A Path to Religious Freedom Leads to Wisconsin

Aug 11, 2016

Nine former members of a religious sect have decided to put down roots in Wisconsin.  The tradition they left may not be well-known here, but their experience speaks to a more basic human issue – freedom to choose one’s own destiny.

Sheryl and Rodney Waldner at WUWM.
Credit Mitch Teich

Sister and brother Sheryl and Rodney Waldner were raised in a Hutterite colony in the Canadian province of Manitoba.  There are nearly 50,000 Hutterites living in such colonies in places such as Manitoba, North Dakota and Saskatchewan.  It’s a distinct faith, but has elements in common with the Mennonite and Amish traditions, such as the simple dress it requires of its adherents and a separation from the influences of the modern world.

But, the Waldners say, with that simplicity came something less benign.  "It was simple but very oppressive," Sheryl says.  "And very restrictive.  And growing up in it, you don't realize it, but once we all were adults - all nine of us - we all felt the same thing without communicating it with one another."

Waldner says that oppression came in a number of ways. Women's roles in the mainly agricultural colonies were limited to garden and housework and they were prevented from having driver's licenses.  But she says it was only after leaving the situation that they learned what the rest of the world views as normal.  "For example, a family having a meal together," she says, "it's a normal thing, but we never had that because the men were usually separated from the women."

Rodney Waldner says that while men had more freedom than women in their colony, his options were greatly limited as he grew up.  "It came down to partiality," he explains.  "There were certain members that had more rights than other members." The Waldners say the colony's power structure was limited to three people - the secretary, the minister, and the farm boss.

The Waldners both say there was no outlet to talk about frustrations or basic things like fears. "I don’t remember having any emotions," Sheryl says, "because I was so not used to sharing my feelings about much of anything that it came to the point where I didn’t realize they were even there."

Sheryl was 17 when she left the colony; Rodney was 20.  Their parents had already been excommunicated for, as they describe it, believing in the validity of other faiths within Christianity.  They connected with the other seven members of their group in the years following and now speak to groups about their early lives, their decision to leave the Hutterite colonies, and their newfound faith.

Water skiing
Credit The Nine

  Meanwhile, they continue to adjust to modern life, including many aspects that most Wisconsinites would take for granted - or at least have gotten used to long ago.  They've gotten bank accounts and driver's licenses, learned to water ski, and even come up with answers to very basic questions.

"After we left - the people who took us in and helped us, they would ask 'What do you like to do?' or 'What is your favorite color?'," Sheryl recalls.  "We had no idea, and [I wondered] how we became so dull, so boring?"

The Nine have since resettled in Park Falls, Wisconsin, where they have established a publishing company for the books telling their story, and a multimedia production center.  

For the record, Sheryl says her favorite color is green; Rodney's is red.