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The closed-door church

Inside the secretive and strict Plymouth Brethren sect in Manitoba

The Plymouth Brethren discourage interaction between their followers and outsiders, and the church encompasses all aspects of social and professional life for its members. Critics say it has gone from being a Christian sect to full-blown cult.

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"They do their own thing but if I see them on the street, they stop and talk to me," said Don Walsh, reeve of the RM of Woodlands, speaking of the Plymouth Brethren in the community. "They won’t mix with the community but will do anything for the community that pertains to community."

Woodlands, about 35 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, is undergoing a housing boom thanks to Plymouth Brethren who are moving in from Australia and New Zealand. It’s something the PBCC does, moving Brethren around to either create new communities, like in Stonewall, or prop up old ones, like Woodlands.

Across Canada, PBCC communities have also set up in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph, St. Catherines, London, Tillsonburg, Woodstock, Perth, Kingston, Regina, Oxbow, Maple Creek, Calgary, Edmonton, Abbotsford, and Vancouver.

Besides Neche, Plymouth Brethren are also located in Pembina, N.D., and in St. Vincent, Minn.

In Woodlands, the Brethren are building large, beautiful homes in town, many of them two-storey, in contrast to the older, existing bungalows in the village. One of the new Brethren homes has eight bedrooms. There are about four building starts right now.

About half of the 500 inhabitants of Woodlands are Brethren, Walsh said.

"They are good neighbours," he maintained. "You always hear people say they’re going to take the town over. They actually came to me and said they’d heard the rumour and that wasn’t their intent."

The economic activity is welcome. Northstar Enterprises, a Brethren business that builds cattle corrals, employs about 35 people, both Brethren and non-Brethren. It is currently located in a bunch of old Quonset huts on a farm, but the company plans to build a facility in town in a few years.

"This group here seem to have lots of money. They hire locals. They’re good for the economy," Walsh said.

Brethren have also provided an economic boost in Stonewall. Bedroom communities don’t have the kind of light manufacturing companies the PBCC have started. The companies make everything from security doors and shutters, to school furniture, such as desks and chairs, much of which is sold to First Nations.

There are about 20 Brethren businesses in Stonewall, alone. Stonewall Mayor Ross Thompson estimates they add about $800,000 a year in tax revenue to the town’s coffers.

"They’ve had a considerable impact on the town from a business standpoint, and from a civic standpoint in being good citizens," he said. For example, Brethren helped out when the Quarry Park Interpretive Centre burned down, supplying a temporary building and some office furniture. Thompson estimated there are 50 to 60 Brethren families in Stonewall now. "They’re an asset to the community," he said.

The PBCC influence is noticed elsewhere.

The Family Foods in Stonewall has a section of British products expressly for its Plymouth Brethren clientele.

It includes Duerr’s Mincemeat, Daddies Tomato Ketchup, Baxter’s Victorian Chutney, and HP sauce in both pepper and fruity flavours. The store has Best of Britain tags, with the British Ensign on them, to delineate the products. Many of the products are at the request of the expatriated British citizens, said store manager Dave Kalnuk.

As ex-members point out, the Plymouth Brethren can’t be blamed for being born into a conservative religion that controls their entire life from birth to death, and provides them with little means to survive in the outside world. To leave the church means giving up so much.

History

Updated on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 8:57 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

May 12, 2014 at 11:34 PM: Correction: Superb Sprinkler Service is no longer owned by a member of the Plymouth Brethren.

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