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Author on Mennonite mission impossible


June 22, 2007
- Dan Dyck

WINNIPEG, Man. — Arlette Kouwenhoven is on a nearly impossible mission to find a Mennonite family thread that can be traced from Netherlands to Mexico.

Though Kouwenhoven has no personal connection with Mennonites, it is her personal passion for tracing the migration pattern of the Dutch diaspora that drives her.

As a student she wrote a thesis on her own faith background in the Dutch Reformed Church background. This time she hopes a book on Mennonite migrations will result from her work. But even deeper than the diaspora, she has a keen interest in understanding the reasons why various religious groups have left Netherlands over the centuries.

Her interest in Mennonites arose when her agriculturalist husband – he has a special interest in yucca plants – stumbled upon Mennonites in Mexico. As her first research stop, Kouwenhoven visited the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg – a connection she made while doing research on the internet.

The anthropologist, author, mother of two children (age 5 and 10), has found the space in her career as a publisher to pursue her passion. But it won’t be easy, according to Alf Redekopp, director for the Mennonite Heritage Centre. “It’s been attempted before, but very few reliable threads have been found that trace a single family line back to Holland. There is a Wiebe family that has potential – but there may have been many Wiebes in Holland in the 16th century,” says Redekopp.

By the end of her six-day stay in Winnipeg, and with the help of Redekopp and archivist Conrad Stoesz, Kouwenhoven managed to come up with a hopeful lead in the DeFehr family. It’s possible, she says, that the Defehr family is descended from Jan de Veer in Holland, born in 1521 in the town of Veere, and also possible that there are relatives currently living in Mexico.

“It will now be a challenge to find a DeFehr family [in Mexico] that does link up with this line,” says Kouwenhoven. “Any help in this respect would be welcome.”

Kouwenhoven was surprised to learn of the similarity between her birth name and a name that appears in some Mennonite Church rolls in Canada – spelled Kauenhofen or Kauenhowen. The discovery peeked her interest in more deeply exploring her own family history. “I might end up tracing my own name,” she said.

In then end, Kouwenhoven’s goal is to “make a readable book for a large group of people who are interested in the history of the Mennonites. When reading about them, I think they deserve to have their history written down and to be known to a large group of people outside the Mennonite diaspora.”

Kouwenhoven welcomes contact from readers who may have had success in reliably tracing their family roots to Holland. She can be reached at