It took Weldon Schloneger a year to complete a project he volunteered to take on for the Mennonite Library and Archives.
Weldon Schloneger will present "My Encounter with the Photos of Rodolphe Petter" at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at Kauffman Museum, 2801 N. Main St. in North Newton.
Hosted by Friends of the Mennonite Library and Archives, the intent of the evening is to share information and photographs about Rodolphe Petter (1865-1947), a Mennonite missionary working with the Cheyenne people of Oklahoma and Montana.
"There are several photos of Cheyenne people that are just classic," Schloneger said.
Schloneger is quick to note he is not a historian or archivist and, at the beginning, had little context for the Petter project.
"I didn't know anything about him. I didn't know anything about Mennonite missions with the Cheyenne people, Cheyenne history, nothing," Schloneger said.
Schloneger started by scanning hundreds of negatives, some of which dated back to the 1890s.
"Some were big, some were little," Schloneger said. "Some were in good shape; some were in terrible shape. There were just all these negatives in piles and envelopes."
He then went on to scan thousands of prints, using photo-enhancing software to make the images as clear as possible.
"Many of the prints had writing on the back explaining what they were, which was very helpful, so I scanned the back as well as the front," Schloneger said.
Along with a few dozen colored glass slides, he digitized around 4,300 total images. As he worked with the photographs, he did additional research to aid in identifying the places and people captured in them.
"It was sort of a detective process," Schloneger said.
What he found was the history of a man who had grown up in the French-speaking regions of Switzerland in a family who were members of a Reformed church.
Wanting to attend school but lacking the money to do so, Petter was granted a scholarship to attend a missionary school in Basel, Switzerland, where he studied the Bible and medicine. Since the classes were given in German, Petter added that language to his repertoire and found he had an aptitude for languages.
"He knew French and he mastered German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew," Schloneger said.
After graduation, Petter served a stint with the Swiss military as a medic, where he took care of and befriended a Mennonite man. He would later marry Marie Gerber, the man's sister.
The Gerbers had family living in the United States who came back to Switzerland and told Petter of the opportunities to work with the Indian tribes there.
"Rodolphe was very interested in that and decided he was going to get connected with the Mennonites and come to America with Marie and become a missionary to the Indians," Schloneger said.
Both Rodolphe and Marie Petter were ordained in the fall of 1891 as missionaries at the Halstead Mennonite Church and sent to the Cheyenne in Canton, Oklahoma.
"The minute that Petter hit Oklahoma, the first thing he did was try to learn the language," Schloneger said.
Finding a Cheyenne man who was willing to teach him, Petter dedicated himself to learning the language and would go on to translate much of the Bible and "The Pilgrim's Progress" into Cheyenne.
"Petter is significant in that he is the first one to put the Cheyenne language into writing," Schloneger said. "He developed a Cheyenne-English dictionary. The language had never been put into writing before."
Petter's wife, Marie, died of tuberculosis in 1910 after bearing him a son and a daughter.
Petter proposed to Berthe Kinsinger, one of his daughter's schoolteachers, who was apprehensive at first at giving up her life as single, professional teacher and missionary.
"She was probably the first Mennonite woman to earn a college degree. She was the first single woman to make a career as a missionary in the Mennonite church," Schloneger said.
Berthe finally accepted Rodolphe's proposal and threw herself wholeheartedly into supporting his work.
Despite their dedication, the Petters made few converts.
"It was slow, hard going," Schloneger said.
Those who did become Mennonites were passionate about the faith. Berthe would even bring a Cheyenne man, Red Bird, to Newton in 1912 to speak at the Mennonite church.
The Petters were encouraged by the Cheyenne in Oklahoma to visit other Cheyenne in Montana, and they would move to Lame Deer, Montana, in 1916.
"When (Rodolphe) visited Montana for the first time and the Cheyenne people up there, speaking fluent Cheyenne, they were impressed," Schloneger said.
At that time, missionaries from many denominations insisted that Indians give up their way of life.
"To become a Christian, you had to give up all things Indian," Schloneger said. "Indian cultures was evil; they were savages, this was all Satanic, so you had to give up your culture, the way you dressed, everything, and become a Christian."
While the missionaries provided education and medical care, they also wanted the Indians to assimilate into their European culture.
"They did some good things but there were tragic things and sad things and things from our perspective today that we feel badly about," Schloneger said.
At his presentation, Schloneger will share about what he learned through working on the photo project.
"It's just an interesting window into both Cheyenne history and culture and Mennonite missions," Schloneger said. "...It's about Rodolphe Petter, but it's also about how I've gotten involved with his story."
Schloneger has moved on to other projects, but noted the Mennonite Library and Archives has even more information on the Petters.
"There are dozens of boxes of letters, papers, photographs, every book either of them ever owned — they have their entire library," Schloneger said. "They have everything. ...Everything needs to be digitized to make it available and it's just an incredibly huge (task)."
To view the Petter photographs, visit https://mlabethelks.org/petter-photos.