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Spirituality center named ‘San Damiano’

Nestled on 150 acres of sprawling land in western Virginia, the square, brick structure known previously as the future "diocesan spirituality center" now has an official name - one evocative of the Franciscan spirit that has been present in the building since its construction 50 years ago.

The San Damiano Spirituality Center in White Post, tentatively scheduled to open this fall, derives its name from the history of St. Francis of Assisi, who is said to have encountered Christ at San Damiano Church near Assisi, Italy. During this encounter, Christ is said to have encouraged St. Francis to "restore" His Church, resulting in the creation of the Franciscan Order.

The center was purchased by the Arlington Diocese in 2006 - using funds from the Rooted in Faith - Forward in Hope capital campaign - with initial hopes of opening in spring 2007. Renovation and construction additions have delayed the opening of the center to this fall. Prior to the diocesan purchase, the structure, built in 1960, served as both a novitiate for the Third Order Regular of St. Francis' Sacred Heart of Jesus Province as well as a full-time retreat center. In the early 1990s, the building was converted into a home for the order's older friars.

The choice of the name "San Damiano" evokes the center's background as a Franciscan monastery and nods to the continuation of the Franciscan spirituality at the property in the future. Father Sam Vaccarella, Franciscan Friar of the Third Order Regular, took over as the center's executive director earlier this spring.

"I really feel very honored and privileged to be selected as first director," Father Vaccarella said, "and I look forward to the opportunity to serve out of the spirit of St. Francis."

Once the building opens, Father Vaccarella, currently living at Sacred Heart Parish in Winchester, will be on-site to welcome groups to the center and to make San Damiano a place where retreatants "feel at home" as they try to draw closer to Christ. He will focus on marketing the new center, overseeing day-to-day operations and providing sacramental ministries to groups in need.

Father Vaccarella will join John Campbell, already in place as the center's administrative director, and the two men will work together to integrate the mission of the diocese with the spirituality of the Franciscans. Father Vaccarella said he hopes to celebrate annual feasts honoring St. Francis, and to call to mind the saint's affinity for the outdoors by sprucing up San Damiano's grounds.

"St. Francis is a lover of nature and the spirituality center is located on 150 acres of beautiful land," including three ponds, he said. "I'd like to see those ponds cleaned up, landscaped so they can become places where people can go sit by the water."

Renovations already completed include the gutting and reconstructing of one of the four wings, and the installation of new carpets, paint, bathrooms, lighting, and ceilings throughout. A new entranceway will give the building "a little more character," said Campbell, and a facelift of the central courtyard will provide "a more beautiful meditative space" for people on retreat.

"We're certainly hoping to be able to provide a place of hospitality for people seeking to grow close to the Lord," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009