St. Felix Friary is ready for its rebirth

Rob Mayo, operations manager at St. Felix Friary, stands in the sanctuary of the friary’s chapel.
Rob Mayo, operations manager at St. Felix Friary, stands in the sanctuary of the friary’s chapel. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Sept. 29, 2011.

After a year in the development stage, St. Felix Friary is ready for its rebirth.

The 83-year-old building, which for its first 50 years served as headquarters for a Catholic religious order, will throw open its doors to the community on Sunday, Oct. 9, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. There will be hot dogs and hamburgers; members of the Tippmann family, which spearheaded the building's restoration, and the crew that actually did the work will be on hand to answer questions.

Rob Mayo, the property's live-in operations manager, says visitors shouldn't expect anything intricate or ornate. The building remains true to the spirit of the Franciscan friars who believed in worshipping their God in simple surroundings.

"It's a simple, understated building," Mayo says. "There are no barriers, obstacles, distractions to prayer."

The 30-acre Hitzfield Street complex served the Capuchin community until dwindling membership led the order to close the friary in 1979. It was sold to a local United Brethren congregation, which operated the Good Shepherd Church there for about two decades.

In the face of the mounting costs of maintaining and operating the facility, Good Shepherd offered it for sale. It was purchased about a year ago by the Fort Wayne-based Mary Cross Tippmann Foundation, and restoration work began almost immediately.

Now, Mayo says, the work - including replacing all 499 windows and tuckpointing the entire building - is almost complete.

The former friary has already been pressed into service, Mayo says. Teachers from Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne held a retreat there to kick off the new school year. In March, eighth-graders from five Catholic parishes met there for a confirmation retreat. Several Fort Wayne religious orders have visited.

"That's probably the main direction we'll go with this building," Mayo says, "a Catholic retreat, conference center for the diocese."

The Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, Huntington Historical Society and the Huntington County Chamber of Commerce have stopped by - along with many, many interested individuals.

The community will continue to be welcome at the facility. Some parts of the buildings and grounds will be available to rent for receptions and other functions.
But there are bigger ideas out there. One proposal, which would be unique in the United States, would be to repurpose the former friary as a "mixed order house." Several different religious orders would locate their seminaries there, taking advantage of the building's unusual layout that would allow them to dedicate one hall to each order. The different orders would have joint use of the common areas of the facility, including the refectory (dining hall) and the chapels.

Mayo says the idea is being studied by Bishop Kevin Rhoades, head of the local Catholic diocese, and has received "scrutiny clear up to the Vatican."

The Franciscans are interested in returning, Mayo says, and several smaller orders have also expressed interest in locating at the former friary. The orders would be for men only.

"There are a lot of hurdles to get over," Mayo says, before an idea like that can come to fruition. "It won't happen anytime in the next year."

The sanctuary may once again welcome community members inside for Mass, Mayo says, but there's not likely to be a regular Mass schedule. Instead, he says, visiting priests or priests from one of the county's established Catholic parishes could be invited to celebrate Mass there.

"There is no priest assigned here," Mayo says. "We are not part of the diocese, but we take our direction from Bishop Rhoades."

Just weeks before the open house, construction crews are busy putting final touches on the altar and religious statues newly installed in the sanctuary.

"When we arrived here last August, there were no Catholic references in the building," Mayo says.

The Franciscans had simplified the chapel after the Second Vatican Council and removed all other Catholic elements when they moved out in 1979, Mayo says.

In order to refurnish the chapel as it would have appeared in the 1920s or 1930s, Mayo and his crew drove to a warehouse in Allentown, PA, bursting with Catholic church furnishings. Those items had been removed from Catholic churches that were closed following the downsizing of the coal and steel industries and the loss of the people who had worked there.

"They've closed 40 parishes in the last 10 years," Mayo says.

The items can't be sold, he explains, but the Tippmann Foundation made donations to the churches there in return for the gift of the furnishings.

The foundation has also taken on the financial responsibility of operating St. Felix, Mayo says.

"It will be a not-for-profit center," Mayo explains. "Financially, it would be very tough to make a sound case for this building. But sometimes you just do things on faith."

John Tippmann, the Fort Wayne businessman who chairs the foundation named in honor of his mother, took on the project to "increase the Catholic presence and Catholic opportunity" in the area, Mayo says.

Although the original name of St. Felix Friary has been restored to the complex, Mayo says it could become known as the Solanus Casey Seminary as a tribute to the priest who lived there from 1946 until 1956.

Rev. Solanus Casey gained a reputation as a holy man who could intercede with God for cures to diseases and solutions to business and personal problems. Some believe he performed miracles, and he is being considered by the Catholic Church for official recognition as a saint.

Casey's room was preserved by the United Brethren congregation that spent 20 years in the building and remains in that state as a tribute to the priest, Mayo says. Pilgrims occasionally stop by, asking to peer through the glass to see where Casey lived and prayed.

The light in Casey's room is left on constantly, Mayo says, in remembrance of Casey's habit of "always being available to help people at any hour of the day or night."

The priest also had a habit of spending his nights in the St. Felix chapel, praying until he fell asleep. Mayo has his own reasons to believe that Casey may still have a presence there.

The chapel has two rows of three lights each; after moving into the building, Mayo would often find the first light in each row turned on when he made his rounds each morning.

"Most mornings, not all, but most mornings, those two lights would be back on," Mayo says.

He had an electrician check the wiring; it was fine. He and his wife started making the rounds together, making sure that one wasn't turning on the lights to fool the other.

Finally, he accepted the implausible.

"Those two lights in the sanctuary went on by themselves," he says.

"It was right beneath those two lights that Father Solanus prayed every night until he fell asleep."

Complete caption: Rob Mayo, operations manager at St. Felix Friary, stands in the sanctuary of the friary’s chapel. The crucifix on the floor will be hung on the wall behind the altar, and construction crews are continuing to put finishing touches on the chapel’s furnishings in preparation for an Oct. 9 open house.