WASHINGTON — The Knights of Columbus will acquire the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., providing a course correction for an institution that has struggled to stabilize its finances and become a destination for tourists in the nation’s capital.
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, presiding over the opening of the Catholic men’s fraternal organization’s annual convention in Denver, Aug. 2, announced the acquisition and his plans to transform the center into a shrine for Blessed John Paul II and a Catholic heritage museum.
“True to Pope John Paul II’s vision, and using the story of his life as an inspiration, the shrine will be an opportunity to evangelize and spread the Good News of the Gospel through a New Evangelization,” Anderson said in a public statement.
“Because of his tireless evangelization efforts, an entire generation of Catholics has become known as the ‘John Paul Generation,’ and, certainly, we are honored to continue to spread his profound and powerful message of hope for our country, our continent and our world.”
Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit confirmed that the Knights will provide a $20 million cash payment to the Detroit Archdiocese, which had poured $54 million into the cultural center, a project marked by cost overruns that continued to require large-interest payments from the Detroit Archdiocese.
The center opened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and failed to attract a sufficient number of annual visitors. Cardinal Adam Maida, then archbishop of Detroit, was criticized by many Detroit Catholics, who questioned the use of local funds for a Washington-based initiative that seemed poorly conceived.
In his public statement, Archbishop Vigneron expressed both “relief” and “gratitude to the Knights for stepping forward to make this transaction a reality.” Over the years, the Knights also have provided funds for other Catholics institutions in the capital, including The Catholic University of America, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
The archbishop confirmed that the sale would be “finalized within the next 60 days and will involve the Cultural Center Foundation, The Catholic University of America (CUA) and the Archdiocese of Detroit. The Knights will pay $22.7 million to the foundation for the building and land, of which $2.7 million will go to CUA, which has a secured interest on the land. After closing costs, the Archdiocese of Detroit will receive approximately $20 million from the foundation for the sale.”
He acknowledged that the Knights’ cash payment fell short of “the $54 million in loans the archdiocese invested in the Cultural Center’s design, construction and maintenance; the sale will enable us to recoup some of what we invested and will end archdiocesan outlays averaging $65,000 per month to maintain the building and grounds. The $20 million in cash we receive will help stabilize archdiocesan finances.”
The deal ends the Detroit Archdiocese’s 18 month-effort to locate a buyer for the Cultural Center building and land.
In 2010, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan signaled its interest in the property as a desirable location for a house of studies, but the plan fell through.
Archbishop Vigneron noted that while several offers “were clustered in the $20 million range; the Knights presented the best offer and terms of sale. The building was designed and constructed at the peak of the pre-9/11 financial and real-estate markets, which have changed dramatically.”
The archbishop’s statement sought to tamp down criticism regarding the initial project. He noted that the plans had been conceived “in a vastly different environment, at a time when resources were readily available and the economy was strong.”
The Pope’s Skis
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who replaced Cardinal Maida as chairman of the board of the John Paul II Cultural Foundation after the latter’s retirement, outlined his plans to incorporate the center’s future programs into the mainstream of the Archdiocese of Washington.
“The foundation will be working very closely with the Knights,” said the cardinal, who has, by decree, erected the center and the chapel as an archdiocesan shrine.
“We will have a place for pilgrims to come and pray. And I look forward to our collaboration, because it is practically next door to our new John Paul II Seminary. Our priests and seminarians will be available for devotions at the shine and the celebration of Mass,” he said, leaving the Knights’ convention to speak for a telephone interview.
The cultural center’s most popular exhibit has been the Pope John Paul II heritage room, which features skis used by the late pontiff, as well as his vestments and writings. But the center has also attracted scholars and hosted academic events inspired by his legacy..
Father Steven Boguslawski, executive director of the cultural foundation, and director of its inter-cultural forum, established as a think tank to encourage an intellectual dialogue on faith and culture, welcomed the transfer of ownership.
“The foundation will continue. It retains ownership of all the papal memorabilia and artifacts. We have a 10-year history of promoting the legacy of the pope. It’s wonderful that the Knights will bring a new vibrancy to the center and its work of intellectual engagement,” he said.
Father Boguslawski noted that late pontiff’s 1999 document Ecclesia in America called for a “new evangelization of culture and society in North, Central and South America,” offering a road map for the future.
“What’s important about the Knights assuming primary responsibility for this is that it brings together an intellectual outreach, a devotional aspect that was not in existence, while preserving the papal artifacts and memorabilia. It’s the living legacy of Blessed John Paul II,” he said..
Church leaders applauded the Knights of Columbus’ decision to give the cultural center a new direction.
Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, who recently returned from a pilgrimage to John Paul’s homeland, expressed gratitude to the Knights: “The decision is something we should all celebrate. It preserves the intent of the center’s original mission — to serve as a tribute to Blessed John Paul II.”
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.