Hutterites & Catholics: A Time to Heal


On a warm summer afternoon when I was 6 or 7 years old while playing outside our community kitchen at the Fairholme Hutterite colony I overheard a conversation. It came from one of the more than a dozen women sitting in a circle of chairs shelling peas into stainless steel bowls that were anchored between their knees. The woman gave an account of her cousin who had gone to a Roman Catholic church at the behest of Weltleut friends in the outside world and on her way out of church, impulsively spat into the baptismal font. The story was astonishing both because visiting a Catholic church was considered highly inappropriate and because the Hutterite woman’s conduct exposed a festering wound in our collective history. “Su Verruckt! How crazy!” one of the women exclaimed to a round of nodding heads.

To Hutterites the baptismal font is highly symbolic. During the 16th century Protestant Reformation Hutterites rejected infant baptism and insisted on following the example of Jesus who was baptised as an adult. They became known as Anabaptists and paid a high price for breaking away from the Catholic church. The state declared adult baptism a capital crime and successfully drove all Anabaptists out of Austria into the farther reaches of the Holy Roman Empire. Many of them were captured, brutalized and killed.

February 25th, marked the 481st anniversary of the death of our leader Jacob Hutter. He was hunted by Emperor Ferdinand’s bands of soldiers and tortured for 3 months before being publicly burnt at the stake in the town square in Innsbruck, Austria.

In 2005 a group called Hutterite Working Committee of Tyrol and South Tyrol sought to bring healing and reconciliation between Hutterites and the Roman Catholic Church in Austria.

In 2008 a letter was sent to Hutterite Bishops signed by the Roman Catholic Bishops of Innsbruck and Bozen-Brixen, Jacob Hutter’s home province. It read, “We recognize today that the persecution, torture and execution of your ancestors in the 16th century was a great injustice. The then Catholic church contributed a great deal of responsibility to this injustice. We deeply regret the decisions taken at that time; the actions, the consequences and the terrible suffering. We pray to the Holy Spirit that He will guide us forward into a path of mutual understanding, purified of the contempt and hatred of the past.”

It was a heartfelt apology and came with a memorandum of peace which has proven to be a tough sell to Hutterite Church leaders who to date have refused to sign it. Hutterite leaders are afraid that if they sign a reconciliation agreement with Catholics it might appear that they are condoning infant baptism, something they are desperate to avoid.

“Not at all,” says Robert Hochgruber, the head of the Working Committee. The proposed accord is simply an agreement, “to allow each other the right to live by our conscience and to be peaceful with one another,” he added. Paradoxically the peace accord is exactly what our forefathers sought, in desperate letters to Lords and Nobles of the day. Given the chance they would have signed such an agreement with their own blood.

In October of 2015 Hochgruber’s group along with the support of the Roman Catholic and other churches in Austria dedicated an impressive memorial to Hutterite Martyrs called Ubrige Brocken (Broken Fragments) in Huttererpark in Innsbruck. The memorial features 12 naturally formed boulders arranged in a circle to symbolize community life. The stones came from the glaciated mountainside of the Tyrolean Alps and were chosen because like Hutterites they were shaped by a series of external factors over several centuries. Each stone tells the story of a Hutterite martyr whose narrative is especially well documented. And on each one is written a word from a verse in Zechariah 9:16, “For like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on this land.”

The event was attended by Catholic clergy, government leaders and members of the public. Four Hutterites from (Schmiedeleut 1) came to the ceremony but members of the Hutterite Church were conspicuous by their absence. Instead, a letter from Hutterite Bishop Joe Wurz, (Dariusleut) was read aloud to the assembled dignitaries and gathered crowd. Bishop Wurz wrote, “Today, through this beautiful circle of stones you have acknowledged a great injustice and bestowed on the Hutterite community an outward and visible sign of your desire for a more honourable and uplifting relationship for which we are very grateful. Many thanks to all those who participated in building this memorial to our brave and treu-herzigen (true-hearted) forefathers. May it provide a setting for reflection and inspiration to many, and be a place of grace and peace.”

The Broken Fragments Memorial in Innsbruck is a precious gift to our people. Hutterites have waited a long time for an apology from the Catholic church. What our ancestors stood for was a message for the ages; the right to live peacefully and with dignity by their own conscience. The apology is a salve on our forefathers wounds and should be accepted without condition.

Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her award-winning books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available in book stores and at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at m.kirkby@sasktel.net

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