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This article was published 8/9/2017 (714 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The man who served as spiritual leader for Manitoba Hutterites for nearly 40 years and implemented major reforms, has died.
Jacob Kleinsasser, spiritual leader of Manitoba and South Dakota Hutterite colonies since he was elected in 1978, died at the age of 95.
He was from the Crystal Springs Colony near Ste. Agathe, about 40 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
Kleinsasser ushered in numerous reforms, including post-secondary education in certain disciplines for Hutterites, and introduced businesses like Hutterian Brethren Mutual Insurance and a Hutterite credit company to serve colony members.
He was a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal several years ago for his contribution to his community.
Kenny Wollman, who is studying theology and biblical studies at Canadian Mennonite University and hopes to one day obtain a degree in education, said he would not be attending post-secondary school today if not for Kleinsasser.
"He was energetic, creative, a visionary, and his work is testimony to that," said Wollman, a member of the Baker Hutterite Colony near MacGregor.
While Wollman cautions against hagiography (making people out to be saints), he believes Kleinsasser will one day be recognized as one of the greatest Hutterite leaders known to the group that began in the 1530s in Moravia, which is in the Czech Republic today.
But Kleinsasser’s reforms also rubbed some colonies the wrong way, causing a schism with more traditional members.
That schism came to a head in 1992 when about half the colonies in Manitoba, and many colonies in Minnesota and the Dakotas (mostly South Dakota), broke away from the reforms.
The branch of Hutterites that resides in those jurisdictions is called Schmiedeleut. "Schmied" meaning blacksmith in German, which was the occupation of the branch leader when Hutterite religious refugees started arriving from Russia in 1918. "Leut" means people in German.
The schism saw the Schmiedeleut split into two groups, Group 1 (reformers) and Group 2 (traditionalists).
Of the 108 colonies in Manitoba, 49 are Group 1. Group 2 does not have a spiritual leader anymore, but is headed by committee instead. There are roughly another hundred Schmiedeleut colonies in the Dakotas and Minnesota that are also split along Group 1 and Group 2 lines.
Hutterites believe in living in colonies and sharing property communally. Rooted in the Anabaptist tradition, they believe in absolute pacifism.
They are often recognized by their modest clothes. Women wear head kerchiefs and ankle-length dresses; men wear dark trousers and suspenders.
While colony members acknowledge non-Hutterites sometimes referred to Kleinsasser as the Hutterite "pope," they say there are few similarities other than that they are spiritual leaders. A Hutterite leader does not have the same powers as a pope, and lives communally in his home colony like everyone else.
However, like with popes, the Hutterite spiritual leadership is a lifetime position.
Where Kleinsasser did have some power was when a dispute arose within a colony that members couldn’t resolve themselves. They could turn to the spiritual leader to impose a solution.
With education, many Hutterite colonies balked at his insistence that colony members finish high school and have some opportunity to attend post-secondary schools.
"Many Hutterites felt by educating young people, you are empowering them to leave the community, so it’s safer to keep them in ignorance and they’ll stay," said Ian Kleinsasser, a nephew of the former spiritual leader, and a grade school teacher at Crystal Springs Hutterite Colony.
"Jacob argued if you keep them ignorant, then we’re the ones that lose. Ignorant people aren’t contributing all they can to a community."
Most Hutterites who attend university go into education, but some have become registered nurses. Some have also become paramedics, and others have gone into trades like electrical, carpentry, welding and plumbing.
Despite having only a Grade 8 education, Kleinsasser would translate hundreds of Hutterite sermons from the 17th century from German to English, and those sermons are still used by colonies. He oversaw the translation of The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, volumes 1 and 2, that tell the history of the Hutterites from the 1530s to 1873.
The chronicles were stopped after that, when Hutterites immigrated to South Dakota, and Kleinsasser worked to chronicle more recent history by retrieving documents like letters and genealogical data, and recording oral histories.
Between 1918 and 1920, Hutterites began to migrate into Manitoba and Alberta because of persecution over their refusal to bear arms in the First World War.
Kleinsasser also pushed colonies to do more mission work.
Today, Group 1 Schmiedeleut do mission work by funding Providence Christian Services, which sends containers of food and supplies to countries such as Liberia, Nigeria and Haiti. They also donate to other organizations such as the Red Cross, Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Aid Ministries, Ian Kleinsasser said.
Jacob Kleinsasser died on Aug. 8.
Arnold Hofer, 71, of Acadia Hutterite Colony near Carberry, has been elected new spiritual leader.
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.