Warmth and Harmony Drew People In
he Mother of God community was born in the 1960s. Two women then living in Potomac, Edith Difato and Judith Tydings, underwent profound spiritual experiences while participating in a "charismatic renewal" movement taking root among American Catholics. They formed a tiny prayer group, meeting initially in living rooms and church basements.
Tydings held a master's degree in history and taught in Catholic high schools. She would eventually raise four children and write a book about Catholic Church history. Her husband was not religious, but Tydings clung strongly to the faith.
dith Difato and her husband, Michael, came originally from the Philadelphia area. A motherly woman of medium height and youthful appearance, Edith never went to college, but was an avid reader. She seemed to excel at putting religious ideas into daily practice. She exuded such an air of confidence that people sometimes use the word "mesmerizing" to describe her. Some who knew her describe her as warm on the surface, but with an iron will underneath.
The Catholic charismatic renewal movement that attracted Tydings and Difato had its roots in ideas and practices more common among Protestants, such as praying aloud and exuberantly celebrating God's love. Charismatics believe the Holy Spirit moves among the faithful and bestows "charisms," or gifts, such as prophecy or the ability to speak in tongues.
The movement, which peaked in the 1970s, touched the lives of several million Catholics who worshiped at charismatic services. It found its most intense expression when adherents in several American cities formed special communities where members pledged to live by the rules of a written covenant. At least 10,000 strongly committed charismatics became members of these "covenant communities." Mother of God was one. Other big groups arose in Ann Arbor, Mich., Steubenville, Ohio, and South Bend, Ind. Counting smaller spinoff groups, there were more than 50 such communities nationwide.
ooking back on why they joined, members say that ordinary parishes seemed dry and lifeless to them. They wanted to feel more closely connected to others and to God. "I remember feeling very welcomed, almost fawned over," recalls Rick Herald, who joined Mother of God in 1970 after being shaken by the death of an acquaintance. "There was a warmth there that I hadn't ever felt before."
In its early years, Mother of God's leadership was informal and collegial, but as the group grew, it required more structure. Members recall that all eyes turned toward Edith Difato, who seemed to have the clearest vision. For her part, Difato asked her eldest son, Joseph, to join her in the community's emerging leadership.
The group met in various borrowed facilities in Potomac and Rockville parish churches, a seminary, a school until Joseph Difato directed Mother of God toward Montgomery Village in the mid-1970s. A gradual migration to the Gaithersburg area began. The community met at St. John Neumann Catholic Church and eventually laid plans for its own facilities.
Former members who joined as teenagers or young adults in this early period say they were attracted in part by the way the Difatos lived. They were not the kind of religious people who took vows of poverty. They wore good clothes, drove nice cars, belonged to a country club. The former members recall feeling relieved to see that one could combine a comfortable life with deep Christian faith.
Steadily, a group that began as a handful of acquaintances in a church basement grew into scores, then into hundreds, of loyal Difato followers. In public, the Difatos seemed to embody the ideals they preached, those of a happy family working together in personal and spiritual harmony.
In private, several former members say, the power the Difatos were acquiring began to go to their heads.