Upon seeing the trailer for the newly released film, We Were Children, and reading the tragic, blood-curdling accounts of Canada’s Residential Schools, I was struck once again by how torturous it must have been for parents during that period -- where a catastrophic decision by powerful government and church leaders forcibly separated children from families, effectively destroying a people’s future, in the name of assimilating them into an enemy culture.My mind wandered to Europe and some dismal chapters of my own Hutterite history involving a similar decision, but with a drastically different outcome. What if eighteenth-century imperial powers had succeeded in taking our children? How would our story have changed?
In 1767 with Maria Theresia head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire persecuted the Hutterites because they insisted on living in Christian community of goods and refused to pay war taxes or swear oaths. Concerted efforts were made to eradicate Anabaptism in Transylvania: Empress Theresia wanted a Roman Catholic Austria; even the Lutheran Church was not acceptable. When torture, imprisonment and book burning couldn’t dissuade the Hutterites, Delphini, a Jesuit planned to abduct Hutterite children, to place them in Catholic orphanages, and imprison the adults.Before this dreadful plan could be realized, word reached the Hutterite community, therefore they decided to escape. On a fateful October morning they fled south over the Carpathian Mountains to Wallachia (Rumania). “It was a pitiable sight: the Brothers, Sisters, boys and girls each with staff in hand and bundle on back, some with a small child on top of the bundle. …So we set out in the name of God, leaving our well-built houses and much of our household goods behind, unsold. …Everything had been prepared in the suburbs of Hermanstadt. Beds stood ready for the children. But God brought Delphini’s plans to nothing, for the net he had spread to trap us was torn, and when he came to take us, we were already out of the country.” (The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren Vol. II, Crystal Springs Colony)
More than two hundred years later, Hutterite communities dot the Canadian and Dakotan prairies including British Columbia, Washington, Montana and Oregon. The Hutterites contribute to the agriculture industry, producing eggs, hogs, poultry, beef, and a variety of crops. Additionally, some colonies have diversified by manufacturing a variety of products including ventilating systems, cabinets and rafters.Hutterites are sometimes asked how they feel towards the Catholic Church today. Naturally we’re saddened each time we think about the historic accounts such as the one mentioned above. However, as much as these are a bleak part of our history, they’re also a powerful reminder of what our forefathers fought for; freedom to serve God as outlined in the New Testament. We carry no grudge for what happened in the past and endeavour to live peacefully with all human beings.
As we celebrate Easter, I humbly ponder how far we’ve come as a people. Our lives are enriched by thriving communities and the freedom to celebrate these Lenten Holy Days peacefully. Whereas our forefathers suffered persecution, fled from country to country and at times were compelled to gather secretly in the woods to partake of the Lord’s Supper.For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11