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Newman Center gets past the mirage of a two-level desert world

By Arthur Jones
NCR Staff
Palm Desert, Calif.

Deserts have a unique phenomenon: the mirage. Sometimes what you see is not what you get. In the resort town of Palm Desert, which abuts swanky Palm Springs, what you see on the corner of San Pablo and Fred Waring Drive is an Old World-looking Mexican adobe parish complex -- the Christ of the Desert Newman Center, where Holy Cross Fr. Ned Reidy is chaplain.

The area exudes wealth. Everything’s named after movie stars: Bob Hope Performing Arts Center, Dinah Shore Bridge. Motor down Country Club Drive and it’s mile after mile of country clubs -- golf course, houses, club house, hotel; golf course, houses, clubhouse, hotel.

Happyland. Skies are blue, grass is sprinkler green, houses of white stucco and roof of red tile.

Step through the mirage and it is a world like all others, of some people in pain, of some searching for love or relief, for solid values in the midst of materialism, or tranquillity, or God -- or all of the above.

Christ of the Desert’s people are from all over. Reidy’s a Chicagoan. Minnesotan Kathy McCarthy, a Glenmary sister in the 1960s, settled here in the ’80s with her two children to be near family after her husband, John, died.

The Capitanellis -- mom, pop and the six children -- who spent years on the road as a singing group and still do concerts, are from New Jersey. “The Caps” and others who gathered in a barn for home liturgies in the early years were Reidy’s spiritual guinea pigs at the early Pathfinders Weekend Retreats.

In Palm Desert the mirage splits into a two-level world. “There’s an awful lot of big-time money here,” says Bronx- born handyman Vince Starace. “Us poor guys, the support guys, we’re waiting on these people. So we’re the ones with the kids.”

Though his two sons are grown and he’s a granddad, Starace, an ex-New York policeman and former highly successful New York restaurateur, is Christ of the Desert’s youth minister, focused on junior high age youth.

“It’s a real vulnerable age,” he said. “Some of them only want to talk about what they have, how many big screen TVs, their brand name clothes, the $200 sneakers. I won’t let them. It’s not to be tolerated. But that’s their level of values. And you can see the pain in some of the other kids’ faces when they start.”

What does he say to them?

“I’m not a psychologist, not a preacher,” said Starace. “I tell them my own story. Nineteen years of sobriety. I tell them I keep myself in good shape, that I’ve been in the back of the limo, had the thousand-dollar suits with all the jewelry in the world. And been alone and broke.”

Where does God fit into junior high lives?

“In most cases,” he said, “the kids’ families make them come to church. It takes a while to trust, to start talking to me, to start asking those honest questions. The why questions. Most girls are usually a step beyond that, starting to develop their own spirituality, take their own path. And once they get into high school they disappear.

“Guys 12 to 17 -- they’re really at risk at that age,” said Starace, who owned the New York restaurant with his late wife, a chef.

Not everyone’s from somewhere else. Soon-to-graduate nursing student Matthew Ruiz and his extended, extensive family have lived in the valley for generations.

“I need church, I need religion, I need spirituality,” said Ruiz, whose next goal is to become a nurse anesthetist. “At other churches I went to, you never got to speak to the person next to you, rarely to the priest. No attempts were made at welcome.

“The Newman Center is hugs, and everyone knows everyone,” he said. “You’re part of it. No one is on the outside looking in. It’s a privilege to be there.”

Christ of the Desert, he said, has enabled him to be more open with prayer. And in nursing, he feels called to lay on hands and offer to pray with patients. His practicum is in an Adventist hospital, he said, where “religion is wide open, and it’s not uncommon to see a doctor praying with the patient. Even classes start with a prayer.”

More than 600 people attend the center’s four weekend liturgies, including Jim Leupold and his wife, Anissa. Though chaplain Reidy is a Level 2 tennis pro, that isn’t why real-life tennis pro Leupold attends.

“It’s the community, the welcome, the inclusiveness,” Leupold said. Reidy and Leupold have never faced off across the net -- though Reidy plays religiously and ferociously each afternoon, even when the summer thermometer’s at 120 degrees.

Like much else here, even the adobe parish plant is a mirage. It’s actually a nicely but modestly converted warehouse with an attractive walled garden (complete with fountain) that otherwise would be a parking lot.

There’s the chapel, a bookstore, a couple of small meeting rooms occupied from morning to night. The pastor has a minuscule pad/office, and there’s an equally modest equivalent next door for the spiritual director, Holy Cross Br. Carl Sternberg.

The parishioners did the work of converting the warehouse with a little professional help.

The first evening Reidy held services at the unremodeled warehouse-church was Ash Wednesday. Two cops raided it. Seeing a steady stream of cars heading for the warehouse, they thought there was gambling underway. Reidy made them stay for Mass -- and the ashes.

He never did get them to come back for a Pathfinder weekend.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999