Commune's iron grip tests faith of converts
By Kirsten Scharnberg Tribune staff reporter
April 1, 2001
A hard life and hard rules
The girl didn't hop on a bus. She didn't raise her hand at a concert. She wasn't converted on a street corner or baptized in a lake. Like the other children who eventually would be raised inside Jesus People USA, Jennifer Cadieux simply followed her father.
Cadieux had just turned 9 when her father encountered Jesus People in 1973. The commune's band had been performing a Christmas concert at a suburban Aurora church, and Dennis Cadieux—who had long dreamed of being a foreign missionary—was so taken with the group that he decided to sell his family's home and lucrative printing business to join full time, Jennifer Cadieux recalls.
After the holidays, Dennis Cadieux donated tens of thousands of dollars to Jesus People USA and moved with his wife, Louise, and daughters, Jennifer and Cathy, to Grace Street. The couple would have two sons after joining the commune.
None of the progressively larger residences the commune eventually would own on Chicago's North Side—from a yellow-brick six-flat on Paulina Street to a sprawling apartment complex on Malden Avenue to the dorm-style Friendly Towers—could be mistaken for the Ritz. But that church basement where Jennifer Cadieux first encountered Jesus People USA undoubtedly was the worst.
The sewer routinely backed up, forcing everyone to sleep on thin mattresses atop sturdy, plastic milk crates. Water bugs the size of matchboxes skittered across the concrete floor. Maggots made their way into the loaves of bread.
"When we first were getting ready to move, my dad had pulled me aside," Jennifer Cadieux says. "He said there would be ponies and ducks and frogs and ponds, so I stopped worrying. But that wasn't what it was like at all."
During their earliest years in Chicago, Jesus People members routinely spent 12-hour days canvassing the city for souls in need of saving. They recruited at O'Hare, handing religious tracts to baggage-laden travelers. They proselytized on the sidewalks of Old Town, sometimes luring potential converts from the orange-robed Hare Krishnas who also worked the neighborhood. And they attracted hundreds of converts with Resurrection Band, which eventually was touring the U.S., Canada and Europe.
"Those first years were some of the best years of my life," says Jon Trott, one of the harried fliers that Jesus People attracted at O'Hare and now one of the commune's most senior and devoted members.
But for all the excitement and purpose the commune's members felt each time they sat down to pray with a potential new Christian, being a Jesus Person was not all Bible studies and singalongs. Concerned that putting so many people from troubled backgrounds under one roof could be a volatile mix and drawing from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, the group's leaders embraced a set of strict rules.
Men and women were discouraged from talking to one another. Marriages were suggested by the group's leaders, who supervised couples' daily visits.
Exorcisms—in which members were delivered from the evils of lust or tobacco or, in the case of one woman prone to snacking, "the demons of M&Ms"—were regular occurrences. Cadieux recalls being exorcised half a dozen times as a small girl, once for loving her mother more than God.
And it was in that basement, too, the adult spankings began. Following the Shepherding furor of the day—a Pentecostal movement that since has been characterized as abusive even by some of its own architects—Jesus People embraced during the late 1970s a system of corporal punishment for adult members. Because all members were assigned a "covering"—a senior member to whom they were expected to confess sins or thoughts of sins—many of the commune's earliest members were spanked by the leaders with a long wooden dowel known as "the rod."
Jennifer Cadieux, along with a whole generation of Jesus People children, learned to fear what they called "the spanking room." A Northbrook woman, Angel Harold, who has since left the commune, remembers that she and her best friend, both about 6 at the time, would hide behind a recliner outside the room, listening to the thumps and the crying.
"I remember we would be playing house or with our dolls," Harold recalls. "We would pretend to spank each other or our dolls with sticks, the whole time shouting, 'I do this in the name of Jesus.'"
Years later, Jesus People USA leaders would renounce the practice, saying the spankings had reflected how spiritually immature the group was.
About the same time the spankings were implemented, the commune's leaders began another controversial practice that eventually was abandoned. They would "adopt" new members' children if they deemed the biological parents unfit. Although none of the adoptions was ever made legal, the leaders raised the children as their own, often permitting only weekly, one-hour visits with the biological parents.
As they have with the spankings, the leaders today have distanced themselves from the practice, saying they took charge of a handful of children because the parents were so dysfunctional they couldn't care for the youngsters. The leaders admit the adoptions were a resounding failure.
Rigid rules and all, people were joining the commune faster than the group could find them secondhand sleeping bags.
"It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life," says Lynn Austin, a former member who credits Jesus People USA with turning her into a devout Christian.
By 1976, the year Jesus People moved from Grace Street to the first building the group owned in Uptown, it was nearly 100 members strong. Within just a few years, in what members saw as a modern-day Book of Numbers, the flock burgeoned to more than 350.
But even as more and more people pledged their faith, Jennifer Cadieux became one of the first members to grow disillusioned with Jesus People USA.
In 1981, while visiting a Missouri farm someone had donated to the commune as a religious retreat, the 18-year-old Cadieux pretended to go jogging. The lanky woman loped down the farm's tree-lined gravel lane, turned left on Old Church Road and never returned.