Trinity School at River Ridge stands on the outskirts of Eagan, one of just three schools in the nation launched by People of Praise, the little-known religious community that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has been part of since childhood.
The modern campus also is headquarters for the People of Praise regional office, coordinating local activities including summer camps, worship events, boys and girls clubs and senior citizen programs. Many members also work or volunteer at “missions” in Indiana and Louisiana.
As the Senate prepares to confirm Barrett, national media have seized upon her involvement in People of Praise in her hometown of South Bend, Ind. But Minnesota is home to the largest branch in the nation of People of Praise, launched in the 1980s. More than 440 of its 1,700 members live in the Twin Cities.
“When my wife and I moved to the Twin Cities in the 1980s, the community was growing exponentially,” said Walter Matthews, executive director of the National Service Committee, an umbrella group for U.S. Catholic charismatic groups.
“Some people had moved to the Minneapolis area from Iowa, from Seattle; there was a group from Grand Forks, N.D.,” he said. “People were looking for community, for other people who believed what they did. They had this baptism in the Holy Spirit experience that became the engine in their lives.”
Forty years later, this tiny, predominantly Catholic group — and its conservative social values — are in the national spotlight because of its potential influence on the judicial opinions of a Supreme Court nominee. Barrett’s critics argue that a judge long part of this tight-knit community would not be impartial in cases centered on issues People of Praise opposes, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The Associated Press reported this week that Barrett served as a trustee on the board over all three People of Praise schools from 2015-2018, when the schools effectively refused to admit children of same-sex parents and made clear that openly gay and lesbian teachers were not welcome in classrooms.
“The dogma lives loudly within you,” said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein at Barrett’s Court of Appeals confirmation hearing in 2017. Barrett responded that she saw “no conflict between having a sincerely held faith and duties as a judge.”
Barrett’s ties to People of Praise run deep. She grew up in an active People of Praise family outside of New Orleans, and her father is a deacon. As a student at the University of Notre Dame, Barrett lived with national founders of the group. As a mother, she sent most of her children to a People of Praise school in South Bend.
Minnesota community members declined to comment on Barrett. But Tom Caneff, principal branch coordinator in the Twin Cities, offered insights into the group’s religious beliefs and its footprint in the state.
Caneff, a retired finance manager at Thomson Reuters, is a founding member of the Minnesota group launched in 1983. It is one of 22 People of Praise branches, headquartered in South Bend, where the Barretts live.
Caneff, 67, said he was drawn to the group as a young college graduate attending large Twin Cities charismatic renewal events designed to breathe new life into the Catholic faith. Participants embraced the “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” such as speaking in tongues, witnessing miracles and raising hands in prayer.
The renewal flourished after the Second Vatican Council, which urged more lay involvement in the church and a deeper connection to God.
Caneff, like many members, met his spouse, Nancy, through People of Praise and sent his children to Trinity School. The family, like others, attends their own church on Sunday mornings and meets Sunday afternoons for worship and socializing. Not everyone is Catholic, but most are.
“Our community life is characterized by deep and lasting friendships,” said Caneff, in a written response to questions submitted by the Star Tribune. “We gather together often in small groups and in larger prayer meetings. We read Scripture together. We share meals together. We attend each other’s baptisms and weddings and funerals. We support each other financially and materially and spiritually.”
Living, working together
Members often live in the same houses, in the same neighborhoods, and act as a large extended family. Single members are encouraged to live with a married couple.
People of Praise blog posts show that members also do active outreach. They’ve held impromptu neighborhood prayer gatherings in Burnsville, where about 30% of Twin Cities members live. They launched COVID-19 safety measures in senior housing in West St. Paul, where several members live. Others do direct charitable work, including a major food distribution following the death of George Floyd.
A key feature of People of Praise is that all members must pledge to a “covenant,” a lifelong commitment to supporting the group “no matter the type of need: spiritual, material or financial,” according to the group’s website.
Members also pledge to give 5% of their income to the group to support outreach, staff and charitable service.
“We admire the first Christians who were led by the Holy Spirit to form a community,” said Caneff. “Those early believers put their lives and their possessions in common, and ‘there were no needy persons among them,’ ” he said, quoting scripture.
While members such as Caneff say it’s a gift to be part of People of Praise, former members have criticized the group in national media for its stance that marriage is only allowed between a man and a woman, that abortion is wrong and that men should head households. They said they felt controlled in the group.
“Not everyone is cut out for it,” said Matthews, of the national Catholic group. “Unfortunately in the history of these groups, there are people who left and got hurt. Sometimes the problems were real. Sometimes they were not as the person felt.”
Sean Connolly, national communications director of People of Praise, stressed that “each person is always free and always responsible for his or her own decisions.”
“We value independent thinking and teach it in our schools,” he said.
The group’s most visible presence in Minnesota is its Eagan headquarters, with a sign near the front door saying “Come Holy Spirit.”
A side entrance opens to Trinity School, a private Christian school serving 239 students, grades 6 to 12. Girls and boys are generally in separate classrooms.
It is academically rigorous, winning the blue ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education three times.
“Your child will graduate having read and discussed original texts by authors like Homer, Aristotle, Augustine and Dostoevsky,” says the school website.
Minnesota’s former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman recently wrote an op-ed praising Trinity School, which his children attended, as well as Barrett.
Students and staff aren’t required to be People of Praise members, but key leadership is, including principal Beth Schmitz and academic dean Pat Murphy.
School leaders, like other People of Praise members in Minnesota, declined to be interviewed. The tiny group, bombarded by media requests from across the globe, has halted nearly all interviews “with the news, good and not-so-good, surrounding us these days,” said Caneff.
For now, the community is just waiting for the nomination process to be over.