Over five centuries, Hutterites’ long history of seclusion, adherence to Protestantism and communal living has helped them survive constant persecution. But those traditional practices have also given way to the COVID-19 pandemic reaching into their community.
Hutterites’ namesake, Jakob Hutter, was burned at the stake in 1536; Slovakian Jesuits constantly tried converting them to Catholicism, not peaceably; wars in central and east Europe forced them to eventually flee to Russia in the 1700s; the government there told them join the military or leave; Americans in South Dakota in the late 1800s weren’t too impressed with their pacifism; and the Alberta government in the 1940s imposed on them new rules for buying land and forming new colonies.
Now their history of stubborn subsistence on communal social structures and Christian anabaptism is again challenged, this time by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two Saskatchewan Hutterite colonies in the Rural Municipality of Maple Creek, about 140 kilometres west of Swift Current, recently experienced the pandemic’s reach, with the provincial government declaring viral outbreaks in both. As of Friday afternoon, at least 23 infections were connected to the outbreaks.
The outbreaks prompted the Hutterian Safety Council (HSC), which works with colonies in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, to issue a letter jointly with the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) this week, saying “there have been challenges getting some Hutterite communities to implement adequate COVID-19 protocols and to abide by the public health orders.”
One of the letter’s drafters, David Tschetter, says Hutterites’ history of dealing with persecution is showing its effects during the pandemic.
“When you have a rich history right from the 16th-century [Protestant] Reformation to present day, the way we go about our faith-based activities, you can almost envision and expect that having to alter a routine can be taken as an outright stopping of your routine,” he told the Regina Leader-Post.
He also said, “when you have a culture with such a long history of isolation and seclusion ... right up to the advent of the Internet, it's very easy to understand that we have a mentality that this natural geographic seclusion and isolation can also serve as a buffer, a medical buffer to protect us. And that is clearly not the case.”
Averaging approximately 100 members in size and always rural-based, colonies value their 30-minute evening church services Monday through Saturday, along with longer Sunday morning services, Tschetter says. “It is very cherished and dear to us that we gather as families as a whole in our time of prayer and spiritual teachings.”
He’s a colony member in Alberta’s Peace River region.
It has been a challenge, he said, “to convey the message to our communities that the public health authorities in our provinces are not asking us to stop our faith-based activities or our routine … They're simply asking us to get creative and figure out ways of how to do them different and within the public health order.”
Colonies eat breakfast, lunch and supper together every day, except Sundays, in communal dining halls; women prepare food in communal kitchens. Men and women, whose labour is divided by gender, often work together in groups; the agriculture-focused work often proves profitable for colonies, who pool earnings into collective accounts.
The HSC letter acknowledges the Maple Creek-area outbreaks led to “misunderstanding” that positive COVID-19 tests would hasten “an economic shutdown of their communities.” The SHA encountered “resistance to COVID-19 testing at some Hutterite communities” too, the letter says.
Tschetter declines to identify the colonies of the outbreaks or the colonies putting up some resistance.
He said it’s imperative he and the HSC communicate to colonies in the three Prairie provinces “the public health authorities … are not the enemy; they're there to help us, they're there to protect us.” He says a positive COVID-19 test will not lead to an economic shutdown.
"We protect our communal economy by protecting our people. This applies to Hutterite communities, just as it does to provinces and countries,” he said.
SHA guidelines for public gatherings are still in place: Indoor groups are limited to 15 people, while outdoor groups are limited to 30 people. The province is in the middle of Phase 4 of the SHA-prescribed reopen plan; Phase 5, which doesn’t have a start date, lists limits on public gatherings as an option, without specific numbers.
For now, Tschetter says Saskatchewan’s approximately 54 colonies are adjusting: Colony leaders are installing or expanding public address systems for members to do worship services in small groups; communal dining halls are closed, while communal kitchens are functioning as makeshift take-out restaurants — families pick up their meals and eat at home.
Still, he says, Hutterites miss the old ways of doing things.
“Like all Canadians, everybody's getting tired. We want to see a return of normalcy.”
He said, "We have a responsibility to respect the beliefs and the urgencies of the broader society in which we are a part of."