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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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STONEWALL — Quietly, and out of earshot of Winnipeg, Stonewall had its own mini "British Invasion" a decade ago.

Newcomers from England started to descend on this town just north of Winnipeg that has historically been a limestone quarry and agricultural service centre. They bought homes, started businesses, built a church — all the usual stuff.

Stonewall councillors were pleased their town was chosen by the English-speaking immigrants. Local residents were charmed, as North Americans tend to be, by how the newcomers snapped off their words with British accents.

But residents soon found there was something different about the newcomers. They didn’t want much to do with the townsfolk. They wouldn’t socialize with them, other than a few words on the street or in a store. It wasn’t long before local people started to regard them as "standoffish," as one Stonewall resident put it.

In time, the community learned the newcomers were from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC), a religious sect that practises "separateness" from the rest of society. The two-metre-high  iron fence around their church attests to that.

It’s one of the few physical barriers. Most Plymouth Brethren barriers are social. They won’t eat in the same room as non-members, including in restaurants. Brethren are not even allowed to visit the homes of non-Brethren, or "worldly people." They don’t go to the cinema, the theatre or sporting events.

Plymouth Brethren are sometimes thought of as a British version of Hutterites, without the colonies. Both are conscientious objectors to military service; neither group votes; both forbid television and radio in their homes. The Brethren forbid computers with anything other than email functions and some business software, and all their computers and programs are purchased from a Brethren-owned company.

Plymouth Brethren also maintain a dress code, but not one as rustic or obvious as that of Hutterites.

Brethren women are required to wear ankle-length skirts, long hair and some kind of head covering — it used to be a kerchief but now is often a ribbon. The attire is urban, individualized, and becoming less strict to the point where women are now seen wearing designer clothes with hem lines climbing to knee level.

Men dress business casual. They keep their hair short and are clean-shaven — not even sideburns are allowed. While that doesn’t sound like it would set the men apart, it does.

"They are conspicuously well-scrubbed," said a Stonewall resident who has had dealings with the Brethren.

This "new" Christian sect has actually been in Manitoba since the 1880s. The Stonewall group was only the most recent wave. Plymouth Brethren are also in Winnipeg (Charleswood) and the village of Woodlands, not far from Stonewall in the Interlake.

It’s a group that shows quite remarkable business acumen. The Plymouth Brethren bought up half of Stonewall’s industrial park upon arrival, and immediately set up a cluster of companies.

But attempts to learn more about the sect and interview its members showed how it has managed to stay under the radar.

Brethren’s business impact

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There are a remarkable number of Brethren-owned family businesses in Manitoba for a religious sect of just 450 members.

The Free Press counted at least 25 small businesses, and there are undoubtedly more. It’s not clear why members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church are so successful in business. That companies can receive interest-free loans through Brethren might be part of the answer.

Business is a big part of being a Brethren today. Virtually all Brethren work for companies owned by Brethren families. However, PBCC doctrine stipulates that companies stay small.

Winnipeg companies owned by Brethren members include Acure Medical Equipment, Officescape, and Central Dental Supply Ltd., all owned by John Haldane; Applifast Inc.; Insign Architectural Signage; Chemwest Supply; Van Extras; FRS Group Inc.; Acure Safety; Insta-Foil Specialties; Acculift Airmax Inc; Excel Interiors; Meditek; Western Enivronmental Canada, and NP2 (an advertising agency).

In Stonewall, Brethren own at least half the industrial park off Highway 67. Like elsewhere, they do not belong to the local chamber of commerce because that is forbidden. Stonewall companies include Accent Group; Mitybilt Products Inc; Paragon Securities; Arrow Specialties; Lakeland Group and Universal Business Team.

Woodlands-area companies include Northstar Enterprises and Arrow Farmquip, and North American Rail Products Inc. is next door in Argyle.

Plymouth Brethren don’t believe in a church hierarchy. There is no formally designated church leader, such as a salaried priest or pastor, so when I called recently to request an interview, there was no official spokesperson — and no one who felt comfortable speaking for the group.

After about a week of phone calls and numerous referrals, two Brethren men finally agreed to be interviewed — then each cancelled as the interviews neared. Both said they were too busy.

Negotiations continued. Dates were submitted for interviews. I explained my mission was merely to write about a unique immigrant group outside the city, which was entirely true. Upon request, I forwarded a list of questions.

Despite all the negotiations, I was ultimately turned down. All of this took place over a period of three weeks. Ex-Plymouth Brethren members later told me I was being played; strung along until I tired and perhaps gave up on the story.

I fared little better making cold calls to businesses run by Plymouth Brethren in Stonewall. Everyone said they were too busy to talk. At the fifth business I visited, Charles Deayton, at Universal Business Team, which provides consulting and training services to businesses, said he had been expecting me. Word had traveled quickly that a Free Press reporter was making the rounds.

Deayton was candid yet considerate. He basically told me I had the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of getting an interview with a member of the Plymouth Brethren.

"We don’t want to be all over the newspaper," he said. A colleague beside him was more curt. "We’re not interested. We’ve got work to do. Thanks for coming."

All of which is not to imply the Plymouth Brethren here are bad people. They are good and productive community members, most people say. Their businesses have been major contributors to the tax base of Stonewall and provide jobs for many non-Brethren as well as Brethren.

When I googled Universal Business Team, I learned it has offices in 19 countries, mainly assisting other Brethren businesses. But I also saw Universal Business Team is the subject of criticism from a group called PEEB, People Escaping Exclusive Brethren, or "leavers," as they call themselves. (Exclusive Brethren is another name for the most isolationist branch of Plymouth Brethren, which is the one practising in Manitoba.)

A website run by the ex-Brethren also popped up: www.wikipeebia.com. It contained lengthy testimonials from leavers and it included a pull-down window listing "confirmed suicides" of former Plymouth Brethren members. That was my first red flag.

Another red flag was the Plymouth Brethren private school in Stonewall, Sterling North Academy. The grades 3-12 school employs a full complement of certified public-school teachers — but none are Plymouth Brethren. Why would a group that arrived over a hundred years ago not have at least some of its own teachers? There are dozens of Hutterites with university degrees teaching across Manitoba.

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.

August 18, 2014 at 3:47 PM: Note added.

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