A Life's Story
November 19, 2022
A visionary for Hutterite education
Anna Maendel changed long-entrenched beliefs and traditions, making it possible for kids living on her colony to pursue high school and university studies
By: Gabrielle Piché
When Anna Maendel cold-called St. James Collegiate instructor Mike James and asked him to teach her Hutterite students Advanced Academic Placement biology, he was somewhat hesitant.
“I was kind of amazed, because I wasn’t sure that Hutterite students would be that academic,” James says of the early 1990s call. “I said, ‘Oh, it’s a pretty tough course. It’s pretty rigorous.’”
Maendel insisted. Her Fairholme Colony students would participate in James’ classes via two-way radio correspondence; he didn’t have many in-person students and was already doing some remote instruction.
“She said, ‘Mr. James, if they take this course, they will do well,’” he recalls. “And they did. They got the highest marks I ever had in AP biology.”
Anna shattered barrier after barrier in terms of Manitoba’s Hutterite colonies and the education system. She was instrumental in the growth of programs for students pursuing high school and university studies.
“She’s a visionary,” James says. “She saw possibilities for the Hutterite youth, and she always encouraged them to extend themselves and to succeed.”
Anna was the sixth of 12 children. Her family lived in former army barracks at Fairholme Colony, roughly 35 kilometres south of Portage la Prairie.
She attended the colony’s two-room school in the 1960s. Her father was one of Fairholme’s two teachers.
“It was never verbalized between my dad and us that he would like us to (continue our education),” says Dora Maendel, Anna’s older sister, also a teacher. “It just seemed like the natural thing to do.”
Most Fairholme kids stopped attending school after Grade 8. If they went further, it had to be done with correspondence courses.
“When Anna became (old enough), she said, ‘OK, so we have (sister) Pauline and Dora at home to help Mom. I can stay in school,’” Dora says.
Anna went as far as completing Grade 10. In 1969 and 1970, two families left the colony, reducing the school’s population by several children, and the community lost the grant it received to pay for a second teacher.
Anna’s father asked her, at the age of 17, to teach the younger-grades students because he couldn’t manage the entire school himself.
“It was awesome,” says Judy Maendel, who was in Grade 3 in 1970 and one of her older sister’s first pupils.
“Anna had an innovative way of teaching… in science and social studies, she very much involved the whole area of Fairholme.”
In Grade 2 there had been mostly workbooks, she remembers. To her delight, one day in Grade 3, her classroom was the colony’s woods, where she learned about trees and leaves during a lesson on evolution and natural cycles.
“For me, that was an eye-opener,” Judy says. “(It was happening) right on the colony. I mean, look at the impression it made! I was in Grade 3, and this was a one-day science class.”
There were field trips to museums and the Manitoba Legislative Building. She kept her students in line and always put them first, her sisters say.
And it was volunteer work, because her father was the colony’s one paid teacher.
She became friends with Mary Baer Morrison, a teacher at a nearby colony who began taking off-campus courses in Portage la Prairie towards an education degree.
“Anna had a million questions for her,” Dora says.
Baer Morrison invited her friend to a class. Anna was soon auditing the University of Manitoba course.
“I remember she came home and said, ‘Dora, we can do this, hands-down,’” her sister says.
Anna and Dora — who also taught students at Fairholme — were in their late 20s.
“It didn’t look like we’d get married any time soon and move to another colony,” Dora says.
Anna spoke to her dad about taking university courses. The community agreed — further education was beneficial, Dora says, adding that it represented a significant change in perspective from the previous priorities of farming and traditional roles.
The two Maendel sisters mixed off-campus courses in Portage with classes at the U of M, graduating with education degrees in 1985. They were the only Hutterite women in the faculty at the time.
“What a blessing it was that the two of us were there together,” Dora says.
There was, of course, culture shock; the other students had childhood experiences that were markedly different than theirs.
“We realized we actually, as Hutterite children, we had an A-1 childhood,” Dora says. “It’s a natural playground… we have family around, we have aunts and uncles.”
When they graduated, the Maendels returned home, though they continued to take off-campus courses to complete bachelor of arts and post-graduate degrees.
Meanwhile, Fairholme students were taking high school teleconference courses.
“It really grew from there,” Dora says. “Other colonies recognized that… in this day and age, we cannot expect our young people to be able to function well and run a viable community with just Grade 8 or 9.”
Anna brought James, the biology teacher, into the fold. Eventually, TV became an option for high school students to see and connect with teachers. Anna was an administrator of Hutterian Brethren Interactive Instructional Television.
She organized Fairholme Colony’s first high school graduation in 1994. Graduates from other colonies joined.
She also jumped at the chance to create a Hutterite-focused teaching program at Brandon University. The opportunity came after the university launched a similar initiative for Indigenous communities.
“Anna said… ‘I’ve been praying for this for 20 years,’” Dora says.
Anna helped create the course and recruited high school graduates. More than 40 Hutterites earned their teaching degrees through the program in the 1990s.
“Anna was a… champion for (the program) throughout its existence,” Heather Duncan, Brandon University’s dean of education, says in an email.
The program attracted two cohorts.
“Our denomination of colonies… they almost all had their own teacher,” Dora says of the program’s results.
Since then, some women in the colony have become nurses — with Anna’s encouragement — which was also new, her sisters say.
Anna’s teaching extended beyond the classroom, according to her family. She pushed people to become better quilters (the craft became a business for her after retirement), to try “scary things” such as swimming and to take the difficult path.
“You couldn’t come for a visit and not go home unchallenged,” says Anna’s sister Sandra Wollmann. “She always had something where she challenged you to go deeper, reach higher.”
James, the now-retired biology teacher, runs Boreal Woods Nature Centre near Grand Beach where Anna took students on camping trips. He plans to dedicate a wellness trail to her.
“I have great respect for Anna,” James says. “She encouraged me. I think she made me a better teacher.”
She took her family and friends to his site, where they built an outdoor oven, inserted a water line and paid for new tables and benches, among other things.
Anna died of cancer on Aug. 9. The Maendels held two ceremonies — her quilt business customers requested a memorial they could attend.