Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center is a monastery and retreat house belonging the Congregation of the Passion (C.P.) The Congregation of the Passion, or Passionists, are a religious congregation of the Catholic Church founded by St Paul of the Cross in 1725. The mission of the Passionists is to preserve and make present the message that Jesus loves us, and his passion, death, and resurrection are the ultimate sign of that love. The Passionists do this by preaching in the community, and inviting members of the community to make a retreat at their monasteries and retreat homes.
Deacon Dennis Demes, Retreat Director: was born in Jersey City, NJ on April 10, 1953. He was baptized one month later to the day, at nearby St. Paul of the Cross Church. His family relocated to Union City and joined St. Joseph’s Church, a Passionist run parish, where Dennis attended elementary school. He attended St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City. At that time, his family relocated to Palisades Park, NJ, but Dennis became a member of St. Michael’s Monastery Parish in Union City, where our own Fr. Emmanuel was his pastor. He began studies in the divinity school at Seton Hall University and joined the Atonement Friars of Garrison, NY. In 1975 he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at St. John’s Seminary College in Boston while with the friars.
Soon after leaving the friars he met his future wife, Susan. Together they raised five children. Dennis had the opportunity as an employee of the Archdiocese to attend Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey for his Master of Theology degree. At that time, he was also able to bi-register at Princeton University where he simultaneously earned a Master’s degree in Education in 1979.
In 1988, the family moved from Boston, where Dennis had worked as a Catholic high school teacher, to Boca Raton, where he became a member of the faculty at then Pope John Paul II High School. The family joined Ascension Parish in Boca Raton, where Dennis was ordained to the permanent diaconate on August 21, 1999, after four more years of study. Meanwhile he completed his doctoral studies in Theology and Sacred Scripture at Boston College, primarily during the summers. Dennis became an adjunct professor of Theology at St. Thomas University, Miami, a position he holds until today, and at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach.
In 2001 Deacon Dennis was appointed by then Bishop
Anthony J. O’Connell to develop a program of studies for permanent deacons in the Diocese of Palm Beach, and to serve as director. He was re-appointed in 2002 by then Bishop Sean O’Malley, O.F.M., and subsequently by Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito in 2003. He held the position until 2015 when he assumed the role as Assistant to the Director. Bishop Barbarito also appointed Deacon Dennis as Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations in 2006.
Deacon Dennis transferred to Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach in 2004 where he taught until 2011 and served as Chairperson of the Religious Studies department. From 2011-2015, Deacon Dennis served as Academic Dean of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary. He became a Passionist Associate in 2014, and in 2015, and returned to what is now St. John Paul II Academy in Boca Raton, where he served as the Department Chairperson for Religious Studies.
Brother Edward Hall, C.P. Associate Director : I am from Springfield, Massachusetts and entered the Passionist Congregation in 1962. Over the years I have served in many different positions. For twenty-five years I worked parish ministry as Director of Religious Education and Pastoral Associate in rural, inner city and at the University of Connecticut at Storrs parishes.
I have my undergraduate degree in nutritional biochemistry, graduate degree in business management and organizational behavior, and Doctorate in Ministry with a focus on applied theology. I also have a diploma from Harvard Law School where I spent a year studying mediation and negotiation.
With the Passionist leaving the parish in Baltimore, Md, where I worked in a homeless shelter and also Community Mediation of Baltimore, Fr. Paul invited me to join the community at Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center.
Sr. Roberta A. Popara O.P. Associate Director: An only child, I was born and raised in California. Living in Illinois since the late sixties, I worked for two corporations before becoming a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa, part of the Order of Preachers.
Professed in 1983, I have lived and ministered in the Chicago area until joining the retreat team at Our Lady of Florida in the Fall of 2002. I have studied at Illinois State University (Business Administration), Catholic Theological Union (Master of Divinity, biblical studies in the Middle East, as well as additional studies in spirituality and theology), Aquinas Institute (Preaching), as well as training in healthcare chaplaincy. Included among my Chicago ministries is Holy Name Cathedral Parish where I coordinated pastoral care outreach and adult formation for ministry.
I serve on various committees for my congregation, including the Community of Preachers and Anti-Racism Transformation Team. I participate on the North American Dominican Committee on Iraq. I am a member of the local chapter of Pax Christi USA, past co-chair of the Interfaith Clergy Committee, part of Jewish Community Relations Council in Palm Beach County and Palm Beach County Human Trafficking Coalition (working to end human trafficking/slavery here and globally.)
As part of my ministry at the Spiritual Center, I am available to people interested in Spiritual Direction/Companionship. Personal interests include reading (for study and pleasure), ethnic dining, power walks and caring for a small herd of camels!
Rev. Melvin A. Shorter, C.P. Associate Director: is the first of two children of the late Edith and Melvin Shorter. He was educated in the public school system of Baltimore Maryland, graduating from Baltimore City College. He attended Coppin State College where he majored in Secondary Education. Upon graduation, he was employed by the Social Security Administration in Baltimore as a Career Development Specialist and later as a Personnel Relations specialist. He worked for the Administration until 1981 when he entered the Passonist Novitiate in Pittsburgh, PA.
In 1982 he took first vows as a Passonist and entered Catholic Theological Union earning a Masters of divinity with an emphasis on Word and Worship. Upon graduation, he was ordained in New York. His first ministry, Pittsburgh, PA, was Itinerate Preaching in Western PA.
After one year in Pittsburgh, he was asked to join four other Passonist to establish a Passonist presence in Greenville, N.C. He ministered in St. Gabriel’s parish. Also, while in North Carolina he continued doing Itinerate Preaching. In 1989, He joined the parish staff of St. Paul of the Cross Parish in Atlanta, GA and became pastor in 1990.
While in Atlanta, Fr. Melvin was elected to the Provincial Council as Consultor. He ministered in both ministries until 2004 at which time he was asked to join two other Passonist in a experimental project in Harlem, New York. In 2008, he joined the Passonist media ministry while continuing with Itinerate Preaching until 2010 when he was asked to join the Parish Staff at St. Joseph Parish in Paris France. St. Joseph’s parish is the only all English-speaking parish in all of France. The parish ministers to over forty different nations.
While in Paris, Fr. Melvin served on a commission that remembered the 9/11 tragedies on the commemoration of its tenth anniversary. He also served on a commission that celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the use of English in worship services in France. He also ministered with an ecumenical commission in Paris. This group met regularly in support of the many faiths that celebrated worship in English.
He served as one of several chefs who weekly provided a three-course, sit down, served lunch for the hungry. While in the Parish, he conducted Bible Study Groups, prepared families for Baptism and was chaplain to a group of Missionary Sisters of Charity.
Fr. Melvin is now assigned to Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center in North Palm Beach where he will continue his Itinerate Preaching and assisting on the Retreats as needed. He enjoys travelling, reading, films, theater and cooking.
Deacon Bob Rodriguez: I am one of five children born to parents that were very young. Still together today, they have been a testament to resiliency. At an early age I learned that I needed to share, to speak up, to get along with others and the idea that you should be happy with what you have. I have taken those ideas into life with me. I have been married twenty seven years to my wife Machelle and have three sons: Christopher, Daniel and Chase.
At the time of this bio, I have been ordained four years. It has been an experience that I forever will be grateful to God and his holy church. It’s a blessing to serve the people of God. I came across Our Lady of Florida out of a recommendation to find a spiritual director. This was almost ten years ago! I fell in love with this place once I stepped on the property. It truly is holy ground.
The parish I serve is St. Therese de Lisieux in Wellington where I am involved in marriage prep, different bible studies and RCIA. It’s a vibrant community of holy people. I am a graduate of Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in Communications with a minor in Marketing. I was blessed to attend St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach where I received a Masters Degree in Theology. I also serve as a chaplain at Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery, I serve on the fundraising committee of ChildNet and I am a member of the Knights of Columbus.
Rev. Emmanuel Hugh Gardon C.P.: I, Emmanuel Hugh Gardon (y Delgado y Melendez y Casey), C.P. am a Latino and the oldest priest presently living at the Center. I am an only child and was born in The Bronx in 1921. In 1943 I took my Passionist vows and I was ordained in 1950. In June 2010 I will celebrate sixty years of Priesthood. Education-wise I have a B.S. in Philosophy, an M.A. in Divinity, an M.S. in Library Science and an M.S. in Psychology from St. John’s in New York.
My ministry has varied over the years and so I have served as Librarian, Teacher and Music Director, counselor to people in Jamaica and Dunkirk, New York and in Hayward California and here in North Palm Beach; I was Pastor for ten years in Union City, New Jersey, and Parochial Vicar in Atlanta, Jamaica and Hayward, California. I was also a member of the Retreat Team in Riverdale, NY.
Presently I am the Chaplain of the North Palm Beach Police and Fire Departments, and a Chaplain at Palm Beach Gardens Hospital. I love dogs and currently have two canine companions. There is Tammy, a prim and proper lady who is sixteen years old and there is Jason, a rambunctious rowdy who is fourteen years old. I enjoy kayaking, classical music, reading, gym workouts, and touring in a car and also living in Florida since August 2000.
Very Rev Paul Wierichs, C.P. President: I love being a Passionist and a priest. I have had many wonderful assignments. Retreat ministry, pastor, teacher, Director of Development for the Province of St. Paul of the Cross, FBI Chaplain, Palm Beach Sheriff’s Chaplain and all have offered me an opportunity to use the gifts that God has given me. I am also extremely proud to be a Knight in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. DEUS LO VULT! Membership in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is one of the highest Papal awards which can be conferred on laity and clergy alike who have done meritorious work for the Church and are approved for nomination by their Bishops.
Two experiences that made a mark on my soul were the crash of TWA flight 800 and the attack of the World Trade Center. I administered spiritual counseling to family members, law enforcement agents, emergency workers and the injured, as well as administering the Last Rights to the victims at the scenes of the disasters.
I am the oldest of three children. My sister lives in New Jersey with one of her daughters. Her other daughter lives in Ireland with her husband. My brother also lives in New Jersey with his family. My dear parents are deceased for some time now, but as some of you may know this hurts no matter how long they may have gone onto the Lord.
Retreat ministry particularly here at Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center has given me the grace to meet so many wonderful people. I believe we all know that we are on Holy Ground. This is one of the blessings of being a priest, people share with me their soul and in that moment I experience God. I look forward to many more good years here serving the people who come to this beautiful place to find God’s love and peace.
Brother Augustine Paul, C.P. “ Brother Gus”: The third time is a charm! Being back at Our Lady of Florida for the third time brings back many memories of the early 70’s and late 80’s of the Retreat Center in North Palm Beach when I was previously assigned here. First of all, the area has grown so much since I was last assigned here and you can’t stop progress. Secondly, the grounds and buildings have never looked more beautiful than they do now.
The programs that are offered to people are varied with present day themes. The wonderful staff of the Passionists and lay staff are visual signs of the Church and that it is fully alive. I am very proud of the senior fathers in how they give and serve the retreatants for each of the programs. Fr. Paul is a real Spiritual Leader. Being a Passionist is to pray, serve and help those in need. It is a joy to be here again and my dog Sam loves all the green grass!
I pray that if I met you when I was previously assigned here and you are still making retreats that you make an effort to find me and say hello when you are here.
Rev Damian Towey C.P. : I am a native of Newark, New Jersey. I attended Our Lady of the Valley High School and graduated in 1944. During World War II I served in the United States Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Tarawa until my discharge in 1946. I subsequently worked as a Copyboy for the Newark Evening News.
While attending Seton Hall College on the GI Bill of Rights, I had a chance encounter with a Passionist priest who asked me “Are you satisfied with your life?” and that set me thinking. After much soul searching I felt the call to religious life and made my first profession of vows in 1949. I was ordained a priest along with 16 classmates in 1956.
In 1958 I was sent to Rome for higher studies and received a Doctorate in Canon Law from University Propaganda Fidei. Upon my return to the States I served as Director of Students and Professor of Canon Law for six years at our seminaries in Scranton and West Springfield. From 1968 to 1974 I served as Rector of Saint Joseph Monastery in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1974 I was elected Rector of Saint Michael’s Monastery in Union City, NJ. During this time I also served as Vicar for Religious for the Archdiocese of Newark. Later I was Associate Editor of SIGN magazine and in 1982 was elected to the Provincial Council and reelected to that office in 1986.
After a year as Associate Pastor of St Gabriel’s Parish in Brighton, Massachusetts I was assigned to Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center in 1992. I was appointed Promoter of Justice for the Diocese of Palm Beach in 1994. I am an amateur chef and a movie buff.
Social Media Web Content, Retreat Coordinator & Executive/Development Assistant
History of Our Lady of Florida
Even the geographical and cultural roots of Our Lady of Florida are unusual. The Spanish conquistadors traveled a road in this area as they headed north and west. The Celestial Railway that connected Lake Worth with Lake Loxahatchee, Jupiter terminated only 100 feet away.
At the beginnings of Our Lady of Florida in 1961-62, an attempt was made to discover if the Spanish explorer, Ferdinand DeSoto had passed along this way en route to what is now North Carolina. History tells us that he piously named some of his campsites after various titles in the Litany of Our Lady. The quest to find out if he had named a camp in this area was not successful. Eventually, the foundation was named Our Lady of Florida and its titular feast became the Immaculate Heart of Mary (at that time on August 22).
The land was a section of a large piece of territory (including what is now North Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens and parts of Lake Park) owned by Sir Harry Oakes, the Canadian gold entrepreneur. Later it was purchased from Oakes’ widow by the late John D. McArthur, the local insurance businessman, who developed much of the area. He told his people in 1959 to sell the property to the Passionists. The Passionists cleared the property, adding seven more acres by dredging, and shortly after put up the sea wall.
Dedicated in June, 1962 as a Passionist Monastery and Retreat House, Our Lady of Florida was closed in 1989 as the Passionists tried to cope with dwindling personnel and funds. On February 23, 1992 in cooperation with the Diocese of Palm Beach, Our Lady of Florida re-opened. It marked the beginning of a new phase of the then 30-year-old foundation: the first cooperative venture between the Passionists and a diocese in retreat house ministry. Under this new arrangement, the Passionists still own the property and will operate it as a Spiritual Center in collaboration with the Diocese of Palm Beach.
At one time, Passionist Retreat Houses in the U.S. served over 50,000 retreatants each year. Like the other Passionist Spiritual Centers in the country, Our Lady of Florida has had a great variety of spiritual exercises in its 50 plus years of service.
There are private retreats and group retreats for men and women of various parishes, for married couples and different singles groups, for Third Orders and Secular Institutes, for Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists and other ecumenical groups, for Brothers and Sisters of many religious orders, for Marriage Encounters and Cursillos, as well as a series of Institutes, specialized programs, conferences, seminars, meetings and days of prayer.
Over the years, Our Lady of Florida has hosted a large number of clergy retreats, while being at the same time a favorite renewal and refreshment spot for many priests on private retreat. At various times the following dioceses have held spiritual exercises for their clergy at Our Lady of Florida: Palm Beach, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg/Tampa, etc. The first Protestant clergy retreat in the southeast U.S. was held here and it has become a favorite of the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplains. It is also a frequent oasis of spiritual renewal for many American bishops.
Between 2004 and 2012 the Passionist Order has re-invested the proceeds of the sale of a small parcel of their property which was sold in 2004. To date, the Passionists have reinvested over $12 million of those proceeds to complete the re-construction of the facilities. This will insure that Our Lady of Florida will continue its presence in serving the community for another fifty years!!
The icon above shows the Founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross, inviting us to focus our hearts on Christ the Spouse, the King of Glory and of utmost humility: these are the titles we can observe on the small icon of the Passion which he is presenting with his right hand. The black gown symbolizes the mourning heart of one who contemplates the Crucified One. The red stole indicates he’s a priest and the staff shows he’s a missionary of the Gospel. In his left hand he holds the Rule of life for his followers
Our Founder Paolo (Paul) Danei was born at Ovada, Province of Alessandria in NW Italy on January 3rd 1694. Brought up in a pious Christian family, his early life was characterized by a number of courageous and hardly run-of-the-mill options. At 18 he decided he’d live a holy and perfect life. In 1715 he enrolled in the Venetian forces engaged in a holy crusade against the Ottoman Turks. However, just before setting out, he came to realize God was calling him to something quite different.
In 1718 he renounced a substantial inheritance as well as marriage as he sought to deepen his spiritual experience and better determine his life’s true vocation. And so, in 1720, vested in a rough black tunic and barefoot, and begins a long and solitary period of intense reflection, meditation and penance, in the course of which he clearly comes to see he’s being called by the Spirit to proclaim God’s immense love and mercy revealed to us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. Hence his future religious title, “Paul of the Cross”. Between the 2nd and 7th December of that year he writes down his Rule for a future Passionist Congregation.
Two years later he withdrew to a hermitage on Monte Argentario, close to Orbetello, together with his brother John Baptist. During the next few years he moved to various places in central and southern Italy as he patiently awaited the pontifical approval of his new Institute.
Ordained a priest in 1727, he begins an intense itinerant missionary activity at parishes in different parts of Italy and, in 1737 he opens the very first Passionist community (known as a “retreat”) on Monte Argentario.
At long last, in 1741, Pope Benedict XIV approves his Rule for the new Congregation. Very soon afterwards Paul takes in new companions and founds a string of retreats and his Congregation begins to grow and thrive. Paul never ceases to preach, covering many parts of the country, all the while counseling and directing souls through an incredible number of letters.
Toward the end of his days, in 1771, he founded the first monastery for Passionist nuns at Tarquinia, in the province of Viterbo. Paul of the Cross breathed his last on October 18th 1775 at his General House of Saints John and Paul in Rome where he had shortly before gone to live. Pope Pius IX declared Paul a saint the 29th June of 1867. His relics lie in an amazingly beautiful chapel dedicated to him adjacent to the basilica of Ss. John & Paul. Many consider him the greatest mystic of the 18th Century.
The Passionist vocation The Passionist Family was founded, as we saw above, by St. Paul of the Cross, who passed on to his followers the challenge to communicate to the world God’s infinite love for us all, as manifested in the Passion and death of his Son.
With a special vow to promote the living memory of the Passion of Christ, Passionists, faithful to their holy Founder’s charism, reside in fraternal communities where their members are dedicated to prayer and the ministry, principally but not only in the form of itinerant mission preaching, retreats, spiritual direction and chaplaincies, as well as staffing a good many parishes. They strive to live simply in a spirit of poverty, thus reminding people that an inordinate desire for possessions can be overcome through the far greater joy of giving.
Well aware that the Passion of Jesus continues in the world of our day, the sons of St. Paul of the Cross are ever intent upon sharing in the anxieties and problems of their brothers and sisters in the world, particularly the poor and the marginalized who constitute so many o the “crucified” of our age.
The Passionists wear a black habit with a sign on their breasts in the shape of a heart surmounted with a cross and the words “IESU XPI PASSIO” (The Passion of Jesus Christ) inside, beneath which are the three nails of the crucifixion. This sign is a reminder of the special legacy of St. Paul of the Cross: that his Congregation should keep alive the memory of the sufferings of Jesus and promote true devotion to his Passion in the hearts of the faithful.
What do Passionists do? Following their Founder’s example, the Passionists dedicate themselves to evangelizing – and even re-evangelizing – the faithful, especially among the poor and those excluded from society in the more neglected areas, as also among those who presume to deny the existence of God in their lives.. This ministry of the Word is exercised most specifically in the preaching of parish missions and spiritual exercises.
The Gospel message is proclaimed not only in churches for it is also taken to peoples’ homes, the schools, hospitals, the armed forces, the prisons and even to open public places. In many places one sees erected, at crossroads and outside churches, a large wooden cross with the Passionist sign attached, a loving reminder of missions preached there by members of the Passionist Congregation.
Passionists also go out as missionaries to distant lands, especially to under-developed areas of the world. Also some important Catholic shrines, as well as parishes and centers for spirituality, are staffed by Passionists.