Barefoot girls hold a ribbon and loop around a maypole. Some, styled as the “Little Lambs,” dance for the hundreds gathered at the 15-acre Timonium estate known as The Farm. There are pony rides, potato-sack races, even a live band as people celebrate the end of history.
In faded photographs of the community, I see people who are trying to live their lives halfway to heaven. But that isn’t quite right. We were actually trying to bring heaven into this world. Along with others in the broader Catholic charismatic renewal, we believed that the Holy Spirit was pouring out right before our eyes. Because of our faithfulness, we were witnessing the breakthrough of the kingdom.
I was born into the Lamb of God, one of the dozens of covenant communities to take root in the 1970s when the charismatic renewal first swept the nation. Perceiving the American Catholic Church to be in a state of spiritual decline, Marylander Dave Nodar, his wife, Cheryl, Father Joe O’Meara, and a few others envisioned a kind of New Jerusalem in Charm City. They settled on the Westgate and Rock Glen neighborhoods off Edmondson Avenue on the City/Catonsville line. By the late 1980s, approximately 250 families occupied the two-story homes in those neighborhoods or on their periphery.
From the start, leaders encouraged Lamb of God’s members to eschew the modern world. Families were to limit television, secular news reading, even charity work. In Nodar’s view, offered to The Baltimore Sun in 1984, do-gooders meant well, but they “tended to fall into Marxism.” It was better to focus on one’s soul and the group than to become involved in “humanist” causes.
A policy notebook adopted from a parent community in Michigan stipulated that women (even higher-ranking “handmaids”) were to submit to their husbands, bear as many children as God willed, and refrain from masculine duties, such as spiritually directing children beyond the age of six. Men, in turn, were not to become too involved in domestic work or the more mundane routines of child-rearing. I don’t remember these specific rules, only knowing that feminists were miserable and that my mother loved me more than working moms loved their children.
On Sunday evenings, we convened at Woodlawn High School, UMBC’s event center, or some other place for prayer meetings. A music team worked the crowd into a zeal, then slowed the beat for adults to speak in tongues—ancient Hebrew, I was once told. “Slain in the spirit,” some fell to the ground and convulsed. Some went forward to deliver prophecies. There really was a sense of spontaneity, though it seems many of the divinations had been pre-screened by Nodar. An unidentified community member later told Baltimore magazine in 1994, “He’d decide if it was from God.”
Not long after the story ran, the community dissolved amid an archdiocese investigation around their finances (no legal charges were ever filed) and cult-like tendencies, then faded from public memory.
When I close my eyes, I can see and hear those prayer meetings. If I close them really tight, I can even slip back into their imaginal realm, outside of ordinary time and into a kind of deep time. Charismania is wonderful before it is terrible—a swooning into the sacred.
CHARISMANIA IS WONDERFUL BEFORE IT IS TERRIBLE—A SWOONING INTO THE SACRED.
As children at the community-run school in Halethorpe, we celebrated our religion’s Jewish roots. On Christian Heroes Day, we dressed as Mary and the apostles. Some of us, wanting to show off, called Jesus “Yeshua.”
We heard relentless stories about Christians’ persecution. A Holocaust lesson centered on Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch woman imprisoned for hiding Jews. It will be years before I understand exponentially more Christians were part of the Third Reich than victims of it.
My mother helped to vet the books in the school’s library, which included books like Little House on the Prairie and The Courage of Sarah Noble. These stories of early settlers made me feel even more chosen—a super-Christian. But I swiftly moved on to approved adult titles at home.
One day, I was absorbed in a volume of Chicken Soup for the Soul when I came across my mother’s marginalia. “NO,” she had written for my benefit in the white space, along with a note explaining why the author’s conclusion was all wrong. Part of me will always be nine years old, reeling from this blow. Her later perusing of my diary and listening to my teenage phone calls—these did not sting as much as this first, thunderous notice that even while reading alone I was under surveillance.
My best friend, “Lydia,” whispered with me about which of our peers’ parents left marks when they spanked them. The threat of violence pervaded the children’s sphere. A wooden paddle hung in the school headmaster’s office and in many of the homes in “the cluster.” Mostly, kids’ own dads did the job. They could deliver more force than our mothers, while serving as stand-ins for our heavenly father. When they explained that they only hurt us out of love, any confusion was subsumed by allegory.
I didn’t know it, but a Catholic woman in the Westgate neighborhood had been complaining about us to the archdiocese. Almost from the moment it took over her block, the Lamb of God seemed to Patricia Whitman like the proverbial whitewashed tomb: beautiful on the outside, but inside, full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.
“It wasn’t Jim Jones, it was one step below,” she’ll tell me three decades later, going on to explain how leaders manipulated some members to remain committed while “pruning the vine” of others. “They’d threaten that if people left, they wouldn’t have spiritual covering, meaning the devil might pop out and get them at the grocery store. They were in danger of losing God’s grace.”
As little girl, I was fond of Fr. Joe, who came over for dinner and squeezed my hand under the table, but Whitman distrusted the man whose collar gave the community a veil of legitimacy. She’d heard he made girls and women uncomfortable. On a beach trip, she was told, he’d walked in as some girls were undressing. She was privy to things because she was a confidante for those who’d been shunned by Nodar and his associates, or who were contemplating leaving. Her front porch was many neighbors’ only safe place to be.
Between 1983 and 1987, Whitman wrote a series of letters to Archbishop William Borders conveying her concerns about the Lamb of God’s cult-like tendencies, including its “view of women as submissive and subordinate creatures,” and citing scandals in covenant communities in other states. He urged charity toward her fellow Catholics and claimed to have no authority over the group.
Then, in the early ’90s, rumors began to spread that some community money was missing, and Borders’ successor, Archbishop William Keeler, summoned Whitman downtown to talk. Only after their meeting did she realize he had picked her brain to see how much she knew, not because he wanted to help the people in the community. He seemed worried she would go to the media.
Neither Borders nor Keeler honored her requests for confidentiality. It was never long after mailing her concerned letters about the Lamb of God community that members would linger outside her gate to pray, one even sprinkling holy water in her yard. One local priest threatened to have her excommunicated if she didn’t quit her crusade.
The financial controversy pertained to the $1.9-million sale of The Farm to developers. Some members, who tithed up to 10 percent of their income to the community, wanted to know: Where did all the money go? In 1992, former members John and Marie Cignatta were so perturbed by this question and other matters that they penned their own letters to Keeler, pleading with him to intervene. He agreed to formally investigate the community, then invited Nodar to apply for official status as an archdiocesan organization, subordinating the group to church authorities.
If Keeler hoped to avoid negative press, he was surely disappointed to see the exposé this magazine published in February 1994. In “The Cult Next Door,” Patrick J. Kiger luridly details how community tensions exploded into a “suburban holy war.” He quotes an ex-member on the “Stalinist” system of surveillance that had people reporting heterodoxy up the chain, also spilling ink over Nodar’s reputed perks, which, even before The Farm’s sale, included a free home and community-paid services ranging from plumbing to the babysitting of his children.
That was the year my family left Baltimore for the hour-north town of Hanover, Pennsylvania. If my parents were relieved to leave the community behind, they didn’t let on. When they claimed to be “getting away from crime,” they didn’t seem to mean their co-religionists’ crimes. My brother and sister were unfazed, but I cried, as I didn’t want to leave Lydia.
In those days before social media, it may have been inevitable that our childhood friendship wouldn’t survive the distance. As the years passed, I thought less and less about Lamb of God. I had no idea that, while the school remained, the community had largely dissolved, nor that Nodar had formed a new evangelization ministry. Even though I struggled for words to describe Lamb of God to my new school peers, I didn’t think of it as anything more than a group of like-minded families that my parents found. There was too much continuity before and after the community for me to view it with suspicion.
The parish we attended in Hanover was animated by the very same fantasies, especially pertaining to women. In fact, it was in a religious education class there that I learned that feminists were not only miserable, they were eminently rape-able. Unmarried women had no virtuous men to protect them, and contracepting women—well, they “asked for it” by disavowing their fertility and thereby objectifying themselves. Anyone who doubted this could read Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which foretold of a hellish world for women following the advent of the pill.
It got to me, this exhortation to marry and have a house full of babies “or else.” This was so, even though, by the early 2000s, the newspapers were reporting on rampant clerical sex abuse, and the tone of some laymen’s voices when they spoke to their wives was enough to raise the hair on my arms. There was also unremitting talk about sex: who was having it, who wanted to have it, who dressed like they wanted to have it. I was then a virgin, but I felt so ashamed. I needed Lydia more than ever, but I settled for eating as little as possible. I couldn’t be a Delilah if I disappeared.
Reflecting on the interregnum between the established order and revolution, the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote in 1939, “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” My dad drew upon a similar idiom to account for the way I was becoming more sullen and defiant. He took to remarking he once had a happy little girl, but aliens came and abducted her.
Spiritual abuse is such a quiet violence—a violence of the shadows—it was decades before I found the words to contradict him. By then, I’d left the Church, married one of the heathens, and born two children. Still, my father listened. He said he was sorry for not protecting me from the toxic elements of Catholic culture.
“THEY’D THREATEN THAT IF PEOPLE LEFT, THEY WOULDN’T HAVE SPIRITUAL COVERING…”
For all our conflicts, my father and I have never been estranged, and so I’m at ease telephoning him in 2020, after I’ve read about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise, to insist, “We were in a fucking cult!” No, he says, it wasn’t that. I do more research and circle back: “Mom was a handmaid.” He replied that she wasn’t and anyway, Lamb of God didn’t really use labels.
Still wanting answers, I joined a Facebook group for current and former members of covenant communities. It’s here that I see that Fr. Joe has been removed from ministry after three women accused him of “inappropriate touching.” I dial Dad again. He’s heard about it, but the language is so vague—it could mean anything, he says. My mother chimes in that Fr. Joe was always affectionate. These days, that can be misconstrued.
The archdiocese won’t release to me records pertaining to Keeler’s investigation of the community, but I find a slew of digitized documents about Lamb of God, including Whitman’s outgoing and incoming letters, at the University of Michigan. I call this woman, now 79, and listen as she talks about the community and the authorities’ tacit endorsement of it.
“It really made me question my faith,” she says of the latter. “I had to remind myself that my strength in God is what counts.”
Not long after our conversation I read more explosive news in The Baltimore Banner: Fr. Joe has been identified as #155 in the state attorney general’s report on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He reportedly kissed children on the mouth and would try to move his hands up girls’ legs toward their genitals when a dinner guest at their homes. A housekeeper told of him talking about the size of her breasts. One woman described him tracing the outline of her bra, and another reported “a fondling regimen, inappropriate touching, and digital penetration.”
I text the story to my parents, but they don’t reply. When I stop by their house later that day, I notice The Sun’s pages on the table. I ask my dad if he’s read the Banner piece, and he says yes. He’s disturbed, though he needs to investigate the publication’s credibility.
A few days later, he and my mother come over for dinner, and we talk about Fr. Joe. There’s no question on anyone’s mind that he’s done grave wrong. At one point, my dad goes outside to join his grandchildren at play, and my mom offers that she did not like the way Fr. Joe would kiss her head, though it never occurred to her to object.
I wonder if Lydia has seen the news and if so, what she thinks of it. After years of meaning to do so, I reach out and ask if she wants to have lunch. After I send the message, I wonder if she’ll find it strange. It’s been so long; at this point, we’re really just the kind of friends who like each others’ social media posts. She quickly replies, saying how often she thinks of me. She’d not heard about Fr. Joe, so I send her some articles.
When we meet, I am startled by her voice. It’s not as I remember it. I let the sting wear off before making the observation. “I was thinking the same thing,” she says. “We don’t have our little girl voices anymore.”
Having found this common ground, or perhaps having named what is gone, we quickly fold back into each other. We share our scars, our dangerous memories. We acknowledge how impossible it was to move on. I tell her I’m thinking of writing about the community. She takes a deep breath, and I can see how heavy it all is.
Driving home, I think of the Valentine’s Day card I recently found wedged in a stack of old photographs. “To Audrey: We thank God for you and the happy way we feel loving you. Dad.”
Then my mind drifts toward the women who came forward about Fr. Joe. I wonder exactly how many of them were in the Lamb of God and how close they remain to its people, images, rituals. Do their children attend the school that is still around? Or is the community more of a spectre, something that only finds them in the dark?
It occurs to me, at the very least, each one of these women must have retained hope, as I have, that a new world really is at hand. Justice, democracy, the Kingdom of God, whatever she calls it—it’s coming.
Audrey Clare Farley is a writer, editor, scholar of 20th-century American culture, and author of two books. She is a first-time Baltimore contributor.