Mennonite Heritage Village

The Mennonite Migration to Paraguay

August 25, 2022

By Kara Suderman

Migration from Canada to Paraguay

In the 1920s, nearly 8,000 Mennonites left Canada in search of a new homeland where they would be able to control their education system. While the majority went to Mexico, a smaller group of Sommerfelder, Chortitzer, and a few Bergthaler chose Paraguay instead.

In Paraguay, Mennonites and their descendants received the right to practice their religion, exemption from the military, administer their own schools and teach their faith without restrictions. This was the first law in Paraguay that dealt with people refusing to join the army or participating in military drafts.

Mennonites who went to Paraguay arrived in 1926 due to difficulty selling their land. By 1927, there were nearly 1,800 people ready to settle in Paraguay. The land there, however, was not yet available for them, and they were forced to stay in the river port of Puerto Casado. In addition to this disappointment, there was an outbreak of typhoid and other diseases, killing over two hundred people. Disillusioned, over three hundred migrants went back to Canada. Once the land was accessible, those who stayed were largely content. Very few left after receiving their land. They set up their villages the same way their ancestors had in Russia, becoming the Menno Colony; the first Mennonite settlement in South America.

From Russia to Paraguay

While the Russländer migration was happening in Canada, it was also happening in Paraguay. As Russia dealt with civil war, 21,000 Mennonites left for Canada and the United States. Thousands of others remained in Russia, believing that things would return to normal soon. This was not the case, however. By 1929, the borders were closed and leaving Russia became extremely difficult. Close to 6,000 refugees were able to go to Germany in late November of that year. While these refugees wanted to come to Canada and the United States, these borders were largely closed to them. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) recommended Paraguay. As they had done to Canadian Mennonites earlier, the Government of Paraguay promised them freedom, as well as receiving elderly, ill, and disabled people. This was something very few countries were willing to do. MCC helped arrange for land to be purchased next to Menno Colony, and in 1930-1932, over 2,000 Russländer Mennonites migrated to the Chaco region to establish the Fernheim Colony.

The newcomers from Russia were given assistance and solidarity from the Mennonite groups from Canada in Paraguay, who had already been there for three years. They have developed a mutually beneficial relationship and have blended much of their education, economics, and social and religious lives. Subsequent Mennonite migrations from Russia have also led to the foundation of new colonies in Paraguay, such as the Volendam colony, which largely consisted of refugees following the Second World War in 1947. Paraguay has, and continues to be, a home for Mennonites from across the globe.

If you are interested in learning more about the Mennonites who left Canada for Mexico and Paraguay, Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) is hosting a screening of the documentary Conform, produced by the Plett Foundation and Refuge 31 Films. This is an in-person event held on August 30 at 7:00 pm at MHV. Historian Royden Loewen will host, and attendees will hear from Andrew Wall, the director. Please register here to indicate your interest in attending.

Upcoming Events:

MHV’s grounds and Livery Barn Restaurant are open seven days a week! The restaurant is open 11am to 4pm, and the grounds are open 9am to 5pm, except Thursdays 9am to 8pm, and Sundays 11:30am to 5pm, including our famous Sunday buffet till 2pm. 

August 30, Tuesday – Leaving Canada Speaker Series In-Person: The third event in our “Leaving Canada” series is a screening of the film Conform, a new documentary produced by the Plett Foundation and Refuge 31 films about the Mennonite migration to Mexico of the 1920s. This is an in-person event and there will be no livestream. Historian Royden Loewen will host, and attendees will hear from the director, Andrew Wall. To indicate your attendance, register here

September 5, Monday – Fall on the Farm 9:00am – 5:00pm: Experience harvest work, hearty food, corn on the cob, music, hog butchering, and pioneer demonstrations to celebrate the arrival of Fall.