For Good: Franciscan Center appeals for help to renovate quiet oasis in center of city

The Franciscan Center has long been called one of Tampa’s hidden jewels.

Sister Anne Dougherty, CEO and president of the nonprofit retreat facility on the east banks of the Hillsborough River, doesn’t mind the “jewel” part. But she is doing everything in her power to erase the “hidden.”

“I want everybody to know where we are and what we are,” says Dougherty. “Staying a well-kept secret doesn’t do us or the community any good.”

Though the center has deep Catholic roots and is run by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y., it has always been a gathering place for people of all denominations. Groups and individuals come for topical programs, conferences, interfaith prayer events and spiritual retreats.

For more than three decades, gay and lesbian Catholics have been welcomed here to celebrate Mass every Sunday. Members of a 12-step recovery group meet here weekly. Operation Restore, a post-trauma training program developed by Dougherty, offers support and education for first responders and veterans.

Still, Dougherty says the Franciscan Center can play an even bigger role in this community. Its close proximity to downtown Tampa and natural old-Florida setting makes it a desirable get-away location – without traveling out of the city limits.

“I think that’s one of our best assets,” she says. “Ten minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown, you’re suddenly in a place of reflection and peace. Who doesn’t need that these days?”

Now in its 45th year, the center is using this anniversary as an opportunity to get more public exposure. Some upcoming events on the calendar: a First Responders Prayer Service and Luncheon on Sept. 29 from noon to 1 p.m.,  the Annual Blessing of the Animals, 6 p.m. on Oct. 1, an Interfaith Prayer Service from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 2 and the 45th Anniversary Celebration Mass and Lunch at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 3. For more information on upcoming programs, go to the center’s website.

It also is poised to launch a capital campaign for a much-needed makeover. Renovations and upgrades are sorely needed in the main building and sleeping quarters.

Dougherty would like to go one step further and rebuild from the ground up. She envisions transforming the complex into more of a contemplative retreat center, both inside and out. To fulfill Dougherty’s wish list, it would cost about $5 million. That’s beyond its $400,000 budget, which comes from donors, grants rental fees and fundraisers. 
“We’re in need of some benefactors,” she says. “It starts with getting people to come out and tour the property. That’s the first priority.”

The Franciscan Center’s first benefactor was local attorney Joseph Miyares, who donated the eight waterfront acres in 1958 to Rev. Mother Joan Marie Wheeler, OSF, and the Sisters of St. Francis of Allegany. A dozen years later, under the religious order’s Provincial Superior Mother Lucian Walsh, OSF, it was officially established as an ecumenical retreat center open to all people of different faith traditions.

Its mission reflects its namesake, St. Francis of Assisi: To welcome everyone who seeks spiritual growth through a deeper relationship with God in a place of peace, community, healing and joy.

Come one, come all

Lisa Grattan of St. Petersburg stumbled upon the Franciscan Center by accident. A few years ago, she came to St. Elizabeth’s Convent, a retirement home for religious sisters, in search of an elderly nun who had been friends with her parents.

She found the sister at the home – and discovered the center, located right next door.

“I walked around the grounds and felt this sense of quiet peace surround me, and I knew it was just what I needed,” she says. 

Grattan juggles two jobs that keep her on the go, traveling all over the world: she’s the players representative on the Women’s Tennis Association board of directors, and chairperson of the Women’s Tennis Benefits Association. So when she had the opportunity to take a three-day silent retreat at the center, she signed up.

“I really didn’t think it was possible to give up my phone and emails for that long. But the more I immersed myself, the easier it got,” she says. “It was the most beautiful and restorative three days of my life. I took long walks, I reflected and I renewed. If you really want to get away from the world without going very far, this is the place.”

Grattan now serves on the center’s development committee, working on getting it more public exposure. She wants others to experience what she did. That hope is illustrated by the nonprofit’s new motto: Find Your Center.

“This really is a sacred place,” she says. “When you think of all the prayer that has taken place here, and all the unmet needs that are being met here, this is a unique spot, one that we need to preserve and treasure.”

Holy place needs infusion of dollars

Longtime board member Howard Watts of Oldsmar, who is wrapping up his third three-year term on the center’s board, concurs.
“It’s been a long-standing challenge to get the word out about this place,” he says. “It’s off the beaten track and it’s not mainstream. And with fewer people engaging in formalized retreats, it has to consider other options.”

He says hosting functions like private weddings is one way to boost revenue, and more creative programming to draw in newcomers.

“The center can’t abandon its mission. Its caregivers have preserved what it was from the beginning – a beautiful, holy campus,” he says. “But as we modernize and upgrade here, we have to find new avenues of support.”

Having Dougherty at the helm at this crucial time is in the center’s favor, says supporter and former board member Gail Whiting of Tampa. Dougherty’s experience as the founder of a day program for AIDS/HIV patients and her work as a police chaplain are just two examples of her dedication to service.

“The Franciscan Center has gotten a lot healthier under her leadership,” Whiting says. “Now it needs an infusion of more dollars to go to the next level. She’s got challenges ahead of her, but Sister Annie knows how to rise to the occasion. And she’s got a good team backing her up.”
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Michelle Bearden is a multimedia journalist and public speaker with extensive experience in print and broadcast media. She placed second in the nation behind a writer from Time magazine in the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association Supple Feature Religion Writer of the Year. Her “Keeping the Faith” segment on WFLA-TV was the country’s longest-running segment on faith and values among local affiliates. She’s a graduate of Central Michigan University, which inducted her in the school’s Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for her pioneer work in media convergence and investigative religion reporting. Michelle has won multiple awards for her work, including first-place honors in 2014 for column writing from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and beat reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. She is also a two-time winner of the Supple Religion Reporter of the Year from the national Religion Newswriters Association. Michelle’s home and yard in the Ballast Point neighborhood in south Tampa are legendary for big gatherings and dinner parties. She finally realized her dream of getting a horse, and now has two Rocky Mountain mares, which she trail rides and trains every chance she gets. And she is a die-hard Tampa Bay Rays fan.