For many, like Mr. Coney, the communal life offered by the People of Praise was so rich that being without it seemed unimaginable. For others, though, the degree of commitment could feel overly intrusive and controlling.
“The community is more important than anything else in your life,” said Ailish Byrne, whose parents were heavily involved in the South Bend community in the 1970s and ’80s; she opted not to join the community as a young adult. “It’s a whole different level than being a member of a church.”
The People of Praise is part of a broader movement that began with a bolt from God.
In Pittsburgh in 1967, a few Catholic academics at Duquesne University had a profound experience they described as an encounter with the Holy Spirit. They went on to lead a small student conference that culminated in several dozen attendees having similar experiences, including praying in tongues. The spiritual fervor quickly spread from Duquesne to the University of Notre Dame, the University of Michigan and beyond.
The movement attracted “university trained ‘intellectual types,’” as Kevin and Dorothy Ranaghan, founding members of the People of Praise, put it in a 1969 book. The Catholic hierarchy viewed the movement, known as Catholic charismatic renewal, warily at the beginning. But by 1975, Pope Paul VI welcomed the movement to the Vatican, presiding over a “charismatic Mass” at St. Peter’s Basilica attended by more than 10,000 people.
The Catholic charismatic renewal stood out not just because of its unusual style, but because of the fervor of its followers. Early on, some devotees decided they wanted to do more than pray together. They wanted to share their lives. Out of this impulse came multiple “covenant communities” like the People of Praise, founded in 1971, whose members go through a yearslong discernment process of living in the community and figuring out if it is right for them. If it is, they sign an intention to stay with the group for the rest of their lives.
Each group of covenant communities, including others like the Sword of the Spirit and the Word of God, has a slightly different character. Some later developed reputations for being excessively controlling. In the 1990s, local bishops intervened in several covenant communities after leaders were accused by members of attempting to strictly control relationships and finances, and representing that control as the will of God.
In 1980, the bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese received complaints about the People of Praise’s system of headship and that the group fostered fear and guilt, according to an article at the time in the National Catholic Reporter. The bishop said he intended to discuss the concerns with the group.