Disclaimer: Pam Danylchuk is the author’s first cousin once removed and Eva Halmarson was the author’s grandmother.
Nothing really stands out about that party in the summer of 1979, but Pam Danylchuk remembers the likes of Supertramp, Styx, and The Eagles playing on the radio. She remembers boating on the Assiniboine River in the afternoon and drinking around a bonfire in the evening.
But Pam wasn’t supposed to be there.
It’s not that she wasn’t welcome. A guy she met at the doctor’s office in Charleswood where she worked as a receptionist had invited her. And, like most 22-year-olds, Pam jumped at the chance to meet new people.
“It was fun,” she says. “I was just hanging out.”
But she shouldn’t have been there. And she certainly shouldn’t have been eating and drinking with the other party guests or listening to Supertramp on the radio.
And while nothing really stands out about that party to Pam, the events that followed completely changed her life.
Pam was born in 1956, the fourth of Art and Elsie Admiraal’s five children. She grew up in St. James, a cluster of neighbourhoods in the west side of Winnipeg, alongside her brothers David and Phil, and her sisters Margaret and Betty.
“It was just kind of a big, happy family,” Pam says. “I felt loved and appreciated.”
The Admiraals were members of the Exclusive (or Plymouth) Brethren, an evangelical Christian sect founded in 19th century England. Exclusive Brethren believe the Bible is the true word of God and they live their lives according to it.
Growing up, Pam went to church meetings every day: weeknights at seven, Saturday mornings, and several times on Sunday.
In the bowl-shaped meeting rooms, men sat at the front, while women sat at the back. Pam remembers singing hymns, praying, and listening to the church leaders speak.
“Back then, it was normal for me,” she says of the daily worship services.
After church on Saturdays, the Admiraal family made their way down Highway 59 to Patricia Beach for the afternoon.
“My dad would get all the coolers in the car and away we’d go.”
But it’s the drives home from the beach that Pam remembers most vividly.
“He would stop wherever there were blueberries,” she recalls. “And of course, we’d just want to go home.”
She describes how her dad cut the branches off the blueberry bushes instead of taking the time to pick them one by one. Once Art was done, he’d fold them up in the trunk of the car.
“He’d just stuff them in there,” she says with a thunderous laugh.
Aside from daily devotions, Brethren practice what’s called the doctrine of separation. Church members are allowed to eat, drink, or socialize only with other Exclusive Brethren. Members can’t go to restaurants or movies theatres, and when Pam was growing up, Exclusive Brethren weren’t even permitted to watch TV or listen to the radio.
Even so, Pam says she still had fun growing up. She went on road trips across western Canada with her family and played baseball with other kids from church at the school diamond.
“But we didn’t have friends outside the Exclusive Brethren.”
The doctrine of separation explains why Pam wasn’t allowed to be at that party in ’79 and she knew the consequences for breaking the rules were severe.
“When you’re in [the church], you just kind of know what’s going to happen.”
Despite the church’s mandate to practice separation from what they call “worldly” people, the Exclusive Brethren still engage with their communities on several levels, including sending kids to public schools.
Attending daily church services felt normal for Pam, but things were different at school. In the 1970s, the Lord’s Prayer was still recited in homeroom every morning, but Pam had to leave the classroom and wait in the hall — Exclusive Brethren aren’t allowed to pray with non-members.
“You know, you’re young and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, there’s the weirdos,’” Pam says. “It was so embarrassing.”
She was allowed to interact with other students at Sturgeon Creek Collegiate, but when the lunch bell rang and her classmates ran off to the cafeteria, Pam had to eat alone.
She says, at times, she felt like an outsider. While the other girls wore bright plaid pants and flared jeans, she had to wear long skirts or dresses and a scarf covering her head.
The Exclusive Brethren have a strict dress code, but Pam and her Brethren friends found a way around it as teenagers in the mid ‘70s.
She describes leaving the house in the morning wearing a floor-length maxi coat over her dress and a well-hidden pair of pants.
Pam says she believes her mom probably turned a blind eye at the time.
“Why did I think my mom wouldn’t notice a pair of bright green plaid pants at the back of my closet?”
And while breaking the rules in high school went unpunished, the same can’t be said about the party in 1979.
Pam didn’t go home the night of the party.
“I look back and think, ‘Oh, my poor parents were so worried about me,’” she says.
The next morning, her parents didn’t know where she was and concerns about her whereabouts reached the Exclusive Brethren leaders.
“I was fine,” she maintains, but the implications of a 22-year-old Exclusive Brethren woman staying out all night screamed “sin,” and soon after, the church leaders visited Pam at home.
Pam insisted she was just at a party having fun, but the leaders didn’t believe her.
“We know what you were doing,’” Pam says, mimicking the patronizing tone of the leaders’ voices.
They pressed further and blatantly accused Pam of having sex that night, but she forcefully denied it.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not going to lie about something I didn’t do.’”
But they still didn’t believe her — in their eyes, there was no way it didn’t happen. The leaders decided that Pam and her parents would be “shut up” for Pam’s actions.
Being “shut up” is a form of temporary punishment in the Exclusive Brethren. Members are essentially cut off from interacting with other Exclusive Brethren aside from leaders. They are interrogated about their sins and assessed on whether they’ve repented enough to return to the church.
For the next nine months, Pam and her parents weren’t allowed to attend church. However, she thinks her parents were more frustrated at the process than upset with her at the time.
“They were just going with the flow to get back [into the church].”
Pam still went to work at the doctor’s office and occasionally out to shop, but she had to phone her parents to let them know where she was going.
“They should’ve put a [tracking] bracelet on me,” she jokes.
Pam considered seeking forgiveness because Brethren leaders made her incredibly fearful of the promised repercussions.
“If you don’t [repent], you’re going to hell,” she says. “And if you leave the church, you won’t live a good life.”
During the “shutting up” phase, Pam had to eat dinner alone in the living room. Her parents, who had to practice separation from her, ate in the kitchen.
“After about a month, I thought ‘you know, this is so stupid.’”
So, she marched into the kitchen, sat down, and started eating with them. Her dad put down his fork, looked at her, and said, “Oh, you know, Pamela. You’re supposed to be sitting in there.”
“I said, ‘What’s the difference if I’m sitting on the other side of this wall?”
Her parents didn’t force the issue and let her finish eating dinner at the table. She believes they thought the eating arrangement was ridiculous as well, but they’d never admit it.
There are thousands of Exclusive Brethren around the world, but at the time, the church’s epicentre was only 125 kilometers south of Winnipeg. The town of Neche, North Dakota was home to James Symington, the leader of the Exclusive Brethren.
The Admiraal family frequently drove down to Neche for meetings, and, at a service in the late ‘70s, Pam says Symington made fun of her dad in front of nearly 500 people.
Art Admiraal had acromegaly, a growth hormone disorder that causes organ and limb enlargement due to a benign tumor in the pituitary gland. While he hadn’t been diagnosed, he was showing the physical signs of the disease.
Pam says Symington ridiculed her dad’s enlarged hands, ears and nose, as well as his love of bicycle-riding. Symington even “gave him shit” for wearing shorts.
“It was sickening.”
She says her dad was devastated by Symington’s remarks and couldn’t believe the church had treated one of their own members so poorly.
“I thought, ‘I’m never coming back here.’ And I never did.’”
Around that same time, Pam had an epiphany.
She had worked at the doctor’s office for a while and describes Dr. Ross and his family as good people — in fact, good Christians. She was raised to believe Exclusive Brethren were the only true Christians, and “worldly” people were sinful and wrong.
But Pam realized that simply wasn’t true.
“I thought, ‘you know, there’s just something weird here. Why am I brainwashed to think there are no other Christians in the world?’”
Nearly nine months after being shut up, Pam’s younger brother Phil moved back into the house.
Phil was in love with an Exclusive Brethren woman from California and visited Neche to ask James Symington for permission to marry her. Symington refused, stating “you’re just like your brother David.”
Pam says David had been expelled from the church for owning Playboy magazines and visiting strip clubs. He eventually returned to the Brethren years after.
Phil snapped back at Symington and was promptly shut up by the church leader. He returned home with a broken heart — the relationship with the woman was over.
Shortly after, the Exclusive Brethren offered the Admiraals an ultimatum: if Pam and Phil got a place of their own, Art and Elsie could come back to meetings.
So, Pam and Phil moved into an apartment in Charleswood.
“They told my dad, ‘If you and Elsie are right with the Exclusive Brethren, then your family will fall into place.’”
Pam and Phil waited for their parents to visit and for their invitation to return to the Exclusive Brethren. But one day, they received a phone call from the church leaders.
Pam and Phil had been withdrawn from the Exclusive Brethren.
While shutting up is a temporary punishment, being withdrawn from the Exclusive Brethren is absolute – reserved for sinners who won’t repent.
Being withdrawn meant Pam was effectively removed from not only the church, but from her own family: she was no longer welcome in her own house.
“I remember waking up one morning and I thought, ‘I can never see my mom again.’”
Pam says she and Phil have always been close, and in the months after being withdrawn, they really looked out for one another. Phil bought a small house in Charleswood and Pam moved in right away.
During that time, Pam’s parents drove by every day in Art’s dark blue Chevy Impala. She says they sometimes stopped in front of the house, but they never got out and came to the door.
“It was really heart-wrenching,” she recalls. “I knew things would never work out, but I always hoped they’d stop [and come in].”
She says those first few months were the toughest, but there were some bright spots to her new life – namely, television.
“I took two weeks’ holidays and I watched TV 24/7,” she laughs. “Whatever was on, I’d go from one channel, to the next, to the next…”
But despite this newfound sense of freedom, Pam couldn’t figure out what she was feeling.
“I didn’t know if I was coming or going, laughing or crying,” she says. “I’d be happy one minute and sad the next.”
Dr. Ross told Pam she was in “culture shock.”
Culture shock is defined as a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment.
Pam had never heard the term before but says that’s exactly how she felt. While she hadn’t stepped a foot out of Winnipeg, everything she ever knew had been stripped away.
The pain and grief of losing her family weighed on Pam, but she started to realize how many good people existed in the “outside world”. She focused on building relationships and getting into the groove of her life, although explaining the past to her new friends was complicated.
People just couldn’t understand how parents would do that to their kids.
“I kept [telling people] it’s not my parents’ fault,” she says of her withdrawal. “But I understand why they didn’t [leave the church]. They were scared.”
But Pam didn’t have to explain her upbringing to Bruce Danylchuk.
They were neighbours growing up, and as Pam and Phil started to rebel in their teens, they’d sneak out and party with Bruce.
“I always kind of liked Bruce and he always liked me,” she says with a smile lighting up her face.
It only took an invitation to Phil’s birthday party that year for Pam and Bruce to hit it off.
“That’s when life started getting fun,” she says of their early relationship. “I wasn’t sure at the time if it was going to go anywhere, but it was nice to have someone.”
They dated for a couple years, got engaged, and booked their wedding for New Year’s Eve in 1982.
On the morning of her wedding, Pam received a call from her mom. Elsie Admiraal begged her not to get married and claimed Pam wouldn’t be happy.
Pam says she still loved her parents, but at that point, their opinions weren’t really important.
“I was embarking on a new life and they couldn’t be a part of that because they had to stay with the church,” she says.
Later that day, Pam’s brother David gave her away at the altar. Phil was the only other immediate family member at her wedding.
The insufferable feeling of culture shock was a distant memory for Pam Danylchuk as the pieces of her new life fell into place. She started working with Bruce at EBD Trucking, the family business he purchased from his father, and in 1984, Pam gave birth to their daughter Olivia. Two sons, Ryan and John, followed.
When the kids were young, Pam says she didn’t really tell them about her estranged family or the Brethren. And though the kids didn’t know their maternal grandparents, they knew “Grandma Eva.”
Pam remembers pushing a newborn Olivia through Eaton’s at Polo Park Mall when she heard a distinctly cheerful voice — she knew it had to be Eva Halmarson.
Eva was Art Admiraal’s older sister. Although Eva and her family weren’t part of the Exclusive Brethren, Pam recalls visiting their house as a kid. And while it wasn’t permitted by the church, she’d get to watch TV when they went to the Halmarson house.
She followed the voice through the aisles of Eaton’s and there she was. Pam called out, “Auntie Eva, it’s Pam.”
“And that was it,” Pam says. “She was in our life after that.”
Eva treated Pam like a daughter and often visited with batches of homemade cookies in hand.
“I adored her,” Pam says. “She was so supportive.”
Eva Halmarson kept framed pictures of Pam’s kids alongside her own grandchildren’s until she passed away in 2008.
Pam says she often thought about driving to her parents’ house and introducing them to their grandchildren, but the fear of rejection crippled her.
However, in the late 1980s, Pam finally had the chance and the courage.
She was shopping at Polo Park with all three kids when she passed by Art and Elsie Admiraal sitting on a bench. Pam stopped the stroller and thought to herself, “I’m going back.”
She turned the stroller around and returned to the bench. She remembers the way her dad crossed his legs and the big smile splashed across his face.
“It’s not like the kids ran up and start hugging them,” Pam says of the meeting. “They didn’t know these people.”
Pam says her parents were sweet during the brief encounter, but it didn’t lead to further visits. After that, the kids used to ask if they could go to Polo Park to see Pam’s parents.
It was the only time Olivia, Ryan, and John met their maternal grandfather.
In 1989, Art Admiraal was dying at St. Boniface Hospital and Pam decided she wanted to visit before he passed away.
She reached out to David, who had returned to the church, to ask if was okay for her to come. David said, “No, you can’t come and see him. It would cause him too much stress.”
She never had an opportunity to see her dad one last time.
“I should’ve gone,” she says solemnly. “I regret that so much.”
“I’ve learnt if I want to do something, do it. Don’t let someone else tell you not to.”
After Art’s death, she went to the family house to see the body with Bruce, Phil, his wife Kim, and Auntie Eva. When she saw her grieving mom, Pam went to give her a hug.
“She stood there like a board. She wouldn’t put her arms around me — nothing.”
Pam thinks her mom was only acting how the church expected her to.
“That broke my heart.”
A few years later, Elsie Admiraal was moving to Montreal to live with Pam’s sister Betty. Church members often move to new places to help shore up Exclusive Brethren numbers in the community. But before she left, Elsie stopped by Pam’s house to say goodbye. During the brief visit, she gave Art’s Bible to Pam.
“I guess she was hoping I’d read it.”
Pam says it’s a good reminder of her dad. She can picture him holding the soft leather book and flipping through the pages.
Elsie left for Montreal and Pam had no means of contacting her.
“We just kept living our lives,” she says. “We went our way, and they went theirs.”
In 2004, more than a decade later, Pam received a phone call at work. It was her mom.
Pam and Elsie chatted for a bit and after making small talk, Pam’s mother revealed the purpose of the call: “We want to come and see you.”
Elsie explained to Pam there were a lot of conversations within the Exclusive Brethren in recent years about how withdrawn members were treated, and Pam’s name had come up several times. The family and the church wanted to make things right with her. Pam says she was open to the idea.
“I’d get to see my mom again.”
A couple weeks later, Pam received a package in the mail from her older sister Betty. It was a photo album of the Admiraal family. As she looked through the album, she felt overwhelmed with emotion. There were pictures of nieces, nephews, and cousins she’d never met.
“I cried every day for three weeks,” she says. “I felt so robbed and cheated out of my family.”
As Elsie’s visit to Winnipeg drew closer, questions started swirling in Pam’s head — what did this visit mean? Would her family be together again?
About three months after the initial phone call, Elsie, along with Betty and her husband Gordy, flew in from Montreal to reunite with Pam.
In Pam and Bruce’s living room, they shared stories spanning decades and flipped through a lifetime’s worth of photos. Pam says it felt like nothing had changed in more than 20 years.
At one point during the visit, Pam and Elsie slipped into the kitchen.
Pam recalls the pivotal conversation:
“I’ve always believed you,” Elsie said, referring to the party back in 1979.
“Thanks, mom.” Pam replied. “I never lied to you.”
The conversation turned to the late Art Admiraal.
“Dad always wondered why you never came to the hospital to see him.”
“Mom, I wanted to. I asked if I could go, and I was told not to come.”
Elsie was devastated to hear that.
“He wanted you to come so badly.”
Elsie shared another story that came as a complete shock to Pam.
“When you had Olivia, I came to see you in the hospital.”
“I walked into the room and saw you laying there holding your baby. I got so afraid that I turned around and walked out.”
Pam says she remembers feeling like someone was there.
“If I had seen her, I would’ve said, ‘Come here Mom, look at my beautiful baby.’ She would’ve been so happy.’”
Pam says making amends with her mom made her feel complete.
“I remember thinking that was a part of my life that was missing.”
They never truly revisited what happened decades earlier, but a lot of the conversation centered around Elsie and the family wanting Pam to come back to the Exclusive Brethren.
“They thought I’d just bring Bruce and the kids, and we’d go back,” Pam says. “That wasn’t going to happen.”
She admits she was torn, but the feeling didn’t last long. It wasn’t in her plan.
After that visit, Pam and her mom stayed in touch, often talking on the phone multiple times a week. Pam even visited her in Montreal when John was going to school at McGill University.
“We kind of picked up where we left off [in 1979].”
Elsie Admiraal passed away in 2010. Pam spoke with her on the phone the night before she died.
The term sola scriptura translates to ‘by scripture alone’ in English. This is the core belief of churches like the Exclusive Brethren — that the Bible is the authoritative word of God.
Another Latin term, sola fide, means ‘by faith alone.’
Despite being withdrawn from the Brethren over 40 years ago, Pam says she still has a profound relationship with God. She does admit it took a while for her faith to resurface.
“I think I just had enough of church, and at the time, church was God,” she says.
“And now, I realize they’re not the same thing.”
When John was still a baby, Pam visited a Baptist church in Winnipeg on a Sunday morning. She was told babies weren’t allowed in the service and she’d have to leave him with the church’s daycare.
The irony of a church coming between Pam and her family wasn’t lost on her.
She left and never returned.