The History of the Renaissance Community: 1968-1988
Copyright ©2006 Daniel A. Brown
The Brotherhood of the Spirit (renamed Renaissance Community in 1974) was one of the largest and most enduring communes in the Northeast and as such was a distinct link between the commune movement of the 1960’s and the New Age consciousness happening today. In existence from 1968 through 1988, its rise and fall mirrored that of its charismatic and mercurial leader, Michael Metelica. A factor that made the Brotherhood of the Spirit unique is that it underwent several distinct identity changes during its 20 year history.
The Brotherhood of the Spirit: 1968-1973
Michael Metelica was born in 1950 and grew up in the small rural town of Leyden, Massachusetts. At age 16, he dropped out of high school and, after reading an article about the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, moved to California to join them. Repelled by their violent nature, he was instead drawn to the 1967 hippie Summer of Love, returning to Leyden the following year. In May of 1968, he asked a local blueberry farmer named Donnie Herron if he could build a treehouse on his land, and after receiving permission, lived there in solitary meditation, working for farmers for free and expecting nothing in return. Needless to say, he became something of a local sensation and attracted his first following from among his boyhood friends. After the treehouse was destroyed in late 1968 by suspicious locals, Metelica and his little band wandered around the many hill towns in the area, gaining more members, teaching their view of spirituality at area churches and schools until by early 1970, they numbered around 50. Rules were mandated banning drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and sexual promiscuity and members practiced to purge themselves of their imperfections through meditation and intense encounter-group confrontation tactics.
By then, Metelica knew that he had the makings of a deliberate community that was based on spiritual beliefs and practice.
The concept of spirituality was still new and uncharted in the late 1960’s but the group, now known as the Brotherhood of the Spirit, had as its spiritual advisor, a local farmer named Elwood Babbitt, a trance-medium in the Edgar Cayce tradition. Both Babbitt and Metelica believed that the Earth was about to undergo cataclysmic changes in preparation of the Aquarian Age. Babbitt, in particular, was getting information through his spirit guides who warned that humanity’s selfish and self-destructive behavior would cause nature to literally rebel in such a way as to cause widespread death and destruction (while laughable when presented back in 1968, the current and irrevocable crisis of global warming makes this theory a less humorous matter). These “Earth Changes” as they were called would be a precursor to the spiritual enlightenment of the Aquarian Age, the next step in the evolution of the human race. According to Babbitt, groups like the Brotherhood would be the harbingers of this new age, functioning as teachers of this higher wisdom to the shattered survivors of these worldwide cataclysms.
In March of 1970, The Brotherhood purchased a 25-acre property in Warwick, Mass and the group underwent the first of its many radical transformations. Their growth coincided with a countercultural migration as millions of young Americans, disenchanted with the “establishment” during the Vietnam War era, dropped out of universities and cities en masse and hit the road that summer looking for new venues. The membership skyrocketed to 150 leading to the acquisition of an additional house in nearby Northfield, the building of a dormitory in Warwick and more stringent membership rules. Metelica became less involved with the commune, devoting most of his energy to the commune’s band “Spirit in Flesh” whose mission was to bring about the message of spirituality through the medium of rock and roll. In late 1970, Spirit in Flesh signed a contract with Metromedia records and the commune’s focus began to shift into a full-time promotion of the band.
Veterans of the Brotherhood of the Spirit consider the Warwick era as being the closest to their ideal of a spiritual community composed of independently inspired individuals. Their youthful enthusiasm allowed them to overcome the many hardships created by an insulated environment dedicated to personal growth and spiritual reflection. For the many that came from urban backgrounds, Warwick introduced the realities of self-sufficiency through logging, house building, the cultivating and canning of homegrown food, and the ability to enjoy life without the distractions of mainstream media. Their spiritual belief system was based on aspects of Buddhism and New Age thinking mixed with an enlightened, almost Gnostic form of Christianity. Reincarnation, meditation, and the power of positive thought were considered to be major doctrines.
The years 1971-1972 were spent in frenzied activities surrounding Spirit in Flesh, including the printing of several thousand silk-screened posters that were placed all across the United States and even into parts of Europe. Because of the sluggish support from the record label, the commune devised its own guerilla tactics to promote the band which included marches in New York City, mass telephone call-ins to Metromedia, and infiltrating popular national TV talk shows to announce the band’s impending success. These tactics culminated in a concert at Carnegie Hall that was sparely attended. The first album, which featured the entire membership of the Brotherhood commune on its cover, sold less than 1000 copies.
Despite the attention focused on Spirit in Flesh, the Brotherhood had developed into an efficient entity which contradicted the accepted stereotype of lazy commune hippies. An elaborate infrastructure that included business management, child care, auto maintenance, farming and food production had been created to service the needs of its personnel. However, it also created controversy due to its members being briefly on welfare while Metelica was gifted with a Rolls-Royce. There were also numerous run-ins with local selectmen about code violations concerning the commune’s houses and septic systems. By late 1972, the membership had expanded to nearly 300. It was during this time that the first public businesses were launched by the commune along with a magazine, the Free Spirit Press, which was sold along the East Coast from a rainbow-painted school bus. In late 1972, the commune bought the Shea Theater block in Turners Falls, a decaying working-class town next to Greenfield, and made national headlines when Metelica issued an order to all members to either work a job or leave. By now, the Brotherhood of the Spirit had been featured in such media venues as the Wall Street Journal; Look, Family Circle, and Mademoiselle magazines as well as televised segments on 60 Minutes and the David Frost show.
The Metelica Aquarian Concept and Renaissance Community: 1973-76
In 1973, the commune went through its most drastic and traumatic change, morphing into what became known as the Metelica Aquarian Concept. Metelica shifted his focus from his band (renamed Metelica) to take absolute control over the running of the commune. He demanded that every cent earned by commune members be turned over to him whereby he then spent the money to radically reshape the appearance of the group. A shopping spree ensued that purchased 35 new cars (the tiny Honda 600 which got 50 mpg), three GMC motor homes and an airplane, plus several movie, video and still cameras. Metelica’s aim was to replace the image of ragged commune hippies with that of media-savvy entrepreneurs who would change the mainstream society by mimicking its need for image and materiality. This shift in focus caused some long-term members to leave as well as causing a more negative reaction from the local community. Metelica’s demand for complete power caused a cult-like mentality to permeate the group which was divided into a distinct hierarchy with him as the unquestioned and undisputed leader. The nadir of this period was the murder of commune member Peter Luban while hitch-hiking from work, a crime which was never solved and the subsequent “Metelica Marches” whereby grim-faced members vigiled on the streets of Turners Falls and Greenfield with signs proclaiming Metelica as a new religion. The Shea Theater complex in Turners Falls became the nerve center of the group while the Warwick property slowly fell into decline. It was during this time that Metelica’s drug and alcohol addiction began which would have dire consequences for the group in the near future.
The following year, 1974, gave birth to the legally-recognized and tax-exempt Renaissance Church and Renaissance Community as Metelica changed his name to Rapunzel. All community properties (which now included several residences in Turners Falls) were outlandishly renovated while members worked a variety of jobs in the outside world. The foremost of these employers was at the Belchertown State School for the developmentally challenged where 50 members worked on the wards and earned a reputation for treating the residents there with care and respect. The first of many business and creative ventures were launched during this time while Rapunzel worked full-time in the Shea Theater’s recording studio with various bands. He also began a series of meetings for his followers which were mainly lengthy monologues of his philosophy and worldview. The Renaissance Church, meanwhile, opened its Sunday services to the general public featuring music and meditations with an accommodating spiritual philosophy. It also sponsored a free Christmas dinner in the Shea Theater for the next few years which was fully attended and highly popular with the outside population.
1975 was the apex of the Turners Falls era with Renaissance operating a dozen businesses downtown including a 24-hour grocery, a record store, an audio supply center and a stylized pizza parlor. Notable among these were the Noble Feast restaurant which featured diversely innovative cuisine, Rocket’s Silver Train which provided luxury-modeled tour buses to rock musicians (Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd, Linda Ronstadt, and Queen among others) and the forerunners of the now nationally distributed Silver Screen Design and Renaissance Greeting Cards. These were coupled with contracting crews specializing in high-level industrial painting, paving and excavating, carpentry and plumbing. There was also an explosion of creative talent from community members as the recording studio, video lab, darkroom and media equipment were made freely available. The Choir, an all-women chorus, was created at this time and performed both at church services and at outside gigs. The community also produced the weekly Renaissance Radio Show that attained national distribution and featured topics ranging from the spiritual to the practical. Outreach to the local community was made through a series of free public events culminating in the Renaissance Faire, a street festival that attracted about 3,000. The young people of Turners Falls flocked to the community in droves, working in the many new businesses or hanging out in the drop-in center members created. It is worth noting that this Renaissance-inspired revitalization of Turners Falls occurred without any government grants or taxpayers’ money. The community at this point was operating several dozen businesses and was, essentially, self-supporting. Internally, the cult-like adoration of Rapunzel slowly gave way to a growing sense of personal autonomy as members practiced a variety of new skills and acquired leadership abilities of their own.
The 2001 Center in Gill: 1975-88
At the end of 1975, the Renaissance Community purchased the rural Olde Stone Lodge in Gill and within a year decided to build a self-sufficient community utilizing a variety of alternative energy and sustainable technologies. Again, the group radically changed its identity as the focus shifted away from the Turners Falls businesses (which receded in number) to the building of several innovatively-designed houses on the 80-acre Gill property, nicknamed the 2001 Center. During this time, the community began networking with other spiritual communities; especially Findhorn in Scotland, whose leaders and members exchanged visits with those of Renaissance. There was also a huge increase of children who, coupled with the work on the land, mellowed the community and led to its most relaxed and harmonious years since its inception both within and without. Despite a shaky start, due to the 1976 May Day rock concert in which 14,000 people descended on this tiny town, the community got along well with the citizens of Gill, a condition that exists to the present. This apparent harmony, however, hid some long-term resentment concerning Rapunzel’s omnipotent leadership which came to the fore in late 1980. Leading the challenge were the personnel of the greeting card company whose executives doubled as Renaissance’s financial managers. Rapunzel’s skimming of money from the community to satiate his uncontrollable substance abuses was a major (if unspoken) concern as were issues concerning safety and the screening of new members. The dispute divided the community into two hostile groups culminating in the decision by the card company to separate from the community and re-establish itself in southern Maine. In all, a large segment of core members departed, signaling the final era of decline. Added to a small but steady migration that occurred during the Turners Falls era, the population of the community was drastically reduced to about 70 adult members with an equal number of children.
For the next few years, this remnant continued to build their houses and maintain the land in Gill despite the departure of other long-term members and the influx of new ones, some of whom were violent or otherwise dysfunctional. Rapunzel’s increasingly erratic behavior caused another rebellion against his authority in 1984, this time centered around the silkscreen company. This led to a final migration of vital members from which Renaissance never recovered.
Meanwhile, reunions and newsletters of former members signaled a shift in focus toward those who had left and were trying to process the communal experience for themselves. From 1984 until 1988, the community, now down to its final dozen members, struggled to maintain some semblance of cohesion as group meetings and projects come to an end and the land itself began to deteriorate. Rapunzel, meanwhile, “managed” the community’s once-successful bus touring company into bankruptcy as his abusive conduct became obvious even to his closest friends. In 1988, the remaining community leadership offered him $10,000 to leave and never return. He accepted and was never seen on the Gill property again.
The Aftermath: 1988-2003
In 1988, the Renaissance Community as a recognizable communal entity came to an end. The Gill property was cleaned up and cooperatively managed. The various houses were sold off to private ownership and the Olde Stone Lodge house was renovated into separate apartments. Several successful contracting businesses based in Gill still exist and there continue to be regular seminars dealing with meditation and spiritual practice. There have also been many well-attended reunions and gatherings of former and current members where the issue of the community’s controversial legacy remains a major topic. Those who were part of the Brotherhood of the Spirit have gone on to become teachers, artists, health-care providers, millionaire executives, and at least one ordained Buddhist monk. Their views about their time spent in the community run the full gamut of human emotions and opinions. In May of 2006, a documentary film about the community entitled “Free Spirits” was released, being produced by a former member who teaches film at the University of Massachusetts.
Michael Metelica Rapunzel lived out the remainder of his life in the Hudson River valley in upstate New York. There he was licensed as an EMT, attended AA to treat his addictions but was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in May of 2002. The following month, a gathering in his honor occurred at the home of his long-time friend and mentor, Beth Hapgood, which was attended by his children and about 100 of his former followers. He died in February of 2003.