A new era might be dawning for the John Paul II Cultural Center, which has struggled in recent years with finances and in drawing visitors to its location in northeast Washington, D.C. 

The Knights of Columbus announced this month that it was purchasing the center and establishing a shrine to Blessed John Paul II. The fraternal organization said it also plans to introduce several exhibits with memorabilia dedicated to the life and legacy of the late pontiff, as well as instituting a new exhibit on the Catholic heritage of North America. 

JPII Center
The Knights of Columbus have announced plans to open a shrine dedicated to Blessed John Paul II at the current location of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec

Optimistic future

With its strong financial portfolio and international profile, it is hoped that the Knights of Columbus will stabilize the cultural center and attract the thousands of pilgrims each year who visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is less than a quarter-mile away. 

“I see no reason now why the place cannot be a financially stable, self-sustaining shrine,” said Dominican Father Steven Boguslawski, the executive director of the John Paul II Cultural Foundation. 

In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Father Boguslawski described as “visionary” the plans to establish the shrine and the various intellectual, cultural and spiritual outreach activities envisioned by Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, the head of the Knights of Columbus, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who also chairs the cultural foundation’s board of directors. 

“I’m absolutely certain that this will be a premier way of preserving the legacy of John Paul II and making him more relevant to the contemporary dialogue between faith and culture,” Father Boguslawski said. 

On Aug. 2, Anderson announced the Knights’ plans to acquire the center during his annual report at the Knights’ 129th International Convention in Denver. 

The Knights of Columbus — the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, which last year donated more than $154 million to charity — agreed to purchase the 12-acre property from the John Paul II Cultural Foundation for $22.7 million, according to a statement on the website of the Archdiocese of Detroit, which spent more than $54 million in creating the center in 2001. 

The Archdiocese of Detroit will receive $20 million from the sale, and $2.7 million will go to The Catholic University of America, which had a secured interest in the property. The property has been valued at $37.7 million. 

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit said in a prepared statement that the sale will help stabilize the archdiocesan finances. The archdiocese had been paying about $65,000 per month to maintain the building and grounds. 

The New Evangelization

Anderson said the shrine that will be contained within the 130,000-square-foot building will highlight Blessed John Paul II’s life as an “opportunity to evangelize and spread the Good News of the Gospel through a New Evangelization.” 

Cardinal Wuerl told OSV that his archdiocese was “particularly pleased” with the Knights’ acquisition. 

“They will bring a stability, a focus and a new future to the center, and for that reason, we here in the archdiocese felt it was time, given the beatification of Blessed John Paul II, to declare the center and chapel as a shrine,” Cardinal Wuerl said, adding the facilities will provide a focal point for increased devotion to the late pontiff. 

“One of the things that we believe will highlight the future successes of the shrine is that with beatification of John Paul II, it now becomes a place of prayer, as well as a museum to visit. 

“My understanding is that the Knights intend to make this an active center to forward the New Evangelization,” Cardinal Wuerl told OSV. 

Father Boguslawski said the acquisition is not a “public relations move.” 

“This is about a real development of spirituality and devotion,” he said. “It shows a confidence in the future and recognizes a need for these kinds of activities in Washington, which is an important place to be heard.” 

Father Boguslawski told OSV that since arriving at the center six years ago, his operating budget had been “in the black” except for his first year as executive director. 

“We maintained the programming of the center and its service to the church during those years,” he said. 

Past struggles

The main financial difficulty Father Boguslawski said he faced after he arrived was the construction debt — the center cost $75 million to build. Father Boguslawski said he had raised money to retire that debt, but the recession in late 2008 hindered his efforts. 

Still, the center has housed several exhibits, the Pope John Paul II Heritage Room and the Intercultural Forum for Studies in Faith and Culture. 

The Intercultural Forum has hosted hundreds of lectures and symposia, while other events have been held to explore Catholic faith with culture, interfaith relations and the state of religious freedom in the Holy Land. In 2008, EWTN began broadcasting live programs from the center. 

However, the center still has not been the thriving, dynamic place that its creators envisioned when the building opened in 2001. 

Originally open to the paying public, low attendance rates forced the center to discontinue museum activities in 2006. The facility rebranded itself as a research institution on the late pontiff. In recent years, the center has been open by appointment only. 

Father Boguslawski said attendance also suffered from reduced tourism in the wakes of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and October 2002 sniper killings in the Washington metro area. 

“It just discouraged people from coming, and then we had the economic downturn. A lot of things were working against us,” he said. 

The center also had a “flawed” business plan in charging admission in a city where people are accustomed to visiting museums for free, Father Boguslawski said, adding that the location in the city’s northeast did not help. 

“If we were on the Mall, it would have been a different story with the visitors. The notion 10 years ago that there would be a lot of foot traffic here was overly optimistic,” he said. 

“Also, the notion that you would charge people to come in to view the papal artifacts went against the general culture of Washington, D.C., where everything is said to be open and free.” 

The John Paul II Cultural Foundation put the complex up for sale last year. The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist signed an agreement with the Archdiocese of Detroit last summer to buy the center, but the order said in March that it would not go through with the sale because it would be too expensive to remodel the space into a house of studies for its members. 

The Knights’ national standing could finally make a reality that visitors will flock to the center from the nearby basilica, Father Boguslawski said. 

“The Knights are virtually in every part of the United States, and now that this is part of their outreach to the country, it will be natural for pilgrims from every diocese coming to visit the national shrine to move up the street to visit their own building. I think it’s going to be a tremendous boom.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.