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Issue Date:  May 12, 2006

Notre Dame considers role at troubled Catholic center


Washington’s John Paul II Cultural Center, $40 million-plus in debt and struggling to define its mission, may have found a financial savior. The Fighting Irish may be coming to the nation’s capital.

“Notre Dame was asked what role we might play in the center’s future,” Dennis Brown, spokesman for the South Bend, Ind.-based university told NCR May 2. Brown declined to elaborate, saying the discussions consisted of “private conversations and we wouldn’t want to break that confidence.”

Center spokesperson Sandy Peeler confirmed that center officials have had discussions with Notre Dame, but said she did not have enough information about them to characterize the nature of the talks.

Notre Dame’s interest in the 12-acre 100,000-square-foot Northeast Washington facility was first reported by the Detroit Free Press May 1.

Detroit-area Catholics have a keen interest in the center’s future because they have been subsidizing the facility since its 2001 opening. On Feb. 10, NCR reported that the bulk of the center’s debt is either held directly by or guaranteed by the Detroit archdiocese.

The center was the brainchild of Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida, who created the foundation charged with raising the money to develop and operate the facility. He continues to serve as president of the foundation and of the recently constituted board responsible for oversight of the center.

Designed as a tourist attraction and Catholic think-tank -- a “presidential library” of sorts dedicated to the teachings of Pope John Paul II -- the center has been a popular and intellectual flop. Few visitors to Washington find its offerings compelling enough to make it a destination and its scholarly contributions have been negligible.

The center is located in Washington’s “little Vatican,” an area that includes The Catholic University, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Meanwhile, the center is carrying out plans to scale back staff and expenses. Peeler confirmed that some key staff at the facility were recently informed that they would be let go later this month. A source familiar with the center’s operations told NCR that the layoffs will result in a “skeletal staff” at the facility. In January, Msgr. William Kerr, the center’s executive director, informed employees that the board was considering “a thorough restructuring proposal of the mission, activities, personnel and administration of the center.”

Currently, Notre Dame has a small presence in Washington. Approximately 15 students participate in the university’s Washington program each semester, where they take classes and reside in space rented from Boston University while serving internships with government agencies, nonprofit groups, and media organizations.

As of June 2004, Notre Dame had an endowment of approximately $3 billion, placing it in the top 20 of the nation’s universities.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2006

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