At 81, Mary Braun has lost none of her zeal.
One of the last of a dwindling sect of radical Sons of Freedom Doukhobors who once terrorized surrounding communities with waves of arson and bombings and scandalized them with public nudity, Ms. Braun was on familiar ground yesterday -- naked, in a courtroom, convicted of arson.
As Mr. Justice Mark McEwan of B.C. Supreme Court declared her guilty of setting fire to a college building earlier this month, Ms. Braun sat silently, as she had throughout her brief trial, wrapped only in a grey blanket provided by the court.
"I think she used it only because she was cold," a spectator said.
When a group of Doukhobor supporters recited the Lord's Prayer in court, she dropped the blanket and stood naked.
Not so long ago, Ms. Braun's act of arson might have sparked an uproar by residents in the East Kootenay region of B.C., worried that Sons of Freedom Doukhobors were on the verge of yet another outbreak of spiritually motivated terrorism.
But the deliberately set fire that caused $150,000 damage to a satellite building of Selkirk College was the first such incident in more than 10 years. And it could be the last.
"There's just a tiny core of elderly women who have carried on these sorts of actions over the past 20 years or so," said retired professor Mark Mealing, who has studied the Doukhobor community for years.
"I can think of one or two other women who might yet do something, but essentially, Mary's it."
Almost all of the province's several thousand Sons of Freedom Doukhobors have abandoned the bombings, arson and nudity displays they used to protest against government intrusion into their lives and to demonstrate their spiritual rejection of material goods.
"I think they still believe in the principles, but they have changed their attitude towards how best to practise them," Mr. Mealing said. "There's also a great deal of exhaustion."
He said Ms. Braun has considerable sympathy among members of the sect, which now calls itself the Christian Community and Brotherhood of Reformed Doukhobors. The few remaining adherents to the old ways, such as Ms. Braun, are known as Freedomites.
Most live in small, isolated communities between Castlegar and Nelson, where Ms. Braun's two-day trial took place.
"Although what Mary did is seen as regrettable across the whole Doukhobor community, she is still seen as a person willing to take her commitments all the way," Mr. Mealing said. "They feel her act was admirable, even if ill-advised."
Reform Doukhobor Elsie Eriksen said nobody she knows agrees with Ms. Braun's latest arson. Times have changed.
"This is just an isolated act. Mary's just about all that's left from that group that continues to practise the old ways of thinking and believing."
But memories of the past violence and turbulence that rocked the Doukhobors and their neighbours remain vivid.
"It was a horrifying, terrifying time for everyone," Ms. Eriksen, 53, said. Her own family's truck was set ablaze during the disturbances. She was also one of several hundred Sons of Freedom Doukhobor children to be forcibly taken away by police in the 1950s and confined to a residential school with a large fence around it.
At the same time, they were often taunted by non-Doukhobors because of their Russian origins.
"It was the 1950s and people thought we were Communist because we came from Russia," Ms. Eriksen said. "They called us stupid and ignorant. There was incredible hostility towards us."
Mr. Mealing said the Sons of Freedom dynamite bombings, usually directed against the CPR and Kootenay Power, were most likely an attempt to create a public uproar and possibly a way to be sent back to Russia, where they believed a purer spiritual climate prevailed.
Burning down buildings and homes, often their own, demonstrated in their minds a commitment to the importance of spiritual matters over material possessions, he said.
Nudity was intended to show that everyone is the same without their clothes on and to get people's attention. Many Doukhobors spent long stretches in prison simply for disrobing in public.
"They wanted to convert their more materialistic brethren, and to repel anglo-Canadians. They thought this would reform civilization," Mr. Mealing said.
Ms. Braun has a string of arson convictions over the past 20 years.
Besides burning down buildings, she has lit small fires in courtrooms, set her own clothes on fire after stripping them off and caused blazes in her prison cell.
She has also gone on numerous fasts while in prison to protest against her confinement. Her longest hunger strike -- 107 days -- is also believed to be the longest ever in a Canadian prison.
Several times after being granted parole, Ms. Braun has responded by burning another building.
Ms. Braun remains in custody. Sentencing was set for Nov. 19.
"Mary's a really nice grannyish old lady," said Mr. Mealing, who has met her several times.
"She's the kind of person you would like to have as a neighbour. Except you wouldn't want to leave home when she was there alone."