Spiritual acquisition

A religious group bought Bayboro House B&B, and neighbors are pleased.

Published June 4, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG -- A landmark business that was also a noisy thorn in the side of its Old Southeast neighbors has changed hands to a group sure to make a different impression.

"The only noise they make is singing hymns on the front porch," said Charles Guy, a neighbor of Bayboro House Bed & Breakfast, which was recently purchased by the Bruderhof Communities, a communal religious brotherhood that paid nearly $3-million for the business and adjacent land on Beach Drive SE.

For years, neighbors complained about weddings and other events at the restored 100-year-old mansion. At one point, the city passed an ordinance to curb problems directly related to this specific business. Guy said the law never worked, so he's glad to see his new neighbors.

"At this point, it's sort of nice to have a family living there," Guy said of the family of seven and additional couple living next door. "They're very nice people. They're very interesting."

Members of the Bruderhof swear an oath of poverty and hold all property in common, yet Guy said they paid cash for the Bayboro House and an adjacent lot. The group has settlements all over the world but is centered in upstate New York, between Poughkeepsie and Woodstock, where it runs businesses that make playground equipment and tools for disabled people.

"They set out to do good and they did well," Guy said.

Guy said once the sale was known, there were rumors in the Old Southeast neighborhood about a religious group coming to town. After some research and meetings, the residents are at ease with the new members of their community.

"We're not here to make a splash," said Jesse Barton, one of the Bruderhof living at Bayboro. "We're here to live as members of the community."

The Bruderhof describe themselves as a "group of families and individuals dedicated to following Jesus Christ by living in full community," according to the group's sparse Web site. "We live and work together as a practical witness to peaceful activity, honest relationships and faithfulness in marriage."

The Bruderhof also run the Plough Publishing House, which offers books and articles in print and electronically. Some of the more prominent writings include pleas for peace sent to President Bush.

Barton said he's not sure if the group will operate the property as a bed-and-breakfast or simply live there. They may have overpaid if they don't use its commercial status, he said. The Bruderhof typically find a way to make a living in the communities they inhabit, Barton said, but he hasn't yet seen what that will be in St. Petersburg.

"We have to wait to be shown the way," he said. "We're waiting to see what comes to the door."

So far, what's come to the door have been curious neighbors. One, Russ Crumley, is the president of the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association, who happened by the house while walking his dog in Lassing Park.

"They all seemed very pleasant and eager to become part of the neighborhood," Crumley said. "They're trying very quietly to get to know their neighbors."

Barton said he would rather meet the community in person than through the media because there have been misunderstandings of the group in the past. He said the Bruderhof are not in town to recruit or proselytize, just to live as neighbors.

"We're very aware of what publicity does," he said. "It can be a negative when people see an institution coming in and taking over property."

In some publications on the Internet, former members of the Bruderhof describe an unpleasant or controlling atmosphere. Barton said that some "unfortunate things" have happened with people who chose to leave the group.

"Human beings are fallible," he said. "Things go wrong."

Barton's new neighbors seem to have no difficulty with him and his cohorts. The Old Southeast, also home to the Quaker Society of Friends house and the Vedanta Center, is more eclectic than other neighborhoods, Crumley said.

"We are a very diverse neighborhood," he said. "We welcome anybody that is willing to contribute positively."

He said residents are more concerned with traffic, bad landlords and overdevelopment than a new religious group. He said he plans to invite Barton and the others to a neighborhood social this month.

Guy said he wondered at first about the group but that as he has gotten to know the Bruderhof, he feels comfortable.

"I think they're for real," he said. "It's nice."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.