My father turned 60 this past year, and my husband and I were tasked with sorting through pictures of his life to create a slideshow for his surprise party. As I sorted through the photos, particularly the few we were able to gather from his childhood, I was reminded again of how foreign his upbringing would have been to many of his contemporaries. My father, John Entz, was born in Big Bend Colony, a Lehrerleut Hutterite Colony near Cardston, Alberta, and spent most of his growing-up years in the Hutterite-adjacent Community Farm of the Brethren near Kitchener, Ontario.1 The Community Farm of the Brethren was founded in 1939 (and established at its present location in 1941) by Julius Kubassek, a Hungarian communist turned Nazarean, who became fascinated with the Hutterites’ communal lifestyle and commitment to apostolic Christianity. He and his followers lived for a year in West Raley Hutterite Colony in Alberta before leaving (with material support from the Hutterites) to form a new community in Ontario.2 Although the Hutterites formally severed ties with Kubassek in 1950, my father and his family, who joined the Community Farm of the Brethren a decade later, continued to view themselves as part of the Hutterite tradition. The Community Farm was the subject of a 1967 CBC documentary by filmmaker Chip Young entitled A Song for Brother Julius.
The Hutterites, like their Anabaptist counterparts, the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, are a fairly separatist group, although their degree of engagement with the world, uses of technology, acceptable education levels, and other such details vary somewhat from colony to colony. Unlike the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, the Hutterites practice a form of Christian communism; they hold lands and most goods in common as a community, they share communal meals, and they divide the labor of running a large farm amongst themselves. The Hutterites have not generated the same level of cultural fascination as the Old Order Mennonites or, in particular, the Amish—there is no cottage industry of Hutterite romance novels—but in recent years a few memoirs, and documentaries have brought attention to aspects of Hutterite life in North America.3 In the interest of adding to this growing genre, I asked my father to share memories and reflections on his upbringing and the lessons he learned as a child about Anabaptist identity and practice.
On his family’s move from Big Bend Colony to the Community Farm of the Brethren
I was born into a Lehrerleut Hutterite colony near Cardston, Alberta. (The Hutterites were the longest-lasting of the communal Anabaptist groups—the foundation of the movement was the description of the community of goods in the earliest church in Acts 2 and Acts 4 and 5.) Uncle John had entered into a dispute with the leadership of the colony, calling into question their faithfulness to Hutterite teachings, which resulted in his complete excommunication (Ausschluss). When his father and brothers (my grandfather and uncles) objected that they ought to have taken my uncle’s concerns seriously instead of resorting to excommunication, they also were excommunicated, together with their wives and children. Our family was in a slightly different position, as my mother was Uncle John’s sister; she was married to a man who had not associated himself with Uncle John, as was my aunt Sarah. When Mom and Aunt Sarah were tainted by their family ties, which they refused to renounce, they were also put into Ausschluss, but their husbands were not. This made for a very uncomfortable situation in the colony, as there was a large segment of the colony under excommunication but refusing to leave. At that point, my grandmother’s sister and her husband, both members of a colony near Kitchener, Ontario composed mostly of people who were not from a Hutterite background (my great-aunt Elizabeth was the exception—the Hutterites basically bought the land for them in Ontario to get them out of the way) approached my uncles and grandfather and extended an invitation to them to move to Ontario. In order to get out of a very difficult impasse, they accepted. My Dad and Uncle George, Aunt Sarah’s husband, remained behind with the three oldest boys (then six and seven years old), while Mom with her daughter and the four youngest boys (the youngest less than one month old) and Aunt Sarah with her two daughters and a few months pregnant with another child went to Ontario, to Community Farm of the Brethren.
On Economic Activity at the Community Farm of the Brethren
Community Farm, as it was commonly known, had originally been about half a dozen farms with a combined area of around 1,500 acres or 7 sq. km. About 1/3 was river bottom or bushland. On the remainder, 120 people (with the influx from Alberta, and including close to 50 children of school age or younger) ran several farm-related industries. Uncle Joe and Uncle John, together with a couple of teenagers, ran the dairy barn, with a milking herd of close to one hundred Holsteins. They also took care of the beef herd, mostly Holstein steers. Alex Bago, Great-Aunt Elizabeth’s husband, ran the large market garden with the help of the women and school-age children (we had regular weekend chores during the school year and a daily routine 6 days per week in the summer from the time we were 9 or 10). Many men worked in the normal routine of planting and harvesting crops, cutting hay, plowing, cultivating and fertilizing the land (we used almost exclusively “natural” fertilizer from our extensive barns). Another man was in charge of the mechanical repairs of all the machinery, with a few younger men to help him as needed. Still another man, with help from a couple of teenagers, was responsible for the industry for which the farm was probably the best-known in the area, the large goose herd, with around 1500 laying birds and another 10 000 or so young meat birds; during the late summer and throughout the fall, all available hands would slaughter the geese and any other meat birds (ducks, chickens, turkeys and the like) in the large abattoir on the Farm. The meat would then be stored in a massive walk-in freezer, as big as a small house with two or three large rooms. The “greaseless geese” (so called because large quantities of fat were removed during the killing process, to be used for other things, like cooking) provided the staple of the well-known stall of the Brethren at the Kitchener Farmers’ Market for many years. They also sold seasonal fruits and vegetables, baked goods, pillows and comforters made from goose down and feathers (although most of the comforters were made to order and sold directly on the Farm), and anything they could think of that would sell. Still another man ran the massive water boiler which provided steam heat for all of the buildings on the main farm, and some steam power in a few places. He also ran the massive backup generator in case of a power failure, making sure it was cleaned and fueled up in case of need. Since that was not really a full-time job, he was also responsible for the one hour of religious instruction before the school day started and another hour after the school day ended for all of the school-aged children. The women mostly worked on a six-week rotation, one week in the kitchen in teams of about 4 or 5 providing the meals, one week where they baked several days to provide the Farm with fresh-baked goods as well as a substantial part of the Market sales, and the other four weeks doing whatever work was in season: gardening, slaughtering birds, canning, regular large-scale cleaning, as well as running their respective households. The Farm secretary, chief cook, chief baker, child-care providers (daycare was provided from a very early age by three or four young unmarried women), and the running of the Salesroom for feather and down products by the wife of the Farm’s Chief Operating Officer were more or less permanent positions. This gives a good, though not necessarily exhaustive, idea of the daily economic running of the Farm.
On Religious Observance and Daily Life at the Community Farm of the Brethren
We were first and foremost a religious community, and, for all of us, our life centred around religious observance. We had two preachers, a father and son, both named Fred Kurucz, though we called the older one Nander Bacsi (Hungarian for Uncle Fred), whose task it was to look after the community’s spiritual life. The day would begin with a loud steam whistle calling the adults to breakfast, which began and ended with prayer (and you had better make sure you ate when you had the chance, because the second prayer signalled the end of the meal); all meals, by the way, were gender segregated, except for the preschoolers. Then the men and most of the women would go to their work, and the children came in to eat. (With the adults, mealtime silence was largely habit and necessity, with children, it was enforced with corporal punishment—you were not allowed to talk between prayers except to ask for food in the rare case when it was not within reach). Then the children went off to one hour of religious instruction before school, followed by the morning school routine. In mid-morning, the steam whistle would call all of the adults who could come to a coffee break, still segregated, the only “meal” where you could chat with your neighbours and workmates. At noon, lunch was served to the adults first, then to the children, followed by a rest break. At 1 o’clock, the routine would continue, with adults going to work and children to school. At 3 o’clock, the steam whistle would call the adults in to an afternoon coffee break, then back to work. Shortly after, school would finish for the day, followed by another hour of religious instruction for the kids. Then at 5, the children would eat supper, followed by the adults just before 6. After supper and some time to clean up from the day’s work, there would be a church service from 7 to 8 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The weekday church service routine was invariable: a song from the Zion’s Harp, the sanctioned hymnbook, a lengthy sermon, a lengthy prayer on your knees (the preacher did the praying), followed by a second hymn, then dismissal. Funny story here: because Uncle Joe was the dairyman, his day began early, and he was often tired in church. He sat with his oldest son, who also worked in the dairy and struggled to stay awake, and each one had a pin with which he had to poke the other if he fell asleep. Of course, not infrequently, both would fall asleep at the same time, to the great entertainment of the kids sitting nearby. Saturday afternoon was bath time, so Sunday would find you reasonably clean and in your best clothes. After breakfast, around 9:30, the steam whistle would call all except the cooks and maybe a couple other essential workers to church. There the routine was slightly different: one song, followed by a long sermon by the younger Fred Kurucz, followed by prayer, also by Fred, followed by a second sermon by Nander Bacsi, long but not as long as the first, followed by a second hymn and dismissal, about 90 minutes all told. The younger Fred was the usual preacher; he was also the man in charge of the mechanical shop. Nander Bacsi preached more rarely, but we children liked him because his sermons were shorter and followed a fairly regular pattern. Then dinner, followed by a quiet afternoon, where we were not allowed to play any games, but were expected to sit quietly and rest, and, most importantly, allow our parents to rest. After supper, there was a second service, which involved one hour of singing songs from the Zion’s Harp, or, very occasionally, a second hymnbook, called the “Red Hymnbook” because the cover was red, most noteworthy for its shorter songs (some songs in the Harp ran to fifteen or twenty verses). That was the religious life. It centered very much on the fact that we were a visual representation of the community of goods, but as you may have gathered, the day to day life was very bland and monotone. Of course, this description centers around the early days (basically until I was in eighth grade); there were MANY changes during my teen years, as we moved further away from our roots. But this was the community we moved to when we left Alberta.
On the Lessons He Learned, Implicitly and Explicitly, about Anabaptist Faith and Identity
As to the absorbance of Anabaptist teaching from the Hutterite perspective, the lifestyle had a lot to do with that. I will start with something very negative that I struggled with for a very long time. We saw ourselves as the TRUE people of God. Everyone else was on a somewhat lower level, as far as holiness and Christian living were concerned. As Uncle John put it, we were the “new Israel.” God had become somewhat dismissive of His first covenant people Israel, and modern Christianity in general, and had set us up as the new covenant people. From my reading of at least the early Hutterite teachings, this was often more or less implicitly assumed, if not actually explicitly taught. Our visible communal life was, we were convinced, God’s ideal for His Church. I am still convinced in my heart that this is His ideal, but not just as a visible outward expression. He intends us to “be members of one another”; two of the strongest images of the Church for us were the one-body ecclesiology most fully developed by Paul, and the family of God. And in our interdependent lifestyle and in the sharing of goods, that is what we were living out. And yet, in an ironic way, we were just as individualistic as the culture around us, except our “individual” was the community we belonged to. This was exacerbated by our isolation, both from the culture immediately around us, and, by our physical distance and by the makeup of outsiders in the membership of our particular community, from the broader Hutterite context. Being a part of a larger community than just our own microcosm would perhaps have mitigated somewhat our unconscious and unquestioned sense of superiority. Then again, it may have made it worse.
(An aside here: in one way, I think the Mennonites probably exemplify body life in the Anabaptist sense, probably better than any group I know. The Mennonite Church is truly international in a way that the Hutterites are not. And the ties that bind them together are much more extensive and sensitive than those among the Hutterites. I used to say that if a Mennonite in Honduras stubs his toe, a Mennonite in Ontario winces. Witness the immediate response of Mennonites, across the entire spectrum from very conservative to liberal, to any large disaster. This, I think, expresses the true ideal of community expressed by the early Anabaptists better than the more “colonized individualism” of the Hutterites. But I think that there too, especially in the more conservative branches, there is an innate sense of their special place in God’s heart.)
The other aspect of Anabaptist life among that branch of the movement was a strict devotion to pacifism (they called it non-violence, but there were some aspects of corporal punishment being practiced among us that went sort of over that line). We were very strict about that. I remember once playing at cops and robbers behind the school, pointing a stick at other kids and yelling “bang, bang!” I was so intent on the game that I never noticed the sudden silence of the other players, which should have warned me of the presence of an adult. I was grabbed from behind and “whupped good,” an ironic form of discipline for enforcing non-violence. One of the young men from the Community, the son of the older preacher and brother of the younger one, left the Farm and joined the Kitchener Police (this was before we arrived in 1960); he was permitted to visit his family, but they were kind of uncomfortable with his choice. We imbibed our commitment to pacifism with our daily bread—I am still very uncomfortable holding a gun, even for hunting. It was so deeply ingrained that for a while when I was teaching on the Base, I was somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that I was working for the Canadian Defense Force, even though the military engineers I was teaching were involved in the Construction trades.
Another thing we taught very strongly was that only adults could get baptized and become Church members. This was so strongly ingrained that Grandma and Katie Basel had to get special permission from the head elders of the Hutterite Church to join a baptism class and be baptized at age 19. The usual age for girls was between 21 and 24, and for guys between 23 and 26. Some of the guys would likely have waited longer, but baptism and membership were required for marriage eligibility (that’s why Grandma and Katie Basel jumped the gun, since baptisms were only performed once a year and they did not want to wait another year).4 One of the things we thought rather odd in the conservative Mennonite congregation attended by Carol Grove, my teacher for grades 6 to 8 in the Farm school, was that they regularly baptized teenagers.
We took very seriously the call to be “separated from the World” (by which we meant anyone outside of our community); it is ironic that the word “Pharisee” means “the separated ones.” We were, in the eyes of the people around us, the epitome of the idyllic Christian life, to the extent that CBC even filmed a documentary on the Farm in 1967, while the fuse that shortly after exploded the Farm was already lit. We hid it so well from the people outside that we could even convince ourselves that the conflict was not really there, or could be easily resolved while remaining hidden. One of the aspects of especially conservative Anabaptism, is that the “holy life” can easily be codified and lived entirely apart from a real relationship with God. The hunger and thirst after righteousness that Christ promised to fill cannot be filled apart from a relationship with Him. Anything outside of that quickly becomes a stagnant cistern rather than living water springing up inside us. There is real beauty in Anabaptist thought and practice, but aside from God, it rapidly dies! There are some places where it is alive and really connected with its source; if you can find a community that embodies that, latch onto it.
My father left the community in the early 1980s to study mathematics and education at the University of Waterloo. Today, he works as a substitute teacher in New Brunswick and attends a Baptist church. As for the Community Farm of the Brethren, after several splits, only a very few members of the community remain, and most of my family has left. Most of the buildings, however, are still standing, and the community still maintains some very minimal farming operations as well as the gift shop my father mentioned.
- On Big Bend Colony, see David Decker and Bert Friesen, “Big Bend Hutterite Colony (Cardston, Alberta, Canada),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Big_Bend_Hutterite_Colony_(Cardston,_Alberta,_Canada)&oldid=156842, accessed 26 July 2018. On the Lehrerleut, see Harold S. Bender, “Lehrerleut,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lehrerleut&oldid=117584, accessed 26 July 2018. ↩
- On the Community Farm of the Brethren, see John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society, 2nd edition (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 279; Rod Janzen and Max Stanton, The Hutterites in North America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 253. ↩
- See, inter alia, Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite : The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim her Heritage, updated edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), the 2013 BBC documentary How to Get to Heaven with the Hutterites, and the controversial 2012 National Geographic reality television series American Colony: Meet the Hutterites.
- Basel is a Hutterite German term for Aunt, used to refer to mature women in Hutterite colonies. ↩