The Mennonite Centre in Ukraine
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“... a light on a hill”


Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine will acquire and maintain a historic building in Molochansk as a vehicle of humanitarian services which are community-based, provided without discrimination, foster local initiative, and are sustainable, while interpreting and commemorating the Mennonite past.


In the summer of  2000 a newly-formed international association, Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, purchased the former Mennonite Girls’ School (Maedchenschule) in Molochansk/Halbstadt as the focus of a program of Mennonite humanitarian assistance in southern Ukraine. Still in relatively good condition, the one-storied, 2,500 square foot schoolhouse, with its spacious foyer, bright classrooms, teachers’ room, and library, sits on a large lot among flower gardens and fruit and shade trees. At relatively low cost, we will restore this historically noteworthy and architecturally distinguished one-time Mennonite public building to its original condition and adapt it to use as a multi-functional centre.

Since the collapse of the USSR a decade ago, Ukraine has been passing through a harsh subsistence, health and economic crisis, which continues to worsen. At particular risk are seniors and children. Visitors to one-time Mennonite towns and villages see old people with drawn faces, deeply-sunken eyes, untreated running sores on arms and legs, and sickly, underweight children. Malnourishment is widespread. To be sure, in major cities one also sees stylishly-dressed people and expensive cars. But among  many who are vulnerable there is quiet, half-hidden starvation. Already-high suicide rates among seniors continue to climb. Moreover, a virulent strain of tuberculosis threatens public health. Feelings of hopelessness among both old and young are strong and pervasive.

Groups of local people are trying to assist, but resources are few and needs great. To help stem the crisis the Mennonite Centre will first assess needs of people in places where Mennonites once lived. It will then begin its mission with programs of food, medical aid, and social assistance, starting with pilot projects and expanding step-by-step. This will be done in cooperation with international and local Mennonite and non-Mennonite groups. Friends of the Centre will also assess proposals that the Maedchenschule be used as a community resource centre for youth and seniors in the former Mennonite Molochansk area.

The Mennonite Centre project arises in response to widespread sentiments, especially among people of Russian and Soviet Mennonite background, that we should be doing more in Ukraine. We feel that present Mennonite efforts are inadequate given the severity of the crisis and the spiritual and psychological ties that bind us to Ukraine. The human and material resources to do a great deal more are potentially available and there is a clear willingness among Mennonites in Canada, Germany, Latin America, and the United States to pitch in and help.

We guardedly share the expectations of Molochansk Mayor Alexandra V. Saenko, who, in negotiations for the privatization and purchase of the Maedchenschule, said: “I know Mennonites quite well. I’ve seen what they did here in the past. I think the Centre offers our devastated people a little hope. Perhaps the Maedchenschule will become a ‘light on a hill.’ We are eager to work with you.”

With open hands and in a spirit of reconciliation, the Mennonite Centre accepts this challenge.

On a secondary level, the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine will interpret and memorialize the Mennonite historical  experience. Working with archivists, historians, and museologists in Ukraine, the Centre will help tell the Mennonite story through museum displays, brochures,  publications, and the media.

Included in the Molochansk purchase is an empty adjoining lot of equal size to the school site. Located at the one-time centre of  Russian and Soviet Mennonite life, this neglected Mennonite site (which was also the location of  the now demolished Neu Halbstadt Mennonite church and a marker to the beloved Mennonite writer and church leader Bernhard Harder), will be turned into a memorial garden. In time, the garden will have an internationally-sponsored, separately-funded permanent monument to the Mennonite victims of repression and terror in Soviet times. This goal is endorsed by Mayor Alexandra Saenko, and her colleagues, in Molochansk.

The Mennonite Centre will develop through overlapping stages. The first stage started with the already-completed funding and purchase of the school. It will include the mentioned restoration of the schoolhouse and the appointment of a director to run the Centre and its programs. We will seek out partners in Ukraine and elsewhere and discuss with them the design, organization, and funding of collaborative aid programs. Humanitarian needs will be assessed in areas of former Mennonite habitation such as the one-time Mennonite settlements of Khortitsa and Molochna. Friends of the Centre will mount a  major international membership and fund-raising drive. It will be accompanied by appeals for assistance to non-governmental and governmental organizations.

Stage two will see the start of the first food, medical, and social assistance initiatives in selected communities of the former Mennonite settlements--prospectively in 2001. At a third stage will follow programs of agricultural, educational, and other forms of humanitarian assistance.


A Legacy of Service

 The Mennonite Centre project is anchored in Mennonite Christian values and has been nurtured by a long historical experience. This is not the first time that Mennonites have come to the aid of people in Ukraine. In fact, the Mennonite Central Committee, the “MCC”, was founded to help Mennonites who, in the early days of the Soviet Union, had been devastated by revolution, civil war, epidemic disease and famine. In 1922 the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), under the leadership of Orie Miller, Alvin Miller, Peter Hiebert, and others, and supported by Russian Mennonites such as B.B. Janz, Philip Cornies, Peter Froese and C.F. Klassen, began its mission of mercy to starving Ukraine and Russia, assisting both Mennonites and non-Mennonites. Both groups, as B.B. Janz then wrote, were “living in the shadow of death.” In some villages the Mennonite kitchens fed more Ukrainians and Russians than Mennonites. That commitment to human need regardless of the identity of the recipient will also characterize the work of the Centre.

Mennonites Return to Ukraine

             In the summer of 1989 Mennonites again appeared in Ukraine in large numbers–a milestone after their deportation and flight in World War II. To celebrate the bicentennial of the first migration of Mennonites to Tsarist Russia, Mennonites from throughout the Soviet Union, as well as from Germany and North and South America, streamed into Zaporozhe. For city and churches it was a big, heady, and breath-taking event. Among other events, churches staged the first open-air evangelization since at least the 1920s, with Gerhard Hamm preaching.

 A new Mennonite presence in Ukraine  includes more recent efforts to help. Since 1991, various Mennonite contractors, businessmen, scientists, scholars, tourism specialists, church and relief workers, and others, with their distinctive hands-on experience, have been working in Ukraine. Many are at the centre of  leadership and support for this project.

 Moreover, new  religious freedoms in post-Soviet Ukraine have created opportunities for church-planting, evangelism, and humanitarian aid to which Western Mennonites have responded strongly. In Germany Mennonite Aussiedler groups actively support the humanitarian aid and missions programs of organizations such as Licht im Osten. Numbers of Mennonites in Canada each summer undertake evangelism in Southern Ukraine.  Other Canadians cooperate with local Baptist groups in Bible study and related work. Still others provide financial support for local pastors.

 In Zaporozhe, Frank and Nettie Dyck, Peter and Sue Kehler, and Jake and Dorothy Unrau, have devotedly pastored the Mennonite congregation since its formation in the mid-1990s. The church is the legal owner of the Maedchenschule and has become a keen partner in the Centre project. The Dycks have further spear-headed the rebuilding of the former Petershagen Mennonite church. Close to Molochansk, its reappearance as a village church has been warmly greeted in the area. The development has opened doors and strongly encouraged our efforts.

 Since 1991, North American and German Mennonite professionals have been similarly active in Ukraine. Contractors and architects have remodeled and rebuilt hotels and public buildings in Kiev and elsewhere. Consultants have analyzed ecology and water management problems related to Chernobyl, including radiation levels of Kiev’s tap water. To promote democratic values, educational specialists have recommended changes to public primary and secondary programs.

 In the caring professions, medical and social work consultants have provided refresher courses, colloquia, and pioneering curriculum reform in institutes and universities in Odessa, Zaporozhe, Dnepropetrovsk, and elsewhere. The crisis in agriculture, including its de-collectivization, has attracted plant and animal geneticists, marketing specialists, and agricultural economists with their knowledge and advice. The list of Mennonite professionals could easily be expanded. It is a burgeoning group which constitutes a significant resource for Centre initiatives.

Heritage Tours

 Beyond such “involved experts” are a much larger group. They have come to Ukraine as tourists interested in their historic roots. Numbers tell part of the story. Since Gerhard Lorenz’s first trail-blazing tours to former Mennonite settlements in Ukraine in the mid-1960's, an average of over 100 Mennonites have visited Ukraine each year, a total of some 4,000 to 5,000  to date. This is a phenomenal number compared to other emigre groups whose history is in Southern Ukraine. Starting with four to six tour groups of 20 to 30 persons each per year, many organized by John Schroeder and Assiniboine Travel, Winnipeg, Mennonite tourism has been stable and on the rise. At present, in addition to individual and family group tours, the Marina and Walter Unger-organized Heritage Cruise tours bring around 160 passengers to Ukraine annually.

 Such ten-day to two-week tour excursions, though relatively brief, have profoundly touched many participants. In the 1970s, tourists began looking up abjectly poor relatives who had suffered in Stalinist times, and provided them with badly needed moral and financial aid. By the 1980s and 1990s assistance of this kind sensitized groups of visitors to the escalating needs of the larger Ukrainian society. Tours now started to bring in substantial donations of medical equipment and supplies. Tour-related press stories helped popularize the idea of increased Mennonite aid to Ukraine. This entire experience, with its related hotel, plane, train, bus, shipboard, and other discussions, has played an important role in the birth of the Mennonite Centre concept.

 Khortitsa '99 and the Mennonite Story

 Historical scholarship has been equally significant in helping to shape the Mennonite Centre vision and to mobilize support on its behalf. During the 1990s, knowledge of two centuries of Mennonite life, building on extensive previous Western studies, has been experiencing a remarkable rebirth. New research opportunities have arisen through the collapse of barriers to archival research, newly-won intellectual freedoms in Ukraine and Russia, and the flooding into Germany from the former USSR of Mennonite participant-observers with their life-stories.

  A landmark event in this rebirth was Khortitsa ‘99, a collaborative scholarly conference of Ukrainian, Russian, and Western scholars, archivists, and museologists. It met for five days in May 1999 in Khortitsa, a one-time Mennonite village, now a suburb of the industrial city of Zaporozhe, Ukraine. Khortitsa ‘99 saw scholars from Ukraine and Russia and six other countries establish Russian and Soviet Mennonite studies as a subject of broad international scholarship. National Ukrainian television, neswspaper, and radio coverage of a major related travelling museum exhibit, opened by Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine Derek Fraser, re-introduced Mennonites to millions of Ukrainian citizens as a respected part of their history. Memorial unveilings of historical markers at the Mennonite mother church and a one-time Mennonite village cemetery, in which villagers, scholars, and a Ukrainian Orthodox priest participated actively, marked the emotional climax of Khortitsa ‘99.

 As Mennonites again come to be known in Southern Ukraine, Zaporozhe church board chairman Boris Letkemann finds that they walk with a surer step. “Khortitsa ‘99,” he says, “has given us back our self-respect and courage.” Such confidence, moreover, as well as networks generated by Khortitsa ‘99, have created openings for humanitarian help that culminated in the purchase of the Maedchenschule.

 Popular knowledge of the Mennonite story has also removed barriers to dialogue with potential governmental and non-governmental partners in Ukraine. And for people in southern Ukraine the story of how Mennonites in the region once prospered and were in the forefront of change opens the way to imagining an alternative, more hopeful,  future for themselves.

 One example of a successful assistance program in Ukraine emerged directly out of Khortitsa ‘99:  a financial aid program for young scholars in Mennonite studies in the former Soviet Union. Scholarships are available for dissertation research, subsidies for the publication of book-length manuscripts, and funds for the purchase of Western print materials for Mennonite studies collections in Russia and Ukraine. The fully-funded project is overseen by an international consortium of private donors and Mennonite and non-Mennonite institutions. As a clearly defined initiative with explicit goals, which builds on direct experience in the region and is supported through partnership networks, the scholarship program provides Friends of the Mennonite Centre with a prototype that works.


First Steps

 On April 10, 2000, members of  the Mennonite Heritage Club in Toronto heard about the possibility of acquiring a historic Mennonite building in Molochansk for humanitarian uses. Enthusiastically, the meeting acted on the challenge. It decided to found an international association entitled “Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine.” The association would define its mandate in broad discussions, quickly expand its membership internationally, and raise funds to buy, renovate, and operate a building in Molochansk.

 A subsequent meeting  passed motions to define charter membership, seek corporate status, and establish an address and bank account. Nicholas Dick was named interim coordinator. He now serves as Chair with officers including Rudy Huebert, Secretary Treasurer, and Paul Siemens, Vice-Chair.

University of Toronto Consultation

 Strategically important in the crystallization of the Centre project was a major day-long consultation at the University of Toronto on June 6, chaired by Nicholas Dick and Walter Unger and with a keynote introduction by Harvey Dyck. It involved some forty interested persons: charter members of the Friends of the Centre; presenters from British Columbia,  California, the Niagara area, Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg; and representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee (Akron), MCC (Canada), and MCC (Ontario).

 Presenters included Art and Marlyce Friesen, cardiologists from Vancouver. Already deeply involved in medical assistance to Southern Ukraine, they suggested a study of medical needs in the Molochansk area and the possibility of opening a polyclinic there staffed by Ukrainian doctors and nursing practitioners. Dr John Martens, a plant biologist from Ottawa, placed on the Centre’s agenda projects including farm manager training exchanges, sustainable farming practises, and credit unions. Dr John Staples, a post-doctoral fellow at Waterloo University and specialist on Ukraine, probed the nuts-and-bolts of mounting viable food programs targeted on needy seniors and children in Ukraine.

 Paul Toews, a historian at Pacific University, Fresno California, explored Centre-related means of presenting and interpreting the Mennonite story in Ukraine. Peter Klassen, Past Dean of  Social Science, State University of California in Fresno, suggested ways of incorporating a memorial role into the Centre program. Winnipeg architect Rudy Friesen presented proposals and sketches for the restoration and adaptation of the Maedchenschule building. Ben Falk, a veteran Mennonite Central Committee worker, movingly described his and his wife Erna’s economic and community development work in Western Siberia.

 Affirmed as Centre policy were repeated cautions from presenters that were woven into the day-long proceedings. “Start small,” participants said, “ while defining clear objectives, and learning the ropes.” Others pointed to the need to “establish viable local partnerships and proceed in stages.” Yet, under all circumstances, “be open to unforseen opportunities.”

 MCC representatives Evan Heise (MCC Ontario), Bill Janzen (MCC Canada), and Paul Toews (MCC Akron) gave personal statements of strong support for the Centre and for its potential mission. A straw vote at the end of the meeting unanimously endorsed moving the project forward through the purchase of the former Maedchenschule.

Working with the Mennonite Central Committee

 It should be noted that the Mennonite Centre project is being developed in full discussion with the Mennonite Central Committee, especially with Cheryl and Steve Hochstetler-Shirk, country representatives for the former USSR. MCC has had long-term personnel there since 1993, and has its offices for the former Soviet Union in Zaporozhe.

 We fully expect to cooperate with MCC in defining the elements and stages of our mission and in initiating collaborative programs. But we realize that the scope and nature of our challenging project may well fall outside current MCC community-development  models.

 We therefore feel the need to develop an organization and structure that will permit a realization of the Centre’s goals successfully and independently. We anticipate that the existence of clear organizational lines of authority and accountability  will encourage the mounting of cooperative programs with MCC that are mutually desirable and hold out reasonable promise of success.

 The Mennonite Central Committee has agreed, subject to conditions which will soon be met, to accept donations on behalf of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine from Canadian and American contributors and to issue tax receipts. This bodes well for teamwork in future.


The history of Mennonites in Ukraine provides us with special opportunities and perhaps also special obligations. These cannot be met by the small remnant of Mennonites still in Southern Ukraine. For Mennonites to make a difference in Ukraine we will need the resources and commitments of many.

Cautiously but with great hope, Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine launch this project. We do so in the spirit of words spoken long ago by Menno Simons:

True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping.
It clothes the naked and comforts the sorrowful.
It gives to the hungry food and it shelters the destitute.

It cares for the blind and lame, the widow and the orphan child.
It binds up the wounded man and offers a gentle hand.
We must become everything to all men.

Abundantly we have received and gratefully we will respond.
So overcome evil with good and return hatred with love.
That is true evangelical faith.

Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine
December 2000

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