Andreas Wurtz, Margarethe Strauss, and the believers of Sankt Peter, Austria

The Carpathian Mountains. Photo by Alex Zelenko.


Deep in the mountainous south of Austria, Andreas Wurtz grew up in the province of Kaernten. As a young man he married and began a new home in Sankt Peter, in the valley of the River Drau. Like everyone they knew, he and his wife were Roman Catholics, and when their first child was born in 1739, they baptised her with the name Magdalena, in the village church.

Their happiness was short-lived.

Not long after the baby’s birth, Andreas’s wife died. For several years he lived alone until he married a young widow, Margarethe Strauss, who had two little girls, Elisabeth and Christina. Christina and his own daughter were the same age, so they became “twins.”

Like the other villagers of Sankt Peter, Andreas worked as a tenant farmer in the valley, planting wheat and grapes, and milking the family cow. The Lord blessed him and his wife with two more children Anna and Christian. But Andreas was not happy. He worried about his soul. Was it really true that the village priest could forgive his sins?

When a smuggled Bible from Germany and a book called “True Christianity” found their way into his hands in 1753, he no longer even wondered about the priest. He knew in his heart that the religion he practiced was false and he needed to change.

That looked scary.

Andreas knew that leaving the Roman Catholic Church in Austria meant nothing less than the loss of all his possessions, and possibly his life. So, with a heavy heart, he and his family continued attending mass. But they met in secret, at night, with others that read the Bible and prayed. They met, until the night they came across Christ’s words in Matthew 19:29, “Everyone that forsakes houses, brothers and sisters, father and mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake, will get back a hundred times as much and inherit eternal life.”

“That is a promise,” Andreas declared. “But we cannot claim it unless we do what it takes to receive it.”

After that evening the Wurtz family no longer attended mass. Neither did a number of other families in Sankt Peter—Christian and Maria Glanzer, Hans and Anna Hofer, a young girl named Rosina Bichler, an Egerter and a Plattner family— and other seekers in the neighbouring villages of Amlach, Unter and Ober Amlach, and Stockenboi. Within a week the neighbours caught on what had happened.

“Why don’t you come to mass anymore?” they asked. “Don’t you know this will bring trouble on your heads.”

Only too well did the believers of Sankt Peter know that it would. Within days the police came, rounded them up, and marched them off to jail. For a while the authorities questioned and tried to persuade them. They took all Christian books from them including their precious Bibles. But when the believers persisted in their ways, singing songs in jail and encouraging one another with joyful prayers, they threatened to kill them. Only there were too many. After a month the empress, Maria Theresia, ordered them banished from Austrian soil.

From Spittal, a larger town on the Drau, Austrian authorities hauled the believers through what are now the countries of Slovenia and Serbia to the lower Valley of the Donau in what is now Romania. It was a hard trip. A number of people died along the way. But in the village of Rumes in the German-speaking territory of Siebenbürgen (now western Romania), they finally found a place to stay.

All winter they suffered from lack of clothes and food. Their neighbours were not Catholic. They were Lutheran and claimed to be real Christians. But they did not treat the newcomers any the better for it. Neither did they give them work. Finally, in the spring, Andreas Wurtz and another refugee named Joerg Waldner landed a job in a village called Alwinz, a half day’s journey to the northeast.

They liked their job. The man they worked for, Josef Kuhr, had a beautiful farm with many fruit trees, cattle, a garden, and bees. More than that, they discovered he was a brother in Christ!

For the first time, Andreas Wurtz and the others from Kaernten, met people that believed in obeying all of Christ ’s teachings. They learned about believers’ baptism (that is, the baptism of responsible people instead of babies). They learned that one does not need to go to war, even though the government demands it, and that one should not swear oaths. Several times, Andreas and the others attended meetings at Alwintz, and their hearts rejoiced in the truth they discovered there.

But the authorities were not happy. “Those people are Anabaptists,” they told the newcomers. “If you mix with them you will end up in worse shape than ever before.”

Both Lutherans and Roman Catholics tried to stop the Kaerntner believers from going to Alwinz. Finally, the King’s commissioner ordered Andreas Wurtz, Mathias Hofer, Josef Mueller, and Martin Angermann to appear before the Romanian court at Szaszvaros.

They tried Andreas Wurtz first. He boldly defended what he believed, and they put him in chains. Next they tried Martin Angermann. Under threat of torture he recanted and promised to stay Lutheran. But the other two men stood with Andreas and the police dragged them off to jail.

While Andreas, Josef, and Mathias lay in jail—part of the time in a horrible dungeon—the authorities took the rest of the Kaerntner group and moved them far from Alwinz, to a Romanian village named Grosspold. After several months the men rejoined them and in the miserable quarters given to the Wurtz family, they met to sing and pray. Andreas himself, or sometimes Joerg Waldner or Mathias Hofer, led in their studies of the Scripture.

Lutheran people in the village got alarmed. Early in the spring of 1757 they drove the believers out of Grosspold and scattered them in villages far apart from one another. They hauled the Wurtzes to Eibesdorf, the Kleinsassers to Kreuz, near Hermannstadt (now the city of Sibiu). Others they chased to the villages of Bassen and Stein, and beyond.

For a year and a half the believers lived in sad separation. Some tried to visit the Anabaptist church at Alwinz, but the police caught them and threw them into the Hermannstadt jail. None of them compromised what they believed. Not even when Andreas Wurtz’s two stepdaughters, Elisabeth and Christina, visited the prisoners and fell into enemy hands as well.

Wherever they found themselves, the believers felt drawn one to another and family after family trickled into Kreuz where the Kleinsassers lived. There in 1763 they chose Hans Kleinsasser to walk to Alwinz, get ordained by the Anabaptist brothers, and be their leader.

With great joy the little group celebrated their first baptisms and communion after Hans came back. In secret meetings they studied the Bible. Joerg Waldner started a school for the children, and step by step they pooled their resources to live in community again, like the first Christians, and like the Anabaptists had done until recent times. Two single sisters, Christina and Elisabeth Winkler, began to care for the little ones while the women cooked together and the men worked together in the fields.

But not everything went smoothly. Andreas Wurtz and his family still lived in Eibesdorf. When young Hans Hofer, also from Sankt Peter in Kaernten, wanted to marry Andreas’s daughter Magdalena, not everyone agreed. “Young Hans should have come and asked the church first,” they said. “He and Magdalena had no business just making their plans and expecting everything to go their way.”

Andreas Wurtz saw it differently. “Our Magdalena is 22 years old he said, and young Hans is 23. They are old enough to know what they want. If they wish to get married and our preacher Kleinsasser won’t do it, then I will marry them myself!”

Not one side or the other gave in. Andreas stuck to his word and married the young couple at home. But for three years all the believers were unhappy. Those from Eibesdorf and Stein no longer felt like visiting the ones at Kreuz. The ones at Kreuz kept their distance, until old Peter Müller could stand it no longer. On a trip to Alwinz he stopped at Andreas Wurtz’s place and found him lonely. He invited Andreas and Hans, his son-in-law, to come to a meeting at Kreuz.

The meeting did not go well. All day long they disagreed and nobody budged an inch. Finally Andreas and Hans set off walking home with Martin and Veit Glanzer who supported him. But Andreas felt very sad. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. “Brothers,” he declared, “we cannot go any further. We are so few. The battle is so great, yet we stand divided. Let us go back and make peace.”

The brothers with Andreas saw the light with him. “Let us go back,” they agreed. So with light hearts and eager hopes they retraced their steps. The brothers and sisters at Kreuz were surprised to see them return so soon. Had they forgotten something? But within minutes their surprise melted into tears of joy as everyone repented for how stubborn they had been. Everyone confessed their faults. Both sides freely forgave and the little community grew stronger in Christ than ever before.

Shortly after this, in October 1765, the Andreas Wurtz family and all the others moved to Kreuz. Andreas sold the last of his private possessions and brought the money to the church. The church chose him to be their Haushalter (steward), a work in which he faithfully persevered for the rest of his life.

One year later Delpini came.

Under orders from the Empress Maria Theresia, Delpini, a Jesuit priest, came to Kreuz to force the believers back into the Roman Catholic church. He first told all of them to come to a meeting.

Nobody came.

When he tried to force the believers to obey him, they withstood him to a man. The police grabbed Jörg Waldner, the schoolteacher, flung him to the ground and tied his hands together. When Christian Hofer, an 18-year-old spoke up, they grabbed him by the hair and threw him to the ground as well. Then, when his brother Paul, a sixteen-year-old, still refused to obey they took him by the hair, jerked him back and forth, beat him with a stick and dragged him out through the gate.

At first the priest tried to scatter them. He had the believers hauled to different villages, children taken from parents, and husbands separated from wives. But as soon as he left on a trip to Vienna, everyone returned to Kreuz.

In Kreuz the police fell upon them and locked them up in the church yard (high walls and store houses surrounded Romanian churches for protection during war). But before they could be tried, two Anabaptist refugees from Alwinz appeared, Hans Stahl and Josef Kuhr.

Andreas Wurtz was delighted to see them. “Well, brother Josef,” he asked, “have you come to lead us out of here?”

“Yes,” the old man replied, “if it is God’s will.

With many prayers the imprisoned believers began to make plans at once to escape across the Carpathian mountains into Turkish lands. Josef Kuhr helped them find a guide. Because of the great risk involved (punishment for guiding fugitives was death by impalement or hanging) the guide charged them one Gulden per head. But the believers were desperate. They knew Delpini was making plans to take their children away, and force them with torture and chains to forsake the Truth.

At first it seemed like their plans would fail. The first night they hoped to escape, a wheel broke on the wagon the believers had hired. The second night the horses got away. Before trying it again, they decided to cast lots and leave the matter up to God.

On three slips of paper they wrote, “Go ahead. Stay here,” and “Leave at once.” A child drew the lot and everyone knew that God had spoken when it was the slip with the words: “Leave at once.”

Sixty-seven people, on October 3, 1767, left Kreuz. No one stopped them, even though many sensed what was happening. They left their unsold property behind. Everyone old enough to carry a bundle strapped one to his back, and the little children rode on top. They made straight for the nearest woods.

Hiding during the day and hurrying on at night, the group arrived at Kronstadt by the Carpathian Mountains in three days—sooner than they had planned. They did not find their guide at home.

For several days they had to hide in the woods. Their food got scarce. Worse yet, one of those days was a Catholic holiday and many came out to the woods for pleasure. Suddenly, a hunter spied them hidden behind the bushes. “You are all betrayed,” he told them. “Like a bird, you have flown straight into the net.”

Even though the believers begged him not to report them to the police, he hurried straight back to town and they knew what he would do. The women and children began to cry. Even the men grew fearful, but Andreas Wurtz encouraged them. “Why do you have so little faith in God?” he asked. “Why do you stop trusting him? If God allows us to fall into the hands of our enemies we will accept it patiently. He will not let anything happen to us but what is best. Why so much crying and complaining?”

Kneeling on the bare ground between the bushes, the whole group cried to God and in answer to their prayers, their guide suddenly appeared. He said, “Get up and let us leave at once. To cross the mountain will be dangerous in the dark, but we dare not follow a trail. The police will catch us. We will have to crawl through thick undergrowth. We will have to climb steep rocks and find our way through ravines.”

From several of those in the group we have an eye witness account of what followed:

We did not ask questions. We had no time. Putting the oldest women and one blind brother on horseback, we strapped the little ones to our backs and crossed the Olt River, some floating on a makeshift raft, the rest swimming. Then, with our clothes and shoes soaked, we began to climb. Up steep ravines, higher and higher, until glimpses downward turned us dizzy, we climbed as darkness fell. Repeatedly our guide whispered to us not to speak or make noise. With string we had tied the mouths of our dogs shut, and mothers with babies kept them at their breasts as much as they could so they would not cry. Whenever we crossed a trail the guide would sweep away our tracks with a pine branch.

All night long we stumbled and climbed steeply upward, until by morning we reached a cave in which to hide. There we made a fire and dried our clothes. All the next night we climbed upward again until by the following morning we stood on the peak of the range. It seemed, in the morning sunlight, that we could look out over the whole earth!

On this side of the mountain we could travel in the daytime. But it was even steeper. One of our horses fell over a cliff. We followed a trail, zigzagging downward, but the steep drop-offs almost paralysed us with fear. In many places we had to let ourselves down, hanging on the branches of trees. At other times we simply skidded downward on our seats.

By now we had hardly any food left, only a little hard bread for the old people and the nursing mothers, and a little balukas—that is, a sauce made of buckwheat flour. We peeled the bark off trees and ate wild plants. But after three days of continual descent we found ourselves in warm fertile lowlands under Turkish rule. Our guide said, “Now you may let the dogs bark and the children cry all they want!”

The children, many times, felt like crying. At the time they crossed the mountain Andreas and Margarethe Wurtz had five children still with them, Anna (17 years old), Christian (13), Sarah (9), Andreas (6), and Margarethe (3). For a year and a half they lived in a dugout shelter near the city of Bucharest. The other believers lived in similar misery around them. The land was thorny, and in the summer, very hot. Hans Stahl set up a pottery kiln and the rest worked at what they could.

The people around Bucharest were Eastern Orthodox. They venerated holy crosses beside the road—something the children of the believers’ community saw as idolatry. Sometimes, on the way to their work in the fields they would push the crosses or hit them with their hoes. When the Orthodox people discovered this they threatened to catch the children and cut off their hands. Only after much trouble and apologies did the matter come to rest.

As soon as they could, the believers moved to a farm further from the city. With mud and sticks they built a communal house and a kitchen. They dug a well and planted what seeds they had. And there, in December, 1768, the Wurtz’s last child, Michael, was born. Six months later, his mother died, leaving the Wurtz family in deep poverty and distress. Six months after that Andreas also died, joyful in the Lord, at peace with the church, and with an excellent reputation for his honest work. But the future, for the family of young orphans he left behind, looked grim.

War had broken out in Turkish lands. One week after Andreas’s death a band of ruthless horsemen fell on the believers’ community. At first they asked for Andreas. But when they learned he had died, they turned on the brothers, nearly beating some to death, pulling out their hair, and burning them with a red-hot ploughshare to force them to give money.

There was no money.

From six in the morning to five in the afternoon the bandits rampaged the place, tearing up the beds, digging through every box and corner, and whipping even the women and children without mercy to make them tell where money might be hidden. That night the believers left their ruined farm and fled to the hills. Christian Wurtz was now fifteen years old and his brother Andreas, eight. With their two remaining sisters and baby brother they hid with the rest and helped look for food during the day. In the middle of the winter Anna Wurtz died. She was nineteen. Then Sarah, the twelve-year-old died, and Christian, Andreas, and Michael the baby, were all that remained of the Wurtz family.

In the spring, the three brothers fled with the believers in the direction of Moldova. Time after time they fell into the hands of robbers until penniless and nearly starved, they met a Russian general. He had mercy on them, took them to his overseer, and after another thousand mile trek they arrived at Vishenka in the Ukraine.

There, starting with nothing but faith in Christ, the believers rebuilt their community. Andreas Wurtz grew up among them, married Rebecca Glanzer when he was 24 years old, and became a servant of the Word. His son Christian Wurtz married Anna Wollman and moved to the village of Hutterthal, near the Molochna Mennonite Colony in the southern Ukraine. Christian’s son Michael Wurtz married Esther Wollman with whom he travelled through Odessa, Constantinople, London, Liverpool, and New York, to Bon Homme Colony in South Dakota in 1874. His son, also named Michael Wurtz, came to America on the same ship with his wife Rachel and four children. But he died young. After digging a cistern he turned sick and never recovered. His son Joseph married Anna Waldner, and their son Jakob Wurtz with his wife Susie, most of his fifteen children and more than a hundred grandchildren lives at the Elmendorf community in America. He is the grandfather and great-grandfather of the Wurtzes living at Rocky Cape in Tasmania.

From the Rocky Cape Community Online Collection.

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