Canadian Mennonites in Latin America
In April 1927 a group of Mennonites from Canada began surveying farm boundaries and digging wells in the middle of nowhere in western Paraguay.
They had travelled thousands of kilometers by rail and sea from Manitoba to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, and from there 500 km north by boat up the Paraguay River. Finally they made a gruelling three-week trek overland, mostly by oxcart, into the heart of the Chaco – a sparsely populated, sweltering wilderness region.
Soon they were joined by 1,700 fellow settlers from Canada, who established an extensive Mennonite colony. The pioneer life was difficult. The subtropical climate required a whole new approach to farming. In the early years food and supplies were scarce, and disease claimed some lives, especially of children.
Around the same time as the migration to Paraguay about 6,000 other Mennonites, mostly from Saskatchewan, moved to northern Mexico.
What led these Mennonites to leave a fairly prosperous, familiar life in Canada for the relative hardship of these Latin American countries?
Although Canada provided good farming and relative comfort, more than the climate seemed frosty to some Mennonites in the 1920s.
The nationalistic passions in Canada during the First World War were alarming to the pacifist Mennonites, especially when the government introduced military conscription in 1917. Although they were exempt from military service, they were required to register with the government and experienced heavy pressure to support the war effort.
ESTIMATED NUMBER OF DESCENDANTS ALIVE TODAY OF TRADITIONALIST MENNONITES WHO LEFT MANITOBA AND SASKATCHEWAN FOR LATIN AMERICA.
SOURCE: ROYDEN LOEWEN, VILLAGE AMONG NATIONS: "CANADIAN" MENNONITES IN A TRANSNATIONAL WORLD, 1916–2006 (UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS, 2013)
Around the same time Saskatchewan and Manitoba forced Mennonite children to attend public schools, ending the previous arrangement of independent church-run schools where Mennonite children could be taught Mennonite beliefs in their own German language.
Many of the Mennonites in these two provinces had come to Canada from Russia in the 1870s precisely because the government had promised exemption from military service and freedom to run their own schools. But now those rights were threatened.
While some Mennonites were willing to compromise to some degree, or at least to stick it out in Canada in hopes of better days ahead, several of the more traditionally minded groups concluded it was time to move again. After all, hadn’t their ancestors migrated for similar reasons from the Netherlands to Prussia, from Prussia to Russia, and from Russia to Canada?
So they sent out representatives to various countries in Latin America looking for good farmland, but more importantly guarantees from government officials that they could maintain separate settlements, be exempt from military service and run their own independent schools.
Returning from one such scouting journey, minister Johan M. Loeppky of Saskatchewan wrote a prayer in his diary. "I am a pilgrim here on earth. … Lead me safely … through the world, to you, my Saviour, into heaven’s firmament."
Mexico and Paraguay had good land, and their governments were willing to provide the needed guarantees to attract good farmers. So thousands of Canadian Mennonites migrated to these countries in the 1920s.
Adapting to new climates and agricultural patterns took time, and both communities suffered some violence – in Mexico from bandits, and in Paraguay from disorderly soldiers during a war with neighbouring Bolivia. Some early settlers gave up and returned to Canada.
The settlements eventually became well established and the Mennonites multiplied. Later some of the Mexican Mennonites in particular pushed further into other countries – British Honduras (now Belize) in the 1950s, Bolivia in the 1960s – in search of better farmland, more freedom, and (in some cases) greater isolation.
In recent decades others have come back to Canada – the land of their grandparents or great-grandparents – in search of jobs and financial security.
Throughout these migrations Mennonite settlers in various countries maintained close links with each other. Cautious about the dangers of nationalism and assimilation, they identified first and foremost with their globally dispersed but close-knit community, rather than any particular nation. Historian Royden Loewen calls them a "village among nations."
Most Canadian Evangelicals today, including most Canadian Mennonites, have not had to cross borders in search of religious freedom. Yet perhaps we can learn something from those like Johan Loeppky who believed faithful Christians should never expect to stay in the same place forever, but should consider themselves "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13, KJV)
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson.