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A Hutterite Funeral

Last week I returned to Fairholme for my Uncle’s funeral.

Providentially, my mother, sister Genie and I had been to Fairholme 2 days earlier and mother had a chance to say good-bye. Fairholme is the Hutterite Colony in Manitoba in which I grew up and the place of many cherished childhood memories. My uncle, Peter Maendel whom we all refer to as Peter Vetter is the last of my mother’s 12 brothers to pass away. He was 93.

As we rounded the corner into Fairholme we stopped at the community graveyard where Peter Vetter’s freshly dug grave had been prepared. We walked among the grave-markers as a cold wind snapped at our skirts. My brother Renie and our beloved Oma and Opa all lie here.

Peter Vetter and my mother are both members of the iconic Maendel family. The 16 children of Joseph and Katherina Maendel, of which my mother is the youngest, were a robust, gifted and lively bunch.

While most of my mother’s siblings were gregarious and engaging, Peter Vetter stood out for his quiet demeanor. When we lived at Fairholme Colony he was my father’s best friend. I remember on Saturday evenings when Peter Vetter would come over to our house and he and my father would give each other haircuts with dad’s Wahl hair clippers. I would watch, broom in hand, because I was responsible to sweep up the hair clippings after they were done; an assignment of which I felt quite proud.

In Hutterite tradition, Peter Vetter’s body lay in the living room of the family home on the afternoon that we arrived. Two circles of chairs were placed around the coffin and people came and went to pay their respects in roughly half hour shifts. It was like a flash forward from my childhood. The women and men I grew up with eased in and out of the room to comfort the family and reminisce. Peter Vetter and his wife Sarah (Wurz) Basel had 12 children. Sarah Basel tragically died of cancer in 1970 and Peter Vetter remained a widower. It must have been a difficult and lonely time.

When the bell rang we all proceeded to the new community kitchen. It is still under construction but the new dining room was far enough along to host the supper. Fairholme is re-imagining itself and the face of the community is changing. New homes, barns and community buildings are springing up.

My sister and I quickly took a sentimental journey through the old kitchen, a stone’s throw from the new one where the next generation of beautiful Fairholme women were cooking the supper. The old kitchen is weathered and weary but for us it’s a priceless antique. The linoleum floor in the Essenschuel (children’s dining room) where we once ate still gleams and the enduring industrial oven in the bakery with its square peep-hole fuels my mind with moist and creamy poppy seed Krapflen (pockets). Upstairs in the creaky attic the aromatic blocks of Speck Saften (homemade lard soap) are curing in brimming baskets just like they did when we lived here.

After supper, Peter Vetter’s coffin was carried from his home to the colony school and placed in the center of the gymnasium. Nearly 500 people have arrived from other colonies and the room is near capacity. Traditional German funeral songs flow from the crowd, the voices rich and full.

I am struck by Peter Vetter’s beautiful hands folded against his chest, as he lies there. His fingers are long and elegant. Peter Vetter was the first Hutterite to graduate from teacher’s college in Manitoba and become a teacher; a significant achievement at a time when most Hutterites shunned higher education. Early Hutterites were the among the most educated society in Europe. Peter Vetter helped reintroduce our forefathers model of higher education to future generations of Schmiedeleut Hutterites. He was also the colony gardener. While Peter Vetter had scholar’s hands he didn’t mind getting them dirty as head gardener of Fairholme’s expansive community garden, a job he both loved and excelled at for decades.

In 1979, he was elected colony Predigar minister. Ruhe in Frieden, Peter Vetter.

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 Contact Mary-Ann at

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