Mennonite Health JournalArticles on the intersection of faith and health
Pioneer Mennonite Physician Dies in Paraguay
Paul D. Leichty
from Mennonite Health Journal, Vol. 15, No. 3 – August 2013
This article was prepared by Paul Leichty using sources in Spanish, German, and English supplied by Ingrid Kaethler Epp. In addition to the main article in the format of an obituary, there is an English-language version of Hans Epp’s own life summary and testimony. Translation of German sources to English was graciously supplied by Gerhard and Rosemary Wyse Reimer of Goshen, Indiana.
Hans Epp was born in the Fernheim Colony in Paraguay on June 3, 1936 in the midst of the early years of poverty and difficulties in establishing the colony of German-speaking Mennonites fleeing Stalinist Russia.
At age 14, Hans had the opportunity to study in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, completing his secondary level education in 1954. This qualified him to be a teacher in the school system back in Fernheim where he taught grade school from 1955 to 1957. During the summers, he prepared for medical school and returned to Asunción in 1958, studying at the National University where he graduated in December 1963 at the top of his class with the degree of “Doctor en Medicina.”
Following a year of medical internship in 1964 at several different places in Paraguay, Dr. Epp continued his medical training in the United States, doing an internship and residency in surgery in Detroit, Michigan from 1965 to 1968.
During that time, a mutual friend introduced Hans again to Ingrid Kaethler, a Paraguayan Mennonite student at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. They were married at the Goshen Biblical Seminary Chapel on July 16, 1967. Ingrid survives, along with two children, a son, Mario Lotar Epp, and a daughter, Carmen Gloria Epp, as well as two granddaughters, Bibiana Beatriz Epp and Yazmin Yeruti Epp.
After Hans completed his medical residency in Detroit, the Epps returned to their homeland in the Paraguayan Chaco where Dr. Epp began his medical career in the Fernheim Colony capital of Filadelfia. By this time, Germanic Mennonites were already reaching out to their indigenous neighbors among the various tribes of the region. In 1968, Hans Epp was instrumental in founding a health program among the indigenous peoples of the Central Chaco, leading the effort to improve the public health of the region for more than twelve years. During this period of time, he took a leave of absence during the 1972-1973 academic year to pursue a Masters in Public Health at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts.
Wilmar Stahl, in a tribute on behalf of the larger umbrella organization known as ASCIM (La Asociación de Servicios de Cooperación Indígena-Mennonita), noted that the early public health challenges Dr. Epp faced were the rapidly advancing tuberculosis and the unbalanced diet among children of the region. Stahl noted that after ten years, new cases of tuberculosis were reduced by 62% and mortality from tuberculosis fell by 73%. Epp trained teams of health promoters and nurses who moved to the indigenous villages to provide maternal/infant health services including talks in the native languages on practical public health matters such as hygiene and nutrition. (Stahl, 2012)
After years of recognizing the growing need for mental health services, Hans Epp marked a turning point in his career in 1981. Returning once again to the U.S., he did special studies at AMBS (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) and Oaklawn Psychiatric Center in Elkhart, Indiana as well as Prairie View Mental Health Center in Newton, Kansas. He then served for the next ten years at the Eirene Mental Health Sanatorium in Filadelfia.
By the first of the year in 1991, Hans and Ingrid were sensing a call to work with a group of conservative Mennonites who had moved from Mexico to eastern Paraguay. After a transition year, the Epps moved from Filadefia to Asunción in 1992 where Hans established a private practice in family counseling and pastoral care but spent most of his time working with the “Mexican Mennonites.” During these years, Hans also taught a course in counseling at the Mennonite seminary in Asunción, collaborated in a translation project of the Low German Bible for the Old Colony Mennonites in Latin America, and, along with Ingrid and several other couples, helped to plant a new Spanish-speaking congregation.
In July 2000, they terminated the work with the Mexican Mennonites and in January 2007 returned to Filadelfia, spending their remaining years with their extended family which included two grandchildren. As Hans Epp recognized that his battle with liver cancer was coming to an end, he reflected on his life with a combination of gratitude to God and a ringing faith that called on family and friends to recognize God’s love for everyone. As a man with superb intellect, vast vision, command of three languages, and a servant’s heart, Hans Epp was able to use his professional skills in medicine to minister to body, mind, and spirit in unique ways to many people across many cultures. Following are his final reflections in anticipation of his death.
Hans Edgard Epp (June 3, 1936—July 1, 2013)
I was born at home in Karlsruhe, village number 16 in Fernheim, the third of six children. My parents were Johann Epp and Katharina Epp, née Ratzlaff. That was in the difficult beginning years of the colony. In spite of the poverty and difficulties, I developed quite normally, for God had laid me in the cradle with a strong will to live.
Growing up in a pious God-fearing family, it happened that during our nightly prayers, already as a small child, I invited and accepted the dear Lord into my heart and my life. I took it in a very child-like way. Never in my life have I had to question the existence of God or Jesus’ boundless love for me. There, in infancy, began my conscious life as a child of God.
When I was nine and a half years old, at the first summer Bible school held in Fernheim, we children were invited to experience conversion. I asked what that meant: To confess my sins, to ask for forgiveness, and to invite Jesus Christ into my life. Thereupon I said, “I’ve already experienced all that long ago.” The somewhat baffled teacher replied: “You have to know the exact day and hour when you did this. It would probably be better if you would do it publicly tonight.” So December 12, 1945 is the date of my official pro forma conversion, a ritual with profound meaning for me on my way to adulthood. Afterwards, at home, my parents explained the meaning of this ritual to me and my brother and nailed it down in my consciousness that from this time on I am a child of God and that I will remain a child of God as long as I live, no matter what Satan or other people may tell me. This assurance has remained fixed within me.
While the frequently sung Sunday school songs of that era nourished my child-like faith, in later years my knowledge of God grew in height, breadth, and depth. Based on the clear understanding of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, at the age of sixteen I was baptized in the Fernheim Mennonite Church. Since that time I have worked in various capacities in congregations and mission. During the many changes of residence in our life, my wife Ingrid and I have always carried our church letters to the respective congregations; in our last segment we now have returned to the Fernheim Mennonite Church.
At age fourteen I had the unique opportunity to study in Asunción, unusual for that time, and I accepted eagerly. First I completed teacher training and a few years later I returned to study to become a medical doctor. Later during my studies in the USA, I learned to know a Paraguayan student, Ingrid Kaethler, a treasure trove indeed. On July 16, 1967 we were married in Goshen, Indiana, USA. A year later we returned to the Paraguayan Chaco, our home.
This is where our two children, Mario Lotar and Carmen Gloria, were born.
During my years of work, God has led me on paths I would never have dreamed of myself. These paths, however, say a lot about the great will of God; and he has led me well. In a period of twelve years, I was able to develop a health program for and with the indigenous people of the central Chaco. This program continues to function and grow. Both I and my wife (my able assistant) embraced these people in our hearts; God simply gave both of us a great love for them.
God’s calling for my life led me to further study in the USA and from there to my next field of work: the work of Servicio Menonita de Salud Mental, Sanatorium Eirene. For a period of ten years I was able to serve a different group of people: those suffering emotionally, mentally and spiritually, those for whom society often has little understanding. My love for these people helped me to see a great potential in them.
Through this work God brought me in contact with very conservative Mennonites who came to East Paraguay from Mexico. In 1991 my wife and I sensed a very clear call to venture out and undertake full-time work with these brothers and sisters. It was a highly momentous faith venture. We moved to Asunción where for nine and a half years our main commitment was to the conservative Mennonites in East Paraguay. We were able to scatter many seeds and initiate positive changes. We were loved by many, but we also experienced some hostility. These congregations have not remained the same. In many places we see various kinds of fruit. During these years I also collaborated in the translation of the Low German Bible for the Old Colony Mennonites in Latin America.
In the meantime I had developed a private practice in family counseling and was deeply involved in the Concordia congregation and in mission. For many years I also taught a course in counseling at CEMTA, the Mennonite seminary in Asunción, and served as administrator for the German section of the so-called Family Services Worldwide (Familiendienste Weltweit) and translated and/or developed basic courses in marriage, family and spiritual formation. At the same time, with a few other married couples from the Concordia Mennonite congregation, we helped to form a Spanish- speaking congregation based on the apostolic example, which gave us much joy.
At the age of 70, we moved back to Filadelfia.
My experience with the cancer of the liver introduces the final chapter of my life.
I would like to place the following upon the hearts of my friends, brothers and sisters: Free yourselves of all anxieties and fears that God will abandon you. God does not do that! Trust God! Start listening to Him! God wants you to follow Him! Do not run ahead of Him! Do not run away from Him! Obey and trust! If you cannot do this, maybe the image of God’s true being has not yet penetrated you completely! God loves you, precisely you! God also loves everyone in our marginal groups, including those from a broken family! And each of you has been called to be the bearer of God’s love to the marginalized. God also loves every indigenous person and all who have migrated into our midst the same way he loves you. I also rejoice in the fact that God loves me in such a way that I can have a relationship of love with him and with all those who surround me. And thus I can say farewell to this world.
The bereaved family:
Spouse: Ingrid Epp, née Kaethler
Son: Mario Lotar Epp; daughter: Carmen Gloria Epp
Granddaughters: Bibiana Beatriz Epp and Yazmin Yeruti Epp
Stahl, W. (2012, July 3). Dr. Hans E. Epp: Fundador del Programa Pro Salud Indígena de la ASCIM. Retrieved from ASCIM: http://www.ascim.org/?Noticias_breves:Julio_2013
About the author
Paul D. Leichty, M.Div. was the first Executive Director of Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship (MHF), serving from Sept. 2011 through May 2020. Paul has served as a pastor, church musician, computer support person, disabilities advocate, and administrator/organizer of a number of church-related ministries. In addition to responsibilities at MHF, Paul is Executive Director of Congregational Accessibility Network and was formerly Director of User Services at Mennonite.net. He is a member of Agape Fellowship of the Mennonite Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife, Twila Charles Leichty.