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A royal thank-you to MDS volunteers

April 20, 2021

Prince Philip, centre, speaks with MCCers in British Honduras in 1962. From left Prince Philip, Harold Paetkau (in suit and tie), Amos Horst, Adam Martin and Chester and Vivian Denlinger, unit leaders. 

During National Volunteer Week (April 19-24), Mennonite Disaster Service is thanking the many people who have volunteered to serve in the U.S. and Canada.

But what about getting a thank-you from royalty?

That’s what happened 59 years ago in British Honduras (now Belize) when Prince Philip, who died April 9, came to that country to recognize those who had helped the country recover from Hurricane Hattie.

The hurricane, a category five storm, hit that Commonwealth country in October 1961. It severely damaged much of the capital of Belize City; a report from that time described the city as “nothing but a huge pile of matchsticks” with many roads either flooded or covered with mud.

In response, MDS sent 26 volunteers to help with reconstruction efforts, including rebuilding homes for many single-parent and other low income families.

In 1962, when the Prince came to British Honduras to thank people involved in the repair work, the MDS volunteers had already gone home. But the Prime Minister’s Office wanted to be sure some Mennonites were present to be thanked.

Since there was a Mennonite Central Committee unit in the country, they asked MCCers to attend on behalf of MDS. Among them was Harold Paetkau, then a 20-year-old MCC volunteer from Morden, Man.

“They wanted to be sure Mennonites were represented because of the major role MDS had played in the recovery effort,” he said.

Due to the work of the MDS volunteers, Mennonites in that country “gained a lot of goodwill,” he said, adding they “left a very good impression.”

There was a long line of people to meet the Prince, including the five MCCers. Paetkau put on a suit and tie for the meeting and managed to have a few words with the Prince.

“He asked me why I wasn’t dressed properly, like the other Mennonites,” he said of how the Prince jokingly compared him to the others who were wearing plainer garb.

“It was an honour to meet royalty,” said Paetkau, now 79 and living in Winnipeg. “It meant a lot to me.”

Prince Philip speaks with Harold Paetkau. To his left is Amos Horst.

John Longhurst, MDS Canada Communications