GILDFORD, MONT. Hutterite columnist closed cultural chasm
The Hutterites are an Anabaptist sect, like the Amish and Mennonites.
GILDFORD, Mont. (AP) -- Lisa Marie Stahl became a newspaper columnist when she was just 15, writing about the traditions and day-to-day activities of her Hutterite colony in north-central Montana.
Her slice-of-life columns seemed to touch a chord with readers, and ultimately caught the eye of a journalist on the Great Falls Tribune, where she's been writing a biweekly column for the past three years.
"She's really broken down a lot of stereotypes and put a personal face on Hutterite culture for the people who maybe only see Hutterites in the store or pass them on the road," says Karen Ivanova, who edits Stahl's column.
"People write about her like she's their best friend," Ivanova adds. "I think one reason she is so popular is, she reminds us all of our roots."
Calling it quits
But this month, Stahl, 20, will give up her column to be baptized and marry in the Gildford Colony, a transition to adulthood that requires her to give up the pursuits of her youth.
"I'm kind of sad about leaving my column but am really happy with myself," she says from the kitchen of the house she shares with her parents and five of her six siblings. "I'm taking two really important steps in my life. I'm kind of happy to be going on in life. But, at the same time, I'm sad about leaving something this big behind."
The Hutterites have roots in the 16th-century Anabaptist religious movement in Europe -- the same movement that gave rise to the Mennonites and Amish. They live in communal agricultural colonies where the men and women have traditional roles and wear traditional clothing.
Technology is embraced on the colony, as long as it helps advance the common good. Men use tractors and combines. Stahl's family has a microwave and coffee maker. She has an e-mail account through the colony school's computer, a luxury very few have and one she uses to answer e-mails. She faxes her column to her editor.
Didn't see it coming
Stahl never imagined how much interest her column would garner -- or how great a burden it sometimes would become -- when she first agreed five years ago to write about life within the colony for the local newspaper, the Havre Daily News.
At the time, no one in her small farming colony of about 60 people had done anything like it. Her parents gave her their blessing, thinking it would only last through the school year.
"I figured it would be a good challenge for her," Susanna Stahl, 49, says of her eldest daughter, who had written short stories and for a school and colony newspaper. "All people don't have that gift."
After Stahl began writing for the Great Falls Tribune, she found herself stopped by total strangers who recognized her from the column picture.
Once largely greeted by stares, Stahl says she now finds non-Hutterites more willing to approach her -- to talk or just offer a smile. She is even occasionally asked for an autograph.
She says her columns sometime answer questions she would consider silly, but realizes many people have.
No, she says, Hutterite marriages are not arranged. Yes, Hutterites do pay taxes -- "Show me what United States law says you can't pay taxes," she says. No, not all Hutterites dress alike; styles vary from colony to colony, she says. And, yes, Hutterites are pacifists.
Stahl's writing, though well-received by newspaper readers, has caused some concern among other Hutterites.
She quit writing for a brief period in 2001 and wrote, in a column that coincided with her 19th birthday, that she intended it to be her last. The column, she wrote, "has encountered many challenges and has, no doubt, raised eyebrows within my culture, as well as within my own community."
But her retirement was short-lived. Her readers wouldn't let her go quietly and sent letters encouraging her to return.
Stahl's final columns, she says, will focus on preparations for her baptism and marriage. She says she hopes someone else will step forward to continue her column, to help further the understanding between the two neighboring cultures.
"I feel I've opened a door," she says. "I've done quite enough."
Ivanova says Stahl's decision will leave a void.
"I don't know if there's anybody else out there like her," Ivanova says. "What she does is really a necessary service for Montana."