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National grant will help preserve rare Mennonite film in Bethel archives

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College’s Mennonite Library and Archives is the repository of rare work by a pioneer Mennonite filmmaker, and now some of it has a better chance of surviving for posterity.

The Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee has been awarded an $8,100 grant to preserve the first movie on a Mennonite theme by William Zehr, an Oregon native and 1932 Bethel graduate. The grant, from the National Film Preservation Foundation, will be used to preserve and to make digital copies of the only known copy of The Call of the Cheyenne, about Mennonite mission efforts among Native Americans in Montana.

Zehr (1909-1993) turned his childhood interest in movies into a career, starting Better Films Library and Productions in 1946 and making mostly evangelical films. In 1953, the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) appointed Zehr to its new Film Committee, for which the first project was The Call of the Cheyenne, completed in 1955.

By 1960, Zehr had made five more films about Mennonite missions in Japan, Taiwan and North America. In addition, he made 25 movies on other topics such as lumbering in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1970, Zehr donated his collection – consisting of films he made or had a part in making as well as inventory from his film library – to the GCMC archives, which are now housed in the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College. He retired to Schowalter Villa in Hesston about 10 years later.

The National Film Preservation’s grant program was “something that I’ve been generally aware of,” said MLA director John Thiesen. “Rich Preheim, the new director of the Historical Committee, has been very energetic in searching out grant funds.

“I’ve been wishing for a long time we could do something with these [Zehr] films,” Thiesen continued. “I thought this grant was a long shot, but Rich decided to try.”

The National Film Preservation Foundation, based in San Francisco, is dedicated to preserving films that would be unlikely to survive without public support. Started in 1997, it has funded the preservation of more than 1,300 films. The Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee was one of 31 grant recipients for 2008.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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