Michigan Dominican sisters to buy John Paul II Cultural Center in D.C.

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:30 AM

Nuns in Michigan may soon own a prime piece of Catholic real estate in Washington.

The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich., have signed a purchase agreement for the John Paul II Cultural Center, a sprawling building near the Catholic University campus that has struggled financially and in attracting visitors since it opened in 2001.

The sisters announced their intention to buy the center late Monday night at a fundraiser for their order in Vienna, saying it would help them accommodate their relatively new and growing order.

The possible sale could also prove a boon to the Archdiocese of Detroit, which has been heavily criticized for sinking millions into the center in the District, far from its Michigan parishioners.

The center was conceived by former cardinal and current Archbishop Emeritus Adam Maida of Detroit, inspired by his loyalty to Pope John Paul II. The archdiocese committed $40 million generated by Catholics in its region to the project, which included a guarantee of the $23 million mortgage.

The center, a 100,000-square-foot building on 12 acres, was to be a combination think tank, facilitator of interfaith dialogue and museum. But since its opening, the building has often sat empty.

While the Archdiocese of Detroit retains most of the financial interest in the building, a foundation runs the programs there. Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington and soon-to-be cardinal, took over leadership of the foundation last year after Maida retired.

Wuerl's spokeswoman, Susan Gibbs, said the foundation will continue its work even if the building is sold. "I think part of the problem is that over time, the focus came to be on the building rather than on the work," she said.

And some features of the building will continue, such as the "Polish heritage room," which houses memorabilia such as a pair of skis and prayer books that belonged to the late pope.

The Archdiocese of Detroit declined to provide specifics about the sale, including the price and the amount it could recoup, because it was pending, a spokesman said.

The sisters in Michigan are eager to make use of the edifice. Both the center's location and its roots in John Paul's vision align with their relatively new order, a spokeswoman said.

"His constant message was be not afraid to give your young life to Christ," said Sister Maria Gemma. "A lot of sisters in our community took that message to heart. . . . So we're really excited about the opportunity."

The order, founded in 1997, has more than 100 sisters, with an average age of 26. With more than 20 sisters joining this year, the order is running out of room in its Michigan campuses, and the center, next door to Catholic University, would provide the perfect home for novice sisters finishing university degrees or studying in their initial years of formation, Gemma said.

The order is having the building inspected to determine whether parts of it can be converted into living quarters for its sisters. Leaders hope to complete the sale by December, Gemma said.

"It's all dependent, of course, on whether it's God's will to happen," she said. "But we're very excited about the possibility."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company