Father Owen was born Bill Silva on August 6. 1906, in Santa Barbara, California, near the old Franciscan Mission there. His Portuguese father and Irish mother were devout Catholics, and Owen was determined on the priesthood from childhood.
After his ordination in 1930, he received a degree in music from the DePaul Conservatory in Chicago. He then was assigned to Phoenix where he taught at St. Mary’s High School (then located at Polk and Third streets). He was the choirmaster at St. Mary’s Church in the early 1940s.
In 1943, with the U.S. fully involved in World War II, he petitioned his superiors for permission to join the armed forces as a chaplain. That was not to be. Instead he was assigned to Sierra Vista Retreat House in Malibu – a move that led him to an unexpected change in focus.
Retreat houses then were conceived of as oases of spiritual calm where Catholic laity could recharge their batteries away from a secular world.
Father Owen subsequently founded retreat houses in San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz, California. And he gave the first retreat ever held in Arizona in 1944 at Camelback Inn. The participants pledged to open a permanent retreat house in Phoenix following his visit.
From then on, Father Owen searched for a permanent property in Arizona. Though his duties kept him at San Juan Bautista through the end of the decade, his good friend, Father Victor Bucher, O.F.M., pastor of St. Mary’s, began to alert him when likely properties were available.
On Father Victor’s recommendation, he came to Phoenix in 1951 thinking to buy La Floresta, near Jokake Inn. It was unsuitable and he rejected it.
The next day, he was driving down an unpaved road (now Lincoln Drive) when Father Victor suggested lunch at the old Kachina Lodge, then owned jointly by John B. Mills (who owned the Westward Ho Hotel in downtown Phoenix) and Mr. and Mrs. Gallerman.
The lodge was perfect. With the help of realtor Bill Wasson, he negotiated the purchase and, after intense work to refurbish the building, opened the Casa de Paz y Bien on January 14, 1952.
The new retreat house was appropriately remote, separated from Phoenix by Camelback Mountain and criss-crossed by riding paths.
The only other buildings of note in the area were Camelback Inn, El Charro and the Rocking Horse Stable (now Mountain Shadows). Attendees came from all over Arizona and California, recruited from Catholic churches and from Father Owen’s previous contacts in California.
Father Owen’s retreats observed the rule of silence. “. . . there is no radio, no television, and no newspaper,” he said. Retreats traditionally had been conducted for all-male or all-female groups, but on February 22, 1952, the Casa hosted the first married couples retreat.
Couples kept silence except on Sundays when they could pray the “Cana Rosary” together. First the husband prayed a decade, then recounted all his complaints about his wife. The wife prayed a decade and aired her complaints. Then each had a chance to respond. It was understood that neither would bring up the issues again after the retreat had ended.
In 1957, Father Owen founded his last retreat house in Mesilla Park, New Mexico, near Las Cruces, and left the Casa. He returned in 1964 as director, but his health failed dramatically and he died October 22, 1967.
His death came at what, for two reasons, was a turning point for the Casa. First, the explosive growth of Phoenix rapidly was engulfing the desert oasis; second, the social changes of the 1960s seemed to demand a shift away from personal piety to activism and engagement with the world.
In 1970, the Casa was renamed the Franciscan Renewal Center. Led by Father Owen’s charismatic successor, Father Michael Weishaar, the center sponsored counseling, educational workshops and lectures by prominent figures such as Malcolm Boyd and Bishop Fulton Sheen and became a national force in the discussion and implementation of new liturgy.
Today it remains a Franciscan Retreat House devoted to spirituality that embraces the intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of people of all faiths.
— Photo courtesy St. Mary’s Basilica; research by Gary Weiand. ©Arizona Capitol Times.