What’s difficult to understand outside South Bend, however, is just how deeply integrated this group is into the local community. Though the group has only a few thousand local members, and keeps a low profile as an organization, its influence and footprint in the city are significant. That influence, and its resistance to liberal changes in the wider culture, are likely to arise as issues in her Supreme Court nomination hearings, expected to begin Oct. 12.
People of Praise includes several prominent local families, including realtors and local financial advisers, who act as a sort of professional network for families in the group and provide considerable social capital to its members. In South Bend mayoral elections, campaigns have been known to strategize about winning over People of Praise as a constituency, given the fact that they live close together in several neighborhoods. The group runs Trinity School at Greenlawn, a private intermediate and high school that is considered by some to be the best—and most conservative—school in South Bend. Families from Notre Dame and elsewhere, even unaffiliated with the group, pay $ 14,000 to attend grades 9-12 and $ 13,000 for grades 6-8. Barrett served on its board between 2015 and 2017, and her husband Jesse, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is now a partner in a law firm here, advised the school’s nationally recognized mock trial team.
As industry receded in South Bend with the closure of the automaker Studebaker in 1963, People of Praise has grown to occupy some of the city’s most storied institutions. The group’s original home was the nine-floor, 233-room Hotel LaSalle, a Georgian Revival structure from the 1920s, one of the most prominent buildings in downtown South Bend. When the group moved into the building in 1975, after it was bought by Charismatic Renewal Services, Inc., a closely affiliated nonprofit, it cleared out one floor to serve as a communal daycare, and used a former ballroom for its meetings, where members spoke in tongues and practiced healing. Some members lived there.
Trinity School occupies a sprawling mansion situated on a sylvan property on the east side of town that was formerly owned by the Studebaker family, whose factory once employed 30,000 workers. The group’s main meeting hall, which isn’t listed on Google Maps, is a former bowling alley and indoor soccer complex 10 minutes from downtown, near the Trinity sports fields.
As the group’s members grew their families, many gaining prominence in the community, they spread out through the suburban neighborhoods and business community of South Bend “They’re involved in all sorts of professional life, whether it’s real estate or law or whatever,” said Ryan Dvorak, a South Bend-based Democratic Indiana State Representative who ran for mayor in 2011, when I asked him about the group’s local presence.
On Thursday evening, as a cool breeze swept over the city and national network correspondents staked out the Barretts’ home in their rental cars, I joined a 25-year-old former People of Praise member to tour her old stomping grounds, including Trinity, which she attended, and the group’s worship center. (This former member, who once worked for the congressional campaign of businessman Democrat Mel Hall in 2018, requested anonymity for the privacy of her family; she grew up in People of Praise, but says they became disillusioned with the group after several decades of membership, having moved from Maryland to South Bend to be closer to fellow members when she was young.)
The headquarters is a modest and unmarked two-story brick building east of downtown, just north of the school on the same campus. As we walked across the green grounds, a man who appeared to be in his 20s ran toward us, asking us to identify ourselves. My guide recognized him as a former classmate. “I thought y’all were reporters,” he said, out of breath. “They’ve been calling us a ton. It’s been no fun. They’ve been calling us a cult. It’s like, ‘well, I don’t know what to tell you, but we’re not.’ ” He sighed. We left.
The Barretts’ five oldest children attended Trinity School, founded in 1981. Trinity operates two other private schools, in Eagan, Minn., and in Falls Church, Va. (Though the institution was founded by People of Praise, now Trinity Schools, Inc. and the People of Praise are separate 501 (c)(3) corporations.) Group membership isn’t required to work there; faculty members, however, must be Christian and “assent in good faith to the tenets of the Nicene Creed,“ according to the Trinity cultural statement.
The school publishes a “cultural statement” laying out its views on social issues. It articulates a clear, conservative Christian set of values, including discouraging sex before marriage and cautioning students who experience same-sex attraction from “prematurely interpret[ing] any particular emotional experience as identity-defining.” It also appears to have been at odds with American law while Barrett served on the board: A version of the statement from the 2018-19 school year, provided to POLITICO by the parent of an alum, says: “the only proper place for human sexual activity is marriage, where marriage is a legal and committed relationship between one man and one woman.” “Homosexual acts” are said to be “at odds with Scripture.” A spokesman for the school said the language changed around the 2018-2019 school year, meaning it would have been in place during Barrett’s tenure as a board member from 2015 to 2017—and well after the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
The current version still disapproves of same-sex marriage: “We understand marriage to be a legal and committed relationship between a man and a woman and believe that the only proper place for sexual activity is within these bounds of conjugal love.” The spokesman also added that there is a new passage rejecting “any form of harassment, bullying, verbal abuse or intimidation by any member of the Trinity School community towards any other member for any reason,” including a “student’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or perceived sexuality.”
A White House spokeswoman said Barrett had no involvement in crafting the statement, but it aligns with her public views on the subject: she co-signed a letter to Catholic bishops, dated 3 months after the Obergefell decision, affirming that marriage is the “indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman.” In a 1998 article “Catholic Judges in Capital Cases,” she referred to abortion as “always immoral.” Barrett has also said these views would not impact her jurisprudence. “It’s never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge’s personal convictions—whether they derive from faith or anywhere else—on the law,” she said during her 2017 confirmation.
The school is popular even among Notre Dame faculty who are not affiliated with People of Praise: It takes a seminar-style approach to education, focusing on reading original texts. The ninth-grade reading list includes The Federalist Papers and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. By tenth grade, students are reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau; before they graduate, they will have read John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. Trinity teams have also represented Indiana in National Mock Trial competitions.
Though its members are influential, the People of Praise tends to stay out of the public eye as an organization. Many South Benders say they knew little or nothing about the group prior to Barrett’s 2017 nomination to federal court; Jack Colwell, the city columnist at the South Bend Tribune, told me he hadn’t heard of the group before Barrett’s 7th Circuit nomination.
But the group had become woven into the civic fabric, nonetheless. “Over the years, members of the People of Praise have become solid, indeed strong members of the South Bend community,” says Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, who has taught here since 1980. (Schmuhl’s son, Mike, ran former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign.) “They have been responsible for a number of activities that have added to the spiritual and cultural life of the community.”
In 1971, two Catholic charismatics, Kevin Ranaghan and Paul DeCelles, founded People of Praise in South Bend, according to a history of the group written by one of its first 29 members, Adrian Reimers, a former Notre Dame professor who later became a critic of the movement. (Reimer declined an interview with POLITICO.) It’s not a church; members attend services at their own churches, mostly Catholic. There were two tiers of memberships: “underway,” in which members take courses and aren’t yet considered fully admitted to People of Praise, and “covenanted” members, making an agreement to each other to abide by the group’s dictates.
In his 1986 article “Charismatic Covenant Community: A Failed Promise” published in Cultic Studies Journal, Reimers wrote that members agreed “to obey the direction of the Holy Spirit manifested in and through these ministries in full harmony with the Church … We recognize in the covenant a unique relationship one to another and between the individual and the community. We accept the responsibility for mutual care, concern, and ministry among ourselves. We will serve each other and the community as a whole in all needs: spiritual, material, financial … We agree that the weekly meeting of the community is primary among our commitments and not to be absent except for a serious reason.”
Asked about the covenant, Sean Connolly, the group’s communications director, told POLITICO in an email: “After a multi-year period of prayer and discernment, many People of Praise members choose to make a permanent commitment called a covenant. The covenant of the People of Praise is a promise of love and service we choose to make to one another. The covenant is not an oath or a vow. Our covenant is a commitment to be there for one another for the long run, to support one another through thick and thin, through all of life’s seasons.”
Eventually, the group’s members spread out into neighborhoods such as Barrett’s Harter Heights. The group also acquired its current meeting house near Trinity’s athletic fields, along Ironwood road, a few miles away from the school. The virtually windowless facility, dotted with private property signs, sports a black-and-white People of Praise sign on the side. In the back of the worship center last Thursday night, on a patio where People of Praise youth gather for the Action Group, a kind of youth group, a whiteboard showed a diagram of the mythological House of Atreus..
Since Barrett’s 2017 nomination to the federal bench, journalists have worked to learn more about the group, in some cases describing a “sexist” and “authoritarian” environment. Barrett has never confirmed her involvement in People of Praise, nor has People of Praise confirmed her membership—though she hasn’t denied reports of her membership from numerous outlets over the last two years. But the former member who spoke to POLITICO said she saw Barrett and her family at meetings on Sundays, and the family regularly sat in front of hers. “She prayed with my mother when we were adopting my youngest brother, my dad and her husband got to know each other pretty well, and my other brother and her son were in a Saturday boys group together,” this person said. “My point being that, though I don’t agree with her political affiliations, I think she’s probably a really kind person.”
The last time she recalls seeing the Barrett family at a meeting was in 2011, when she was in high school. The group’s magazine, Vine and Branches, published photos of her, as well as birth and adoption announcements, before later scrubbing them. A 2018 article by the National Catholic Reporter raised questions about “the group’s practice of being accountable to a more spiritually mature personal adviser, called a ‘head’ for men and previously called a ‘handmaiden” (now ‘women’s leader’) for single women. Married women — such as Barrett — are ‘headed’ by their husbands.”
On Sundays, the parking lot here fills up with 12-passenger vans, as People of Praise families are typically large, according to the former member, whose parents were involved for nearly 20 years, before leaving when, despite their best efforts, they could not advance from the underway classification to full covenanted status. Her parents’ spiritual guides in the group urged the family to not save for college, she said, but instead pay for Trinity, because it would pay off with a college scholarship.
Though families are free to leave, in South Bend there is fear about losing the social capital and status membership affords. “When my parents left, they lost all their friends,” the former member said. There is anxiety: “If I leave, is my kid going to get into Notre Dame?”
People of Praise’s former headquarters in downtown South Bend is now a mixed-use apartment complex called The LaSalle, most recently renovated in 2017. Its first floor is home to the Hideaway, a wood-paneled cocktail bar. On a recent evening, Jerry Roberts, 57, the owner of the Hideaway, made an Old Fashioned on what was an otherwise slow night. The cocktail bar, he said, was once the smoking lounge for the People of Praise.
After he opened the bar, Roberts said, he was given a tour of the building by members of People of Praise. Long before Barrett’s involvement in the group brought it national attention, he had heard the group was a cult. “I’ve been told it’s a cult by everyone I’ve talked to,” he tells me.
Now that national attention is back. Earlier in the evening, regional reporters from CNN and NBC trained their eyes and lenses on Barrett’s house. “I’m sure she deals with it like everything else—with grace,” Nicole Garnett, Notre Dame’s John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law, told me Friday morning. Garnett, among Barrett’s closest friends and a neighbor, has known her since they met in 1998. At the time, Garnett was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Barrett was clerking for Antonin Scalia. They bonded over takeout Japanese eaten out of bento boxes in the courtyard.
Notre Dame, South Bend’s most prominent institution, is fiercely protective of Barrett. After POLITICO published a story about Barrett’s path to the nomination, which mentioned her involvement in People of Praise, as well as Notre Dame’s legal conservatism, Paul Browne, vice president of public affairs and communications, canceled on-campus interviews I requested with fellow law professors, though Garnett still agreed to speak with me.
Asked specifically about People of Praise, Garnett told me: “I know a lot of folks are involved in People of Praise, and they’re members of a parish, and they’re just your normal, nice, generous people.” Her own daughter attends Trinity, and she says she knows a number of Notre Dame faculty who are members of People of Praise.
In South Bend, despite Barrett’s national prominence, she never crossed paths with another famous South Bender, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “I don’t know her, personally,” Buttigieg told me in 2019. I asked him if the local judge would be among his Supreme Court picks should he be elected. “From what I know of her personal judicial philosophy, I can’t picture it,” he said. According to a copy of Barrett’s ballot history from the Indiana Statewide Voter Registration System obtained by POLITICO, Barrett voted in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, and the 2016 Republican primary, though she pulled a Democratic ballot in the 2011 primary, when Buttigeg ran for mayor.
Prior to the pandemic, Coney Barrett would travel to Chicago a couple of times a month to hear cases before the Seventh Circuit, but kept her chambers and law school office back in South Bend. She keeps an office near the center of campus, and teaches two classes—one a statutory interpretation and one on constitutional theory. She does high-intensity training at Primal Fitness, where she is said to be fiercely competitive and particularly adept at pullups. She rarely eats out at local establishments, on account of her large family.
The Garnetts and Barretts have raised their families together, she said. Garnett’s daughter, Maggie, wrote a FoxNews.com op-ed about their close relationship. “As a child, the Barretts’ house was one of my favorite places,” Garnett writes. “We spent countless dinners, holidays and weekday afternoons there.”
Garnett said they had plans with the Barretts last Friday evening, though wasn’t sure if the scheduled gathering stood. “Hey Rick,” she had said to her husband earlier that morning, before we talked. “We were supposed to go to the Barretts’ tonight.”
“I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”