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These Harbor Centers solve two major problems for the modern Church


OSV Institute

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 05/31/21

A year after taking part in the OSV Innovation Challenge, a finalist still sees a positive impact.

Sometimes you see two things that make so much sense they’re like puzzle pieces forming a perfect fit. That’s what it feels like to learn about the mission of Harbor Vocation Discernment Centers.

Here’s one piece of the puzzle: empty or underutilized church buildings, which are widespread and are a financial and legal liability to resource-strapped parishes. 

Here’s the other piece: lonely and rootless young adults, which describes one-third of people aged 18-35. We live in a world in which community, social capital, and the bonds that unite us are increasingly fractured. The result is an epidemic of unhappiness and aimlessness.

Bring together these two things—unused spaces, and people wanting a space for community—and you get Harbor. The team at Harbor partners with parishes to transform former convent buildings into places where young adults can live, work, and grow in Catholic community.  

“We’re solving two problems,” said Martin Ford, Executive Director at Harbor Vocation Discernment Centers, in an interview with Aleteia. “There’s a glut of underutilized Church real estate, like empty convents and rectories. And there are a lot of young Catholics out there who are not yet committed to a permanent state of life like marriage or the religious life who want to live out their Catholic faith in community.” 

Harbor is solving these problems by repurposing beautiful old convents and establishing live-in communities of young Catholics who pray, serve, dine, and discern their vocations together under one roof. The young people who join Harbor communities also receive spiritual and professional mentorship, particularly in the fields of business, technology, and the arts. 

“We hope that these communities will deepen their members’ relationships to Jesus Christ and His Church, help young people to discover their God-given vocations, and to serve as witnesses to Christ at their host parish communities,” Ford said.

There’s a precedent for success in repurposing these spaces. Secular companies are already buying unused Church properties and turning them into condos, libraries, and office spaces.

Two years ago, Ford had talked about the Harbor concept with friends, but it needed refining to work in reality.

That’s when he heard about the OSV Challenge, which called on Catholic entrepreneurs to submit their “napkin idea” for a chance to win $100,000 in support of their mission. The challenge aimed to support ambitious, interesting projects bringing about meaningful, positive influence in the Church and the world.

“I would never have applied for the Challenge had it not been for friends really twisting my arm to do it,” Ford admitted. But fortunately he did. 

Out of 350 applicants who went through an intense selection process over a year, Harbor was selected as one of 12 finalists who went through a rigorous Accelerator Program with the Notre Dame IDEA Center.

“When I first applied, I expected a somewhat standard grant application process,” Ford said. But midway through the Challenge, “they surprised us all by getting the ND Idea Center involved, which really brought the experience to the next level,” he said. 

Now, a year later, he’s still seeing the impact of the OSV Challenge on his mission. “The Challenge really helped me to refine our work and our mission,” he said. “I got so much help, not only from the brilliant minds at the ND Idea Center, OSV, SENT Ventures, and Catholic Creatives, but also from fellow contestants in the program.”

Ford shared these ways that the Challenge improved his mission:

  • “The Challenge got me connected to a lot of talented people who were able to help get Harbor on course to going from the idea phase to actually opening.”
  • “The Idea Center gave me the confidence to think bigger.  Sometimes we throttle visions that God gives us because we’re afraid that God won’t let us participate in his bigger plans.”
  • “It was really great to get affirmation from the sensus fidelium that Harbor was indeed something that was needed in the world.”
  • “John Cannon from SENT Ventures gave a terrific presentation about how Mother Teresa wasn’t ever too concerned about money getting in the way of accomplishing God’s will.  She said, ‘God has all the money in the world!’”
  • “It also helped me to stop compartmentalizing my life striving to be a saint from my life striving to get things done!”

It’s a business founder’s dream to grow and learn with expert support and a truly understanding community. The OSV Challenge provided those elements for Harbor, and a year later they’re still reaping the rewards. And in turn, the whole Body of Christ benefits.

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