ne Frädhoff (en kjoakjhoff)
|Cmetarz mennonitow (Mennonite Cemetery in Poland) (c) A. T. Przechlewski|
Often it is only historians and new mourners who worry about the upkeep of our ethnic heritage sites such as graveyards and cemeteries. Perhaps the time has come to consider the need for a national (international?) Mennonite foundation to begin looking after this aspect of our shared and endangered diasporaic heritage. For an ethnicity of historic religious and political refugees, these remnants of our periodic stops along the Martyrs’ Trek, are essential historic markers preserving the dignity and truth of our group narrative and missionary outreach. While many have traveled to view the graves of our ancestors in Amsterdam, Danzig, Poland and Ukraine, future generations will likewise look towards graveyards in Litchfield, Henderson, Coaldale, Steinbach, Yarrow and Chinook for traces of their (our) family stories – and signs of the historic faith that led our faith predecessors to migrate and to establish new homes.
Recently (25 April 2012), Jennifer Stultz alerted us via the Peabody Gazette of the challenges of maintaining this shared heritage. She quotes Catlin Cemetery upkeeper Don Stutzman, “We’re having trouble maintaining the cemetery and could use some help. … There is a lot of history to learn here yet and we are searching for a way to sustain the upkeep,” (Stultz, see below).
The Catlin Cemetery is on the site of the former Catlin Mennonite Church near Peabody, Kansas. Stultz indicates that the site contains some 125 graves and is still in use though most graves date between 1886 and 1961. Some of the history that Stutzman pointed out to Stultz are the graves of those who suffered tragedy in early farming accidents as Mennonite settlers learned to adopt and adapt new farming technologies on the prairies, a mass of 14 graves belonging to Mennonite children who died in the massive flu epidemic of 1874 (the year the Henderson and Jansen Mennonites came to America), and the grave belonging to B. F. Hamilton, a close relative of Colonial-era patriot Alexander Hamilton. B. F. Hamilton came to Catlin as a Mennonite church planter and helped to establish the church in 1886. He died in 1898 (Stultz, ibid).
Similarly, of the Lustre – Volt churches in Northeastern Montana, a large number of pioneer Mennonite churches are closed and no longer found: Chinook Brüderthaler Mennonite, Larslan Mennonite Brethren, Volt Mennonite Brethren, Bethel GC Church of Wolf Point (Volt), Lustre General Conference Church, and at some future point, probably the Lustre Brüderthaler / EMB church as well. Six of the nine churches have either closed or are in danger of closing. Can? Should? Would? the remaining three churches (Lustre MB, Wolf Point Community Bible Church (FEBC) and the Gospel Fellowship (MB) take up the slack and preserve these many cemeteries and abandoned church yards? These graveyards are spread out over 100 miles of gravel rural roads and would be impossible to patrol, let alone maintain without significant effort.
Stultz indicates that Stutzman, Donald Good, Paul Diener and Harold Beck are hoping to establish an endowment fund to help preserve the cemetery in Kansas, maintain the plots and research and preserve the history of those buried at Catlin. Similarly, members of defunct General Conference churches in Lustre – Volt have sought to establish endowment funds for sites in Lustre and Volt.
The Mennonites – both Russian and the old American versions, are significantly interrelated. Even those who come from different conferences owe debts of service and gratitude to each other. My relatives are yours – and yours are mine – our heritage is shared and belongs to all of us. Regardless of denominational boundaries and subsequent schisms, we remain a single ethnic identity (at least through the end of the 20th Century). Surviving churches and small rural congregations, even the large urban denominations should not have to move funds away from missions, service, evangelism and their own structural upkeep to assist in the preservation of these sites – both at home and in the mission stations abroad. Perhaps an arm of MCC could begin a foundation and work program to help out, but regardless, we really ought to consider some options now while the task is still manageable and the shared ethnic identity still viable enough to help in fund-raising.
While interested and related persons should contact Stutzman in Catlin or the trustees of the cemeteries in Lustre to help contribute to those funds, a larger, ethnic and church-wide effort to establish a master fund for this purpose would be appropriate and useful.
We do not worship the dead, but we have always taken proper care of our upkeep responsibilities. Maintaining a well-summerfallowed field or a tight, well built hay stack has always been source of pride to our people. We should take at least as much care in the sites where we have buried our dead and memorialized our antecedent faith testimonies. It is after all, part of our own witness today.
To learn more or to contribute to the Catlin Mennonite Cemetery, please contact Don Stutzman at 620.327.4418. Those with heritage ties to Lustre, Larslan and Volt in Montana should contact the Lustre Ministerial Association via the above mentioned churches.