TAMPA | Set apart from Tampa’s downtown and Ybor City’s marketplace is a place in west Tampa that feels like “sacred ground.”
Located in the Riverside Heights neighborhood, the Franciscan Center has been serving the bay area community and beyond since it was founded by the Sisters of Allegany in 1970. While the center had a big golden jubilee celebration planned for 2020, it got curtailed by the pandemic.
But even a pandemic didn’t stop the center from completing its Franciscan mission of serving those in need and doing so with peace, faith and hope.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our community — both the community around us and those who still supported our programs virtually during the pandemic, absolutely sustained us,” said Theresa Collington, general manager of the Franciscan Center in Tampa. “We rely on our community for our perpetuity, that way we can stay true and genuine and authentic to our mission.
“The Franciscan Sisters of Allegany and those Sisters of Allegany have been praying here for over 50 years. It’s pretty remarkable,” Collington continued. “It feels like you have transcended into a spiritual place when you walk these grounds.”
Sitting in a screened porch, Collington spoke with the Florida Catholic about the retreat center. A soundtrack of birds chirping and the breeze flowing through branches of pine and oak trees served as a calming undercurrent as she spoke. Looking through the patio just behind her is the walking path of a stone labyrinth used for meditation and prayer.
The “sacred ground” she spoke about are the eight acres of natural beauty that sit along the Hillsborough River. Along with the Franciscan Center, which includes offices, conference rooms and sleeping quarters, each with its own bathroom. But it also includes the Sister’s House, which has residences for Franciscans onsite and a chapel, and the Sabbath House, a standalone building for meetings and programs. Bird feeders are sprinkled along the grounds for the woodpeckers, robins, mourning doves, ducks, cardinals, and hawks that frequent the property.
Although surrounded by nature, the center is a stark difference than what it looked like five decades ago with mangroves and thick brush playing home to mosquitos, snakes and alligators. With its motherhouse in New York, the sisters came to the area in the 1920s, sporting wool habits that simply weren’t tailor-made for Florida’s climate.
But beyond that, the sisters arrived in the area to work with the underserved in a political and social climate that was difficult for the underserved of different races.
“It had to be really something to be one of the Sisters of Allegany to come down here when they did,” Collington said, adding before the Franciscan Center, the sisters founded two area hospitals, which are today St. Joseph and St. Anthony hospitals. “They founded the hospitals in areas of the underserved, which is part of the Franciscan mission.”
Collington, who came on board in her position in November 2020, said she is “inspired to be in succession of a long line of strong Catholic female leaders.” She spoke about the “amazing women” who have recently served as directors before her, including Sister Cathy Cahill, who is still there regularly and runs the Sisters House next door, and Sister Mary McNally, who is on the board of directors. Another former director is Sister Margaret Mary Kimmins, who now serves as congregational minister of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany.
Then there is the inspiration of the center’s foundress, Franciscan Sister Lucian Walsh.
“There is a picture here of our foundress, Sister Lucian. She’s holding a shovel at a groundbreaking, and she is surrounded by priests and men and I can close my eyes and feel and imagine Sister Lucian and what it took for her to be here,” Collington said, remarking on the strength, fortitude and faith Sister Lucian must have possessed to take charge of such monumental tasks. “She had the sea wall built. She had the grounds prepared and cleared and this just the other side of an estuary. It was these founding sisters who designed and had the center built. I would have liked to have known her.”
That spirit thrives today through outreach in the neighboring community and in providing services to retreats and participants of various programs. The center offers individual and directed retreats (including silent retreats), along with opening its doors to large groups. It is on the forefront of supporting first responders thanks to Operation Restore: The First Responders Post Trauma Training, which creates a safe, confidential environment for individuals to work through critical incidents and process the cumulative stress of risking their lives throughout their careers.
On the feast of St. Francis, the center traditionally does a blessing of the animals. There is also service to the community with various drives for mothers and infants, and the hungry of all ages in the community.
In a way, through both its outreach and programs grounded in hope and peace and its nature aesthetic, The Franciscan Center is an oasis for visitors. But it also needs support itself, especially during the pandemic.
“We are a retreat center, so money that comes from people renting rooms is what has sustained the Franciscan Center,” Collington said. “We learned quickly to pivot as a center team to put as many programs as possible through Zoom, which also serves the marginalized in the sense that participants are older and don’t have an easy time to get to the center.”
“It is a frightening time and that is where our faith comes into play,” Collington continued. “Serve the mission as long as we can do it safely.”
One of Collington’s first tasks as general manager was setting up Zoom, and now that it is up, pandemic or not, it is here to stay. Some of the popular virtual meetings including “Conscious Contact” mini retreats, which serve people going through the 12-step recovery program. Because of COVID, Zoom meetings are a safe alternative for the inability to go to in-person meetings, and participants have responded to the option. There is also a popular interfaith weekly devotional, and some more “exotic” experimental programs such as dream interpretation done by one of the Franciscan sisters.
“Apparently people tended to have more lucid dreaming during the pandemic,” Collington said of the popular program. “Sister Jeannie interprets them from a Franciscan point of view. The insight and teachings are Franciscan in context but also psychological and fascinating, and she offers succinct and effective on how to interpret their own dreams.
Another experimental program that surprised the center in its popularity — watercolor.
“People couldn’t say enough about how that program helped them,” Collington said. “I got one letter from a woman, who wrote, ‘My husband died not too long ago. I’ve been grieving. And I never thought I could paint, but I thought if you are doing it at Franciscan Center, then what the heck.’ And with the letter she sent me were beautiful pictures. Very touching.”
While offering those programs are rewarding and will continue, Collington said the center and its staff are at its best when the rooms are full of retreatants. Whether a staff gathering or a school reunion or anything in between, Collington said the Franciscan Center “want to host you.”
“If I could wave a magic wand, we would be hosting retreats two-thirds of the year,” Collington said. “When people are here, they get to enjoy a very humble but beautiful place that is unbelievably well priced. … The more people do that, the more we can do our sponsored retreats. They are also very inexpensive and help us deliver the Franciscan mission to everyone.”