History: A Beachy Amish dalliance while on the lam

May 7, 2018 by

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He arrived in the Beachy Amish community as Bill Sousa, a drifter with an aimless soul. He left as Ernest Collins, a convicted felon who rejected his brief dalliance with Anabaptism. Nearly 40 years later, his coming and going remains a strange and fascinating story of evangelism.

On May 2, 1961, Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church, an outreach-minded Beachy Amish congregation near Goshen, Ind., was leading the worship service at Hope Rescue Mission, a Mennonite-affiliated ministry in South Bend. At the end of the service came the invitation to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A young man who later identified as Sousa came forward and accepted the invitation.

Sousa was subsequently invited to the Woodlawn community, about 30 miles east of South Bend. He arrived the next day and was warmly welcomed. Sousa proceeded to immerse himself in its life and faith for the next 10 weeks. The 21-year-old worked for local farmers, lived with Woodlawn families and participated in the Woodlawn congregation. He started attending a membership class, indicating his conversion was legitimate.

That all changed on Friday, July 7. That evening he was visiting a friend from church when he confessed the person known as Bill Sousa was a charade. His name was Ernest Collins, and he was an escapee from a Rhode Island prison, where he was serving time for robbery. He and a fellow prisoner had escaped in March and made their way to California, where Collins’ companion was apprehended. Collins turned back east and was spending a couple of nights at Hope Rescue Mission, where he met the Woodlawn contingent. His conscience awakened, he wanted to turn himself in.

Collins’ Woodlawn friend advised him to tell the bishop, which he did the next morning. They decided Collins should confess to the entire congregation, which he did as well on Sunday morning, July 9. He also requested baptism before he went to local law enforcement on Monday. Woodlawn leaders agreed to do it Sunday evening.

But before he could be baptized, news of the escapee’s presence in the community made its way to the sheriff. He went out that afternoon to arrest Collins but agreed to wait until after the baptism service. After Collins returned from the church that evening, the sheriff was waiting and took into custody the newest member of the Beachy Amish fellowship. Rhode Island authorities arrived five days later to transport him back.

The Goshen News carried a story about Sousa/Collins on page 1 of the Monday, July 10, issue. Coincidentally, Collins also appeared in a photograph on the front page for an unexpected reason. On Saturday, after his meeting with the bishop, Collins was driving a tractor when he came upon a collision between a car and an Amish buggy. Collins was able to catch the horse, which had galloped away. The photo showed him holding the animal’s reins while a police officer inspected the accident scene.

In Rhode Island, Collins appeared in court in traditional Amish attire and beard — to the delight of local media — and was a model prisoner. While in prison, he remained connected with his church family. He exchanged letters with the bishop’s wife and twice was visited by Woodlawn members. He was released early and returned to Elkhart County in 1962 and lived with a Woodlawn family.

It soon became apparent Collins had lost his religious fervor. He attended church less often and then stopped going altogether. He also started associating with questionable company or spent time alone on his horse, Buttercup. One Sunday morning Collins went for a ride on Buttercup. He was accompanied on the horse by a local teenager who was AWOL from the U.S. Army.

Also that morning, a shoe shop owned by a Woodlawn member was robbed. The two horsemen were arrested for the crime and were found guilty in February 1963. The prosecuting attorney claimed it was the first crime committed on horseback in the area in 60 years. Collins was sentenced to three to five years in the state reformatory.

His return to prison signaled the impending end of the story, but it would take several more years before it reached its conclusion. After his release, Collins made a visit to Woodlawn, but it wasn’t a positive experience. He brought his dog into the sanctuary and smoked in the men’s room. Collins apparently felt betrayed when the father of the shoe store’s owner said during the trial, “Why are we messing around? Everybody knows he’s guilty.”

Two years later, Collins brought his wife and her five children to see a Woodlawn family. The children of both families had a great time playing together. It was the last time anyone at Woodlawn had contact with Collins. After his notable arrival years earlier, he simply slipped away.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.


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