Fernheim Colony is a Mennonite Colony located in the Paraguayan Chaco in Paraguay's Boquerón Department. In the late 1920s, Russian Mennonites left their homes, fleeing from Stalinism. With the help of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), wealthy North Americans who sponsored refugee families, and a flexible Paraguayan government, around 2,000 Russian Mennonite immigrants formed the Fernheim Colony from 1930-1932. The Fernheim Colony is the second Mennonite Colony in Paraguay after the Menno Colony. Its economy is based in agriculture, primarily cotton, peanuts, beef, and dairy products. In 2008 the Fernheim Colony had just over 3,900 inhabitants who lived in 24 villages.
in July, 1921, in attempts to draw immigrants to settle the Paraguayan Chaco, Paraguay's government passed a law, the "Letter of Privilege from Paraguay” #514, that granted religious groups freedoms such as exemption from military service and oath, freedom of religion, ability to establish and direct their own schools using German, and imports free of tariff for 10 years after their arrival.
In late 1926 and 1927, 1,778 Mennonite immigrants came to Paraguay from Canada. Their land was not initially ready for settlement, and, subsequently, the Canadian Mennonite immigrants were forced to stay on the coast in Puerto Casado for an extended period of time. There typhoid and other diseases claimed 200 lives, and 300 returned to Canada. By 1928, however, Mennonites were able to settle their land. This original settlement became the Menno Colony.
The next group of Mennonite immigrants to Paraguay were Russian Mennonites fleeing Stalin's regime. While 21,000 Russian Mennonites fled due to the Russian Revolution in the early 1920s, many stayed behind. In 1929, more persistent communist anti-religious legislation convinced many Mennonites to try to emigrate from Russia. Twenty to Thirty thousand Mennonites went to Moscow to obtain permission to leave Russia, but only 6,000 were able to flee, gaining temporary asylum in Germany on November 22, 1929. These Russian Mennonites hoped to go to Canada, but the Canadian government refused them entry. MCC suggested that these refugees move to Paraguay because of Paraguay's religious tolerance, and in January 1930 MCC helped organize the Russian Mennonites' movement to Paraguay. From 1930-1932 slightly more than 2,000 Russian Mennonites came to the Paraguayan Chaco and established the Fernheim Colony.
In 1931 members of the Fernheim Colony established the same system of self governance that they had used in Russia, under this structure congregational groups united to deal with issues of “mutual interest, negotiations, and relevant decisions” The community's "Kommission fuer Kirchenangelegenheiten," (Commission for Church Affairs) or KfK, also looked after teaching religion in schools, training ministers, maintaining Bible schools, and looking after overall religious welfare. The KfK represented the congregations to the outside entities, and also mediated the affairs between congregational groups.. On May 4, 1932 Decree No. 43,561 officially gave the members of the Fernheim Colony the rights they were entitled under the original 1921 edict that gave immigrant groups religious freedom and autonomy.
Throughout its initial years the Fernheim Colony faced many hardships. The Colony's water situation was a serious problem. Digging wells was dangerous because of the sandy soil, and the settlers had difficulty finding fresh water. Epidemics, which made more severe by the lack of fresh water, killed eight percent of the immigrants, and because the Russian immigrants failed to successfully implement Russian farming techniques in the tropical climate, they experienced severe food shortages. As a result of increasing intra-communal tension over scarce resources, one third of the Fernheim Colony left in 1937 to form the Friesland Colony in Eastern Paraguay.
Missions to Native Populations
Growth of the Colony and the Cooperative
Key Individuals in the Life of the Colony
- Kroeker, Wally. "Blonde, Blue and Beyond." International distribution of MEDA release by Wally Kroeker. 23 Nov. 2006. Mennonite World Conference: A Community of Anabaptist-related Churches. 6 Dec. 2008 <http://www.mwc-cmm.org/en15/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=102:11232006-meda-release-by-wally-kroeker&catid=28:news-releases-current&itemid=108>.
- At the annual convention of Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) Nov. 2 2006 in Tampa, Florida, Maria Gloria Penayo de Duarte, wife of Niconar Duarte (President of Paraguay from 2003-2008), spoke. As a Mennonite, Duarte spoke about what she believes is at hand in the future for the Mennonite Church. She had high hopes for the 2009 Mennonite World Conference assembly in her country, primarily that the World Conference would raise awareness about global Anabaptists who are not ethnically German. Durate noted that in the past many saw “Mennonite” as being a culture, and she hoped that in the future being "Mennonite" would be seen as chosen faith identity, not a inherited cultural one.
- Dyck, Cornelius J. and Peter P. Klassen. "Fernheim Colony (Boquerón Department, Paraguay)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO). http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F47.html/?searchterm=fernheim%20colony
- This article on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online gives a detailed overview of the Fernheim Colony's history.
- Dyck, Cornelius J. and Peter P. Klassen. "Filadelfia (Fernheim Colony, Paraguay)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO). http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F525.html
- This article from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia explains the relationship between the Fernheim Colony and Filadelfia. Since 1931, Filadelfia has been the center for Fernheim’s economy as well as its social services.
- Harvey, Reuben. The Russian Mennonites and Indians of Colonia Ferheim [Sic]: They Were Left to Die, 1930. Filadelfia, Fernheim Colony, Paraguay: Harvey, 1982.
- Reuben Harvey attempts to describe what life was like for Russian Mennonites as well as Indians in Fernheim colony. Though he includes some historical background and government policies, most of the book focuses on his experience visiting Amish friends, then moving to Paraguay to help build houses from 1970-1981. He has included many pictures, as well as personal narratives from people living there. The book is self-published, and Harvey’s writing style is blunt and littered with personal opinion; however, understood as a primary source it is a useful summary of life in the Chaco.
- Klassen, Peter P., and Gunther H. Schmitt. The Mennonites in Paraguay. V. 1., Kingdom of God and Kingdom of This World. Weierhof, Germany: Mennonitischer Buchversand, 2004.
- Translated by Schmitt from Klassen’s original German text, this book describes the genesis of Paraguayan Mennonites. Klassen describes how Mennonite cohesiveness helped them to survive, work together, and ultimately thrive. Chapters 12 and 19 particularly interesting for studying Fernheim because they speak specifically about Fernheim's beginnings as well as the Amish who arrived later in the 1960s.
- Klassen, Peter P., and Gunther H. Schmitt. The Mennonites in Paraguay. V. 2., Encounter with Indians and Paraguayans. Winnipeg, MB: Mennonite Books, 2002.
- Translated into English by Schmitt from Klassen’s original German text, this book focuses on the interactions between the Mennonites and the local people in Paraguay. Of particular interest is the interaction with the Ayoreo people, who were feared by white people until Kornelius Isaak attempted to contact the Zamuco tribe. Though Isaak died of his wounds he sustained from the Zamuco tribe, the Ayoreo came out of the bush soon afterward and no longer fought. Klassen recounts how the Ayoreo adapted to a Christian way of life. Now the spears they once used for war or hunting sit in a museum.
- Cooperativa Colonizadora Multiactiva Fernheim. http://www.fernheim.com.py/.
- This is the official website of the Fernheim Colony. Written in Spanish this website describes the Colony's history as well as its activities as an agricultural cooperative. The site allows readers to contact the cooperative and see a list of local events. While the site focuses primarily on the cooperative's work the history section is a lucid account of the colony's story.
- Reimer, Gerhard. "The 'green hell' becomes home: Mennonites in Paraguay as described in the writings of Peter P. Klassen." Mennonite Quarterly Review 76 (2002): 460-80.
- Gerhard Reimer condenses many of Paraguayan Mennonite scholar Peter P. Klassen's works. This article provides an excellent broad overview of the Mennonites in Paraguay as well that gives the reader a useful chronological framework.
- Mennonite World Conference. Mennonite and Brethren in Christ World Directory. Brochure. Clovis, CA: Author, 2006.
- This Directory is a good source for finding contacts, both in Paraguay and around the world.
- Balzer, Jake K. and Ratzlaff, Gerhard. One Body, Many Parts: The Mennonite Churches in Paraguay : Versatile Church, Militant Church, Graciously Blessed Church. Paraguay: G. Ratzlaff, 2008.
- Recently translated from the original Geman text this is a very informative source about Paraguayan Mennonites. Published in 2008 it offers helpful figures, in-depth description of many Paraguayan Mennonite individuals, and discussion about the denominational diversity of the Mennonite Church in Paraguay.
- Smith, Willard H. and Peter P. Klassen. "Paraguay." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO). http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P370.html
- This article describes some of the geographic and demographic qualities of Paraguay as well as a brief description of the variety of Mennonite groups that live in Paraguay.
Fernheim Colony on Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.
Paraguay on Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.
- Peter P. Klassen and Willard H. Smith, "Paraguay," Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P370.html/?searchterm=paraguay.
- "La Colonia," Cooperativa Colonizadora Multiactiva Fernheim Ltda., http://www.fernheim.com.py/lacolonia.htm.
- Peter P. Klassen and Willard H. Smitth, "Paraguay," Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO). http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/P370.html.
- Peter P. Klassen and Gunther H. Schmitt, The Mennonites in Paraguay, V. 1., Kingdom of God and Kingdom of This World. (Weierhof, Germany: Mennonitischer Buchversand, 2004), 320.
- Klassen, Kingdom of God, 321.
- Cornelius J. Dyck and Peter P. Klassen, "Fernheim Colony (Boquerón Department, Paraguay)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia (GAMEO). http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F47.html.
- Gerhard Ratzlaff and Jake K. Balzer, One Body, Many Parts: The Mennonite Churches in Paraguay; Versatile Church, Militant Church, Graciously Blessed Church, (Paraguay: G. Ratzlaff, 2008), 63.
- Klassen, Kingdom of God, 79.
- Ibid., 83.
Rachel Friesen compiled much of the information presented here in an undergraduate research paper (History 318: Anabaptist History, Goshen College, Fall 2008).