DETROIT — The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist — which has exploded in size from four sisters when it was founded in 1997 to 113 today and was featured on a segment of "Oprah" this year — is burnishing its national profile with a tentative purchase of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
The Ann Arbor, Mich., congregation is made up mostly of young women who adhere to old-fashioned dress, wearing floor-length habits and taking new names upon entering the convent. At a time when the number of Catholic sisters is declining, the traditional methods of the Dominican order attracted 22 new members this year alone. The average age of women who enter is 21, and the average age of the sisters is 26, which is a sharp contrast to many other long-established Catholic congregations.
The sisters are aggressive, technology-savvy recruiters. They host three discernment retreat weekends yearly to orient potential members. They also film a children's education program aired daily on EWTN, the Catholic cable channel.
Among the women who entered in August was Mary Anne Mark, who hails from Queens, N.Y., and was a classics major who gave the salutatorian address at Harvard's commencement last spring — in Latin.
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"The opportunity to purchase the building came up unexpectedly, but it's part of our long-standing need to provide for evangelization," said Sister Maria Gemma Martek, a prioress for the order. "We saw it as potential to house some sisters to live there and to study, and to have close proximity to Catholic University."
The motherhouse will remain in Ann Arbor, though Martek couldn't say whether the cultural center would remain open to the public following the sale. No purchase price was disclosed.
The Ann Arbor Dominicans were established with the aid of former Domino's Pizza owner Tom Monaghan, who has bankrolled several Catholic efforts. Monaghan brought the sisters to Ann Arbor to operate Spiritus Sanctus schools, which now enroll about 220 students on two campuses near Plymouth and Ann Arbor. Through a spokesman, Monaghan said he is not involved in the sisters' purchase of the John Paul II Cultural Center.
Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., said the Ann Arbor congregation is in an inspection phase of the property and that the sale could close in December. Gibbs said the center's Pope John Paul II Heritage Room, which contains memorabilia, will remain in the building after the sale.
The center was a pet project of Cardinal Adam Maida, who led the Archdiocese of Detroit from 1990 to 2009. He spent more than a decade fund-raising to create the center. Donors pledged $100,000 to become trustees, and Maida often arranged for the donors to meet with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, as a way to thank them.
When the center opened in 2001, Maida had raised about $50 million, even as the cost of the building soared past $70 million. The archdiocese loaned $17 million directly to the center to cover shortfalls and guaranteed its $23 million mortgage.
In 2006, Maida pledged he'd recover "every penny" of local money loaned to establish the center. But the center and its museum never developed into a major tourist attraction. It hosts a variety of interfaith and religious programs, art shows and other exhibitions.