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Conversation with Wendy Leigh: CEO and Executive Director of The Franciscan Center

Wendy Leigh became the new CEO and Executive Director of The Franciscan Center in February. [LENORA LAKE | Speicial to the Times]
Wendy Leigh became the new CEO and Executive Director of The Franciscan Center in February. [LENORA LAKE | Speicial to the Times]
Published Jun. 12, 2019

When Wendy Leigh became the new CEO and Executive Director of The Franciscan Center in February, she also became the first lay person to have the position.

Previously, nuns oversaw the operations of the eight-acre retreat space on the Hillsborough River that offers peace and serenity for workshops led by center staff. It also has rental space for corporate trainings, team-building exercises, reunions, weddings and more.

"I wanted to have a job that was a culmination of all that I have learned, one that I could utilize my skills and my contacts and my experience, my joy and my heart," said Leigh, whose background is in theater, education and non-profits, most recently the University Area Community Development Corp.

"I moved from Delaware to Tampa, sight unseen, fresh out of college. I started teaching right after that at McLane Junior High. I always wanted to be a high school drama teacher but I got junior high. Everybody is born to teach a certain age," said Leigh, who later left the school district.

Leigh has been married to Ken Silbert, a graphic designer, for 27 years. They have two grown daughters, and she divides her time between a north Tampa home and "a tiny secret beach hideaway."

She learned of the position though an executive search company, which had her resume and contacted her.

Leigh, who was raised Methodist but attends Tampa Unity, recently talked with Times Correspondent Lenora Lake about herself and the center at 3010 N. Perry Ave.

"This is what I have been preparing for all my life," she said. "Everything else was just a dress rehearsal."

Where did you go after leaving the school district?

I opened my own theater in 1987, The LOFT Theater, then went to work at the Straz Center (for the Performing Arts) in 1993 to open the Shimberg Playhouse from ground up and then again, the same with the Patel Conservatory.

Why did you want to work for The Franciscan Center?

I have always loved bringing people together to places that I love. Education, arts and spirituality all seem so very similar as they create experiences and can change lives. That's always been my calling. It's nice to have a job that aligns so perfectly with my spiritual beliefs.

What happened to the previous CEO at The Franciscan Center? That was Sister Dougherty?

Yes, Sister Anne Dougherty. She retired (from the position) but is still leading classes and workshops here.

What kind of classes are offered?

In addition to traditional religious programs such as those during Holy Week and Advent, we have Marriage Encounter weekends, we have Operation Restore for first responders, 12-step programs and more. We are a place of community, healing, peace and joy. Many people are yearning for those things.

You used to have an interfaith program/celebration for women. Do you still have that?

Oh yes, we still have it. It was the first weekend I was here. It included singer Belinda Womack who I met when I was first involved in theater. It was a coming together of everything.

How did the center come into existence ?

The idea of the Franciscan Center was born in 1965 when Joseph Miyares, a Tampa attorney of deep faith, donated his Riverside Heights property to the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y. The Sisters established health care facilities in Florida starting in the early 1920s and recognized the eight-acre property's great natural beauty along the Hillsborough River. They opened the Franciscan Center in 1970 as an oasis for private reflection, retreats, spiritual direction and hospitality.

Describe the facilities here.

There are two conference rooms, a dining room, chapel, labyrinth, riverside pavilion and 41 bedrooms. Sabbath House, a small building on the Center grounds, provides an intimate setting for small groups or individuals. Also on the Center's property is the Franciscan Convent, a private residence for Sisters; and St. Elizabeth Convent, a retirement community for the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany. We also have a full kitchen, a full-time chef and a well-trained kitchen staff. There is a grand piano in the chapel, wireless sound system in the main meeting areas and other technology for efficient meetings. Last year an estimated 4,000 people attended a retreat.

What is the annual operating budget? How is it funded?

The annual budget is $563,000. It is sustained through team sponsored programs, nonprofit and for profit organizations that reserve the center and Sabbath House for their own programs and workshops. We also have non-operating revenue from bi-annual appeals, memorial donations, special events, grants.

We want to create a sustainable system that can carry it forward into the next 50 years.

Is it open to the public to visit? Are people of all faiths — or even no faith — welcome? How can people get more information?

It is open to visitors weekdays but we ask that they call ahead and schedule. It is private property and we need to be sensitive to the sisters and any groups who have reserved the center. We welcome people of all faiths, or no faith. It's not a question that is asked.

For more information about Franciscan Center programs or rentals, visit www.franciscancentertampa.org or on our Facebook page www.facebook.com/francentertampa. Or contact us at (813) 229-2695 or info@franciscancentertampa.org.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.