This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Field trip celebrates Puerto Rican Mennonite connections

Photo: A crowd outside the La Plata, Puerto Rico, hospital in the 1950s. Photo by John Driver. 

While Puerto Rico might be known on the American mainland for its tropical beauty or its recent debt problems, this Caribbean Island has a long and storied connection with Mennonites.

During World War II, Mennonite conscientious objectors in North America needed to find alternative service placements. They found opportunities for health, agricultural and economic development on the island and built relationships that cascaded across multiple industries and created a vibrant local church family. Just a few years later, Puerto Ricans also made substantial connections to Lancaster County when seasonal migrants worked in the tomato and potato fields of Mennonite farms.

From Oct. 20-24, the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society will continue its efforts to highlight Hispanic Mennonite history with a field trip exploring the ties between Mennonites and Puerto Rico.

Mennonites first arrived in Puerto Rico in the summer of 1943 to establish a Civilian Public Service (CPS) unit in the valley of La Plata under Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The CPS program, authorized by the U.S. Selective Service System, and administered by Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers, had already been up and running in the U.S. for a couple of years. CPS provided conscientious objectors to war as a means to participate in humanitarian service of “national importance” during World War II. Within a year, CPS workers in La Plata had established a 24-bed hospital to meet the public health needs of an impoverished population in the central mountains of the island.

During the following decade, the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (MBMC) in Elkhart, Ind., took responsibility for the La Plata project, which expanded beyond the realm of healthcare into agricultural, educational, and church development efforts.

From the late 1940s through the 1960s, over 15 congregations were planted and a Puerto Rico Mennonite

Left to right: Mary Ellen Yoder, Ana Kay Massanari, Sandy Swartzendruber, Jorge Melendez, Lester Hershey and Alta Hershey. Photo from Mennonite Media Puerto Rico Media Records, 1947-1979. IV-13-008. Mennonite Church USA Archives - Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.
Left to right: Mary Ellen Yoder, Ana Kay Massanari, Sandy Swartzendruber, Jorge Melendez, Lester Hershey and Alta Hershey. Photo from Mennonite Media Puerto Rico Media Records, 1947-1979. IV-13-008. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.

conference was organized. Two schools, Escuela Menonita Betania (1947) and Academia Menonita (1961) were founded to provide a rigorous education for K-12 students in rural and urban communities. During this period, an influential evangelistic radio program, Audición Luz y Verdad, led by Lester T. Hershey, flourished throughout Puerto Rico, Latin America and Spain.

In the 1950s, the Ulrich Foundation from Central Illinois, supplemented the activities of MBMC, committing financial resources for experimentation in dairying, poultry production, artificial breeding, horticulture, and the operation of a dental service. From these early efforts, the poultry business in Puerto Rico got its foothold, and today continues to provide a significant amount of locally produced chicken and eggs for local consumption.

Today, Puerto Rico’s Sistema de Salud Menonita (Mennonite Health System) is one of the largest private health systems with Mennonite connections in the world. It consists of three major hospitals, a mental health hospital, several clinics, and a health plan. It serves a population of over 300,000, employs over 2,300 individuals, and includes a medical faculty of over 500 physicians.

Although there has been a decline in the number of Puerto Rican Mennonite congregations since the 1970s, the nine existing congregations are passionate about their evangelical identity and mission. In recent years, they have also found ways to remain connected to Mennonite churches in the U.S. and around the world.

The story of Mennonites and Puerto Rico is not confined to the island itself. From 1945 to 1955, it is estimated that 700,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in what today is known as “the Great Migration.” Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland looking for work as the island shifted from a monocultural economy to a manufacturing economy and many agricultural jobs were lost. During the same time, Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County were experiencing a severe labor shortage as they struggled to meet the demand for agricultural products, especially tomatoes. Under a migrant worker program organized by the New Jersey Farm Bureau, many of these migrants became seasonal workers on Mennonite farms.

While farm labor, especially tomato harvesting, brought large numbers of Hispanics through Lancaster, the community was a seasonal one. The Victor Weaver Poultry Plant was the first major employer willing to hire Hispanic workers year round. Victor Weaver began his poultry business in 1937 and opened production in New Holland the following year. As demand increased, Weaver initially expanded production capabilities through hiring Mennonite labor, especially pulling from the Old Order and Amish communities. But Weaver had difficulty maintaining a full-time schedule with this conservative labor because they tended to take off en masse for weddings, funerals, and similar events.

A portrait of T. K. and Mae Hershey in Trenque Lauquen, Argentina in 1942. Photo from Mennonite Board of Missions, 1882-2002. Photographs, 1899-2003. IV-10-07.2 Box 1 Folder 42. Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.
A portrait of T. K. and Mae Hershey in Trenque Lauquen, Argentina in 1942.
Photo from Mennonite Board of Missions, 1882-2002. Photographs, 1899-2003. IV-10-07.2 Box 1 Folder 42. Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.

In looking for a dependable workforce, Weaver began utilizing Puerto Rican labor. Weaver was also instrumental in welcoming the Puerto Rican workers into the Mennonite community. At his encouragement, T. K. Hershey, a veteran of the mission field in Argentina and Texas, began a ministry with the workers. In 1949, Hershey presided over 12 Spanish language services, each averaging 350 people, with as many as 600 during the height of the tomato harvest. After Hershey stepped aside due to declining health, Addona Nissley, along with Paul Landis, Melvin Lauver, Raymond Charles, Isaac Frederick, Jacob Rutt, and James Martin took up the work, addressing both spiritual needs and making sure the migrant workers were being treated fairly. In the summer of 1945, the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities asked William Lauver to coordinate the Hispanic work in Lancaster County.

As the Puerto Rican community continued growing and became more settled, especially around the Poultry Plant, they established their own church in 1953—New Holland Spanish Mennonite Church. More churches followed, including the Bridgeport Mission, and today there are three Hispanic Mennonite congregations in Lancaster. These congregations began the Spanish Mennonite Council, which is a network of over 40 Mennonite congregations across four states and three Central American countries.

For the last three years, the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society has been working to acknowledge the Hispanic Mennonites of Lancaster, through educational meetings, field trips, and scholarly research. This year, the Society is hosting a five-day tour to Puerto Rico from Thursday, October 20, to Monday, October 24.

Rolando Santiago, executive director of Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, will serve as lead tour guide; he

Darlene Weaver and Ramona Rivera Santiago in 1962. Rivera Santiago would often help to translate from English to Spanish in the office of Victor Weaver Poultry.
Darlene Weaver and Ramona Rivera Santiago in 1962. Rivera Santiago would often help to translate from English to Spanish in the office of Victor Weaver Poultry. Photo provided.

was born in Puerto Rico and spent twenty years of his early life on the island. He notes that “participants will enjoy popular attractions on the island and will also learn about the rich history of Puerto Rico, with an emphasis on more than seventy years of Puerto Rican Mennonite influence on the economic, social, and religious life of the island.”

One full day will focus on visiting Mennonite-related educational, health, agricultural, and church institutions in the Aibonito area.

Local guides and storytellers will illustrate specific aspects of Mennonite work, such as the history of the large Mennonite health system and the impact of Mennonites on Puerto Rican agriculture, especially the poultry business.  They will tell stories about Academia Menonita Betania, an important educational institution.  Church leaders will also discuss the history, culture, and life of the Puerto Rican Mennonite churches.

To join the trip, early bird registration deposit of $500.00 is needed by June 1 with total $1975.00 due August 15. Regular registration deposit of $500.00 needed by July 15 with total of $2175.00 due August 15. Interested persons can register at www.lmhs.org or by calling 717-393-9745. An itinerary is available at www.lmhs.org. Those who register by June 1 will receive a free copy of a recently published book of stories, Mennonite Memories of Puerto Rico. Interested persons can learn more and register at www.lmhs.org or by calling (717) 393-9745.

 

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