More Than Friends
SHAPED BY FLOWER POWER
Women's Stories from Brotherhood of the Spirit
We gratefully acknowledge the use of
Chronological History of the Renaissance Community: Family Edition.
Copyright 2003 Daniel A. Brown
In the fall of 1966 in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a handful of mostly high school dropouts were dissatisfied with the status quo and sought a meaningful life based on brotherhood. Seven years and 300 members later the group had generated the largest commune in New England, the Brotherhood of the Spirit/Renaissance Community. By 1990 there were 5 remaining adult members. Here's what happened.
1968 - 1969: Needing a place to live and meet, charismatic 18-year old Michael Metelica and friends build a tree house in Leyden, Massachusetts. Here they study spiritual writings and begin practicing meditation. That fall disgruntled locals burn down the tree house. Bartering labor for food and rent, the group moves several times. By late October they rent a nearby summer camp and settle in for the winter. Word of an alternative scene in the hills of Heath begins to spread and people begin to visit.
1970: In spring the group, now 66 in number, purchases an inn in Warwick, Massachusetts. A sign on the front lawn alerts visitors to the rules: No Drugs, No Alcohol, No Promiscuity. Community life gets more organized to
deal with visitors, finances, and food. Construction of
a three-story high, 100 foot-long dormitory starts and
large house in neighboring Northfield is acquired.
Look Magazine publishes an article on the Brotherhood
with a centerfold photo of members and the floodgates
open to hundreds of visitors.
1971 - 1972: The pace picks up: the first business, a
pool hall, opens to the public; Free Spirit Press magazine
goes to print; the commune band, Spirit in Flesh, records
its first vinyl album in NYC; to comply with board of
health regulations, a huge septic system is built; massive
amounts of vegetables are grown and preserved; a
daycare is established. With 300 members plus visitors,
the Brotherhood spills over into Turners Falls.
Another house is purchased along with the Shea Theater
and Opera House block which provides community
management office space, new business storefronts and
a meeting hall/concert venue. Locally, due to conflicts
with town officials and residents, articles about the
commune appear daily in the local newspaper.
Nationally, the group is featured in media such as
Family Circle magazine, Wall Street Journal,
Mademoiselle magazine, and the “60 Minutes” and
“David Frost” television shows. Alcohol is now
permitted. Life is a far cry from a few friends hanging
out in the tree house.
1973 - 1975: Promotion teams spread across the US to
promote the band's new single. Cameras and video
equipment are purchased for members to record any and
all activity. A final legal structure is defined and the
Renaissance Community Inc. is established. Anyone
who wants to start a business can and does, from a
recording studio, a record store and multiple bands,
to restaurants and multiple building trades. All members
are working either in a community business or an
“outside” job. Money pours in as every cent earned is
turned over to the central office. A fleet of cars and three large
motorhomes are purchased to improve group mobility.
Michael procures a Rolls Royce and a single-engine
plane. Seventy or so commune members are hired
to work at Belchertown State School, an institution
for mildly to severely mentally and otherwise
handicapped children and adults. The Warwick property
goes into decline as Turners Falls becomes the epicenter
of the community. Enthusiasm for outreach to the public
through concerts, dances, free dinners and events
such as a street fair, for the purpose of promoting love and
brotherhood, remains high. The theater becomes the venue
for the Renaissance Church, and Sunday meetings are open
to the public. Meanwhile, some members want to get back
to the land. The Old Stone Lodge on 80 acres of land is
purchased in neighboring Gill. Members become stronger
in their individual expressions. For some, commune life
and the contribution of all their earnings to the community
coffers no longer suits them. For others, the inequities
among commune members are glaring and the philosophy of
brotherhood appears lost. The number of people leaving the
community is larger than the number coming to join.
Drugs and alcohol are making inroads.
1976: The Gill property is named The 2001 Center.
Members host a May Day rock concert expecting 3,000
attendees, but over 10,000 descend on the property.
A bus garage for Rockets Silver Train, a future successful
rock and roll tour bus business, is built and construction
starts on the first community house. A member diagnosed
with lung cancer visits Rosita Rodriguez, founder of
Arche International in Chicago, and returns with techniques that
lead her to good health. Michael invites Rosita to Turners Falls
to conduct her seminars, after which a group of members leaves
Renaissance and moves to Chicago.
1977 - 1979: The Choir, Renaissance's all-women's singing group,
tours in Florida. Alternative groups visit the community: Lori Cabot,
a white witch from Salem, Massachusetts; the Foundation of
Revelation from San Francisco; ICRY, an inner city youth group
from NYC; Another Place; the Abode of the Message; and the
Findhorn Foundation from Scotland. Self-sufficiency becomes
a focus for The 2001 Center as the group begins to construct five new homes and a office/meeting barn. Extensive vegetable gardens are planted. Most members now live in rural Gill. In Turners Falls, Renaissance Greeting Cards and Silver Screen Design expand as smaller businesses close, including the Noble Feast restaurant, after five years of creative cookery. The community reorganizes its finances so that expenses are covered equally by all adult members. Any extra money earned can be pocketed. The old Gill barn and the beautiful historic Northfield house and hostel burn to the ground in accidental fires. Michael's and other members' use of cocaine comes to light.
1980 - 1982: With the completion of the new barn and its offices, the administrative center moves from Turners Falls to The 2001 Center. An orchard is planted. The Love Family visits from Seattle, Washington. Commune founder Michael converts the Turners Falls Noble Feast building into a night club where weekend violence is a regular occurrence. The Shea Opera House and Theater begin to decline. The new Gill barn becomes a drunken party destination for locals. This contrasts with New Age ideals and further splinters the community. As long as there are supporters of Michael's orientation towards drugs and alcohol, many feel there is no future for the community. Renaissance Greeting Cards leaves with about 20 members.
1983 - 1984: Rumors of Michael's cocaine abuses grow. Silver Screen Design leaves the community along with many other long-time members. Michael's influence recedes into the background and responsible members keep the land and community afloat. Visitors are more carefully screened. The community begins an annual free pig roast open to the Town of Gill as a thank you to local residents.
1985 – 1988: A small group of eight members starts to meet secretly to discuss ways to have Michael willingly walk away from the community. In 1988 the mission is accomplished and Michael leaves with a copy of the document he signed stating that he will never set foot on Renaissance property again. However, most people have left and the remaining members have a mess to clean up. During this time, Rosita Rodriguez from Arche International is brought back to conduct seminars and the spiritual focus of the remaining members becomes more defined and focused.
1989 – Present: With the remaining members numbering five, plans are implemented to enable them to stay on the beautiful property in Gill. Some houses are sold and others are remodeled into rentable apartments. The tour bus company closes and the garage becomes a woodworking shop/storage space for Renaissance Builders and a maintenance shop for Renaissance Excavating.
The original goal of the community, to be a place where people searching for spiritual understanding can explore universal truths, comes to fruition when former community member May Ristich studies with Rosita in Chicago and begins teaching meditation and self-realization classes in the barn at the Renaissance Center in Gill.
Over the years many reunions are held, a film, Free Spirits, is produced, and photographs and historical information about the commune are archived at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Was the spiritual community endeavor a success or a failure? You would have to ask every member who was there, and you would get a different story from each one of them. As for the women who contributed to this book, we carry our commune days in our hearts forever. Our lives were changed, our paths redirected, our understanding of people and ourselves broadened, and our visions emboldened and clarified. Most of all, we cherish our friendships in which we support each other in our endeavors to stay true to a path of loving kindness, peace, and unconditional love. And we laugh a lot.