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Petersime secured sponsorship for more than 1,000 displaced persons after WWI, including chapel sculptor

wo sculptures in Petersime Chapel come from the hands of Burkards Dzenis, a Latvian artist who studied in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in the Paris studio of Auguste Rodin. Working primarily in marble, granite and bronze, Dzenis became a professor at Latvia’s national academy and directed the Latvian Museum of Art.

Burkhards Dzenis with chisel and mallet working on sculpture
His work received honors from Belgium, Norway and France. As a result of World War II and the consequent Soviet occupation, Dzenis and his wife found themselves with other displaced persons scratching out an existence in Germany.

Using proceeds from an egg incubator co-invented with his father, Ray Petersime was able to bring more than 1,000 displaced persons from Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia and Germany to the United States. A member of the Church of the Brethren, and of Manchester’s Board of Trustees, Petersime also donated money for construction of what is now called Petersime Chapel.

Through Petersime’s outreach, the talented Dzenis and his wife migrated to Gettysburg, Ohio, in 1950. Dzenis worked in Petersime’s hatchery and taught art in this same small town.

In 1958, the couple moved to Dayton, Ohio, where their home served as studio, and where Dzenis was photographed sculpting the pieces now on Manchester’s campus.

In 1962, Dzenis knew nothing about the whereabouts of his 200 Latvian works and commented, “The communists know well how to destroy. They aren’t so good at building.”

He helped fellow displaced persons through serving on the Committee of the Annual Rally of New Americans. The themes of “Watch and pray,” and “If I be lifted up,” which are inscribed on the sculptures in Petersime, might speak to the spirit of this world’s dispossessed, who fervently look for an opportunity to be elevated to a place called home.

Dzenis also carved the cover for the memorial book in the narthex of Petersime Chapel.

Sources: Manchester University Archives and Peace Studies Church of the Brethren Collection

Wooden sculpture of praying hands on brick wall with the words watch and pray
Burkhards Dzenis working in his shop on sculpture
Teacher and student playing saxophone and looking at music stand