This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Anabaptist museum plans for Swiss castle progressing

Plans to turn a Swiss fortress that imprisoned Anabaptists into a museum are still moving forward, despite a sluggish start to fundraising.

Swiss Mennonites are working to develop an Anabaptist museum in Trachselwald Castle, a fortress that once served as a prison for Anabaptists. — Jay Donald Siegrist
Swiss Mennonites are working to develop an Anabaptist museum in Trachselwald Castle, a fortress that once served as a prison for Anabaptists. — Jay Donald Siegrist

A projected 3.3 million francs are needed to make Trachselwald castle viable as a museum. (The franc and U.S. dollar are roughly equal.) The castle held Anabaptists — considered heretics at the time — between the 16th and early 18th centuries.

Public and private foundations have contributed 2 million francs so far. Other funds will come from a lottery that will add 1.2 million francs once the foundation is established.

About $26,000 has been raised in the U.S.

Paul Veraguth, a Swiss Reformed Church pastor and associate member of the planning team who is helping Swiss Mennonites raise 500,000 francs, reported Dec. 3 that Swiss efforts had raised about $4,100.

“To mention this small result does not imply any pressure on anyone,” Veraguth said in an email, noting Swiss Mennonites number only about 2,500 members — with many craftsmen looking forward to donating their services to renovations.

“Everybody felt like they were invited to throw money into a big barrel, not being able to see where the bottom is, or even if there is one.”

Fundraising challenges were many. The fundraising plan came together in a short window in July, and a recession has disrupted the lives of both the employed and retirees on pensions. Veraguth also wondered if divisive church issues in North America took priority over “an old prison in Switzerland.”

The project’s planning team is looking for investors for the remainder of the 500,000 francs still needed. The original deadline of Dec. 31 has been postponed to the spring. The team is in negotiations with banks, foundations or associations, which would then be able to position themselves as supporters of a prominent regional project.

“Once those fixed assets are in place, the state of Bern will automatically give the green light for the set-up of a foundation, and additional money from the lottery fund will pour in,” Veraguth said. He anticipates the process to occur in the spring.

Global story

On the U.S. side, Joanne Hess Siegrist and her husband, Jay Donald Siegrist, of Bird in Hand, Pa., have worked as project liaisons, cultivating interest and donations.

She said that while people are flooded with end-of-year giving appeals, it has been gratifying to see the ways people across the country are contributing or ordering castle calendars to give as Christmas gifts.

“This project is the first time that cooperation is happening with the leaders of the Canton of Bern, the Emmental regional government, Swiss Mennonites and USA Mennonites and Amish,” she said. “That fact is worth celebrating.”

Hess Siegrist said Perkiomen­ville Mennonite Church hosted a Swiss night Nov. 29 that included a gourmet spread and presentations by Pastor Charles Ness and historian John L. Ruth, raising at least $1,000. Ness plans to continue with similar events.

Hess Siegrist has distributed hundreds of calendars and DVDs and is coordinating other awareness-raising projects such as educational workshops in the coming year.

“It’s a prime way to show and tell of the faith of our early fathers and mothers,” she said. “And to bring Christian faith to those who visit this site, especially for those of the Swiss Emmental region and those holding early Swiss roots.”

When Swiss Mennonites hosted the European Mennonite Conference in 2012 in Sumis­wald, it was observed that European and North American churches are in decline, while in the Global South churches are full of lively enthusiasm. Mennonite World Conference general secretary César García noted that both groups are needed — those with enthusiasm and those with long histories and traditions.

Speaking to this, Michel Ummel, pastor of Sonnenberg Mennonite Church in Switzerland, said Trachselwald can be a place of meeting for global Anabaptists. As president of the Swiss Mennonite Conference Archives, he said by telephone that because the site was filled with suffering for so long, that history must be shared, to change what is unjust in the world.

“With those storytelling goals in mind, next we need the generosity and solidarity of global Anabaptists,” Ummel said. “In turn, we Swiss Mennonites will work together with people from the Emmental, the Jura and Basel for a network toward being a people with history, traditions and spirit that can make a better future.

“The money received from North America will be used for the second-floor renovations where the Anabaptist history display will be located.”

Methods for donating, museum plans and recordings of the Hesston (Kan.) College choir performing in the castle are at

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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