conference was a member of the General Conference Mennonite Church of North America, as well as of the Conference of Mennonites in South America, the Vereinigung der Mennonitengemeinden in Paraguay, and the Chaco Mennonite Conference (the latter consisted of all Mennonite congregations in Neuland, Menno, and Fernheim colonies).
Mennonite Church (General Conference Mennonite) activities in Menno Colony took place in eleven large church buildings. Total membership in 1987 was ca. 3,000, including 55 ministers and 40 deacons. The entire Gemeinde was divided into nine regions as described above, with a leading minister responsible in each. Several local churches had organs. Each local church had a choir and musical instrument groups which served on Sunday mornings and on other occasions. Singing in harmony rather than unison has been practiced for some years already. Martin C. Friesen served as leading elder of the entire Gemeinde for many years until 1966 and was responsible for many of the changes in congregational practice, as well as in the introduction of higher levels of education. Oberschulze Jacob B. Reimer was a significant partner in these changes. Jacob A. Braun (1893-1979) was particularly responsible for the introduction of cooperative economic efforts. Jacob N. Giesbrecht has been particularly responsible for the industrial development in the colony. Abraham W. Hiebert and Bernhard W. Toews (1909-74) deserve much credit for the mission program among the Lengua Indians (Chaco Mission).
Menno Colony has long cooperated with the other two Chaco colonies (Neuland, Fernheim), as well as with Friesland and Volendam in every possible way. It is also a member of the Asociación de Servicios de Cooperación Indigena Menonita (Council for Indian Concerns). The colony also has its own relief organization, the Comité de Asistencia Social, which seeks to help poor Paraguayans in a special way. It is helped in this by the International Mennonite Organization of Europe. -- Martin W. Friesen
The Menno Colony was the first Mennonite settlement of immigrants in Paraguay and in South America and also the first Mennonite settlement in the southern hemisphere in general. It was founded in 1927 by Canadian Mennonites (Chortitzer, Sommerfelder and Bergthaler), who felt their identity was threatened by the Canadian government. They thought they would lose control of their schools through the new educational laws, causing them to turn to militarism and a loss of their faith. The first group of immigrants arrived in the night of 30-31 December at Puerto Casado. Another six groups followed during 1927 so that 1,741 settlers came to settle in the Chaco, the so-called "Green Hell”.
To the great dismay of the settlers, the acquired land was not surveyed as they had been promised. In the course of a long waiting period of 16 months an epidemic broke out among the immigrants, resulting in the death of 171 people. Many discouraged people moved back to Canada, so that ultimately there were only 1,280 people that settled in the Chaco. In spite of these discouraging setbacks, Menno Colony, deliberately named after Menno Simons, developed into a progressive colony.
Agriculture formed the economic base of this Chaco settlement. The settlers had come as wheat farmers from the Canadian prairie, and they were determined to carry on with agriculture here and make the Chaco arable. Although the circumstances here were different from the ground up, the immigrants went to work at once to put these intentions into action.
The complete separation from the world that had been sought in the Chaco prevented rapid economic progress. After the families were settled on their land, they set about cleaning up an area to create the first gardens. With ax, spade, and bare hands, they cleaned up the shrubs and trees and removed the bitter grass and weeds which dominated the land. In addition to the plantations of manioc, beans, sweet potatoes and watermelons for their own use, they quickly began cotton production. Again, most of the work was done by hand as not all settlers had oxen or horses. These were needed to drive to the train station to get products for the colony, and take their own products to market. Despite the changing weather conditions, there were many years in which the agricultural products were an important basis for the economy of the colony.
Since 1936, Menno has been managed by the Asociación Civil, y la Sociedad Cooperativa Colonizadora Chortitzer Komitee (formerly La Sociedad Civil Chortitzer Komitee). Economic priorities in the colony have included milk production, with products having the brand Trébol which are of good quality and are eagerly purchased in the whole country as well as abroad, and livestock and meat production for which the slaughterhouse, FrigoChorti, was built in the colony. Farming, the traditional foundation of the economy, has over the past decade lost much in importance and is now only a small portion of total revenue.
On 31 December 2007, 8,839 (4,513 males and 4,326 females) settlers of German-Mennonite ancestry lived in Menno in over 100 villages on more than 700,000 hectares of land. In 2009 there were 15 Menno Colony churches that had been formed into the Northmennokonferenz and Southmennokonferenz. -- Uwe S. Friesen
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Ratzlaff, Heinrich. Das Schulwesen der Kolonie Menno: Vom Anfang der Siedlung bis zur Übergabe der Vereinsschule an die Kolonie. Loma Plata, Paraguay: Geschichtskomitee der Kolonie Menno im Auftrage der Schulverwaltung, 2003.
The 2009 article, translated by Hugo Friesen, is based on the original German language article that was written for the Lexikon der Mennoniten in Paraguay and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at: http://www.menonitica.org/lexikon/?M:Menno.
|Author(s)||Cornelius J., Martin W. Friesen Dyck|
|Uwe S. Friesen|
Cite This Article
Dyck, Cornelius J., Martin W. Friesen and Uwe S. Friesen. "Menno Colony (Boquerón Department, Paraguay)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 2009. Web. 31 Mar 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Menno_Colony_(Boquer%C3%B3n_Department,_Paraguay)&oldid=102912.
Dyck, Cornelius J., Martin W. Friesen and Uwe S. Friesen. (2009). Menno Colony (Boquerón Department, Paraguay). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 31 March 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Menno_Colony_(Boquer%C3%B3n_Department,_Paraguay)&oldid=102912.
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