Bishop Michael Olson is shutting down the 42-year-old Catholic Renewal Center in Fort Worth, prompting outcries from many of its longtime supporters.
“It’s like a death in the family,” said Rosemary Hayes, who has worked in the center’s bookstore for the last 20 years. “We are grieving.”
The retreat and conference center, shaded by lofty pecan trees on the campus of Nolan Catholic High School, has hosted countless youth events, marriage encounter workshops, seminars, Bible studies and other activities.
“This is part of our whole life,” said Andrea Vignale, daughter of late Gail Schatzman, one of the center’s founders. Vignale has been attending center programs since she was 6 years old. “It’s like a second home to me and my brother and a lot of other Catholics.”
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“It was just a shocker,” her brother, Mark Schatzman said. “It’s just a shame this chapter had to end so abruptly. The shock of closing was not as much as the shock of being closed.”
Olson announced that he was closing the center on April 17.
“On Holy Thursday the new bishop, after visiting Nolan, came next door to the renewal center and told us he was in need of the building,” Vignale said. “We were asked to be out by June 30.”
‘A place of enlightenment’
Word of the renewal center’s closing came shortly after Olson announced the diocese would take control of Nolan Catholic, also at the end of June. Marianist priests, which had led the school for 52 years, planned to give up leadership in a year. But Olson, who was ordained as bishop in January, decided the diocese should take over the school at the end of the current semester.
In a statement to the Star-Telegram about closing of the renewal center, Olson said the building, which has 17 guest rooms, has served its purpose over the years, first as a convent for the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur and then as the renewal center.
“Once again, the call to evangelize has created a need to re-purpose the building to further Catholic education and catechesis,” Olson said. “Pope Francis has urged us to renew our outreach efforts, especially to youth. The Pope tells us that the Church cannot be about museums or buildings, but rather it must be an instrument of Jesus Christ in carrying out our mission to evangelize.”
Tom Reid, a member of Fort Worth’s St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, said in a letter to Olson that he was saddened by the closing, noting that his three children were baptized at the center.
“It has been a place of gathering and breaking of bread for many people of all walks of life throughout the years, a place of renewal, a place of enlightenment,” Reid wrote.
Reid shared the letter Olson wrote back to him: “I understand your sadness, especially give the CRC is such an important part of your own story.”
But he said the Catholic Renewal Center is no longer the best use for the building.
“It is my opinion, gathered not simply during the last three months but throughout 20 years of priestly ministry in the Diocese of Fort Worth, that the function of the CRC towards that goal has passed into glory,” Olson wrote to Reid.
‘Change is difficult’
Olson stated that the diocese “is developing another site under the pastoral care of my office where youth formation and catechesis might be renewed and authentic experiences of Faith might happen just as the efforts of the CRC in the past attempted to do so. Change is difficult for everyone. Its only remedy is courage anchored in prayer.”
Reid also objected to the sudden way the closing was announced.
He asked Olson to reconsider the closing, noting that attendance is shrinking in many Catholic churches and “it seems to me that the leaders and decision makers would seek ways to continue to include the longstanding and supporting members, rather than alienate them.”
Olson replied that he also is concerned about shrinking attendance in some churches and noted that attendance at the Catholic Renewal Center had also been declining, especially among younger Catholics.
“Please pray,” the bishop wrote, “that all of us might work together to follow the example of Pope Francis and enliven the ministry of youth and young adults with an authentic and passionate fidelity to the entirety of Christ’s Gospel and mission — and not simply treat the Church and Her buildings as museums for dear and past memories.”
‘A very rich history’
At a meeting Tuesday of more than 30 Catholics who meet regularly at the center for Bible study and discussions, several voiced disappointment over the closing.
“This place has a very rich history,” Tom Long said. “So many groups in the diocese have met here. It’s an emotional loss we are experiencing right now. We don’t have any other alternative. What is the next place to be provided for us? Nothing. Zero, as far as I know.”
Mary Rossman said the center is “a sacred place that has been set apart for the last 42 years as a place of healing and renewal. It has a place in the hearts and minds of many Catholics, and also non-Catholics who took part in the programs.”
Vignale said her mother and a couple of priests developed the first major program, called The Happening, where Catholic young people “could have a weekend experience to look at who God is in relationship to themselves and other people. It just took off. It grew.”
Throughout the years more activities were added, including a Super Bowl weekend, where women could escape football and listen to speakers talking on many subjects. A support group for people from Rwanda meets there. Also, a support group for relatives of gays and lesbians have held meetings at the center, Vignale said.
“The thing I’ve loved about the center is that it has been welcoming to everybody,” Vignale said.
‘Need to celebrate the ministry’
Paul Combest, a board member of the Catholic Renewal Center, said he is a relative newcomer to the diocese but recognizes the contributions the center has made, particularly in pioneering youth programs.
“Now a lot parishes have youth programs and many other things we were doing years ago at the center are now being done in the churches,” he said.
The center was one of the first lay-led renewal centers in the United States, Combest said, prompted by Vatican II in the 1960s, which encouraged laypeople to take on more ministry responsibilities. The center used the building virtually rent-free but did not have regular funding from the diocese, he said.
It has been self-supporting through program fees, donations and sales by the bookstore.
“We weren’t exactly ready to stop right now,” Combest said. “But we should look back on these 42 years and celebrate what we did. We need to celebrate the ministry of Gail Schatzman and all the other people who have come through this ministry and the good they have done and try to support the next phase.”