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Sisters selling property in Hamburg; Franciscans' 20-acre parcel includes convent, health care facility on South Park Ave.

The Southtowns religious order that gave rise to both Hilbert College and Immaculata Academy is selling nearly 20 acres of land in Hamburg, including its longtime convent and an attached residential health care facility.

A year after closing the 44-bed medical facility and moving to a newer, smaller convent across the street, the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph want to unload the 18.48-acre property at 5286 South Park Ave., adjacent to Hilbert College.

The land stretches from the intersection of South Park and Sowles Road to Immaculata, and is across from a People Inc. facility, which itself is on land the Sisters used to own.

The property contains three buildings, including the 57,966-square-foot diamond-shaped medical facility; a 116,630-square-foot, 165-bed main convent attached to the medical facility, with wings extending to both sides; and a two-story, 5,364-square-foot stand-alone convent in a former house. The original main convent was built in 1928, while the wings were added in the 1960s.

"This is kind of a unique property that we have. There is certainly some history with this property," said Vito Picone, director of business development at McGuire Development Co., who is marketing the parcel for the Sisters. "It's just another reflection of what's happening with religious communities overall in Western New York. It's a sad thing, but it just seems like a sign of the times."

The asking price is $3.5 million.

"The activity has been pretty good," Picone said. "We've had a lot of not-for-profits come through the doors, interested in doing something. It's just a matter of trying to figure out what we can do, with the convent being one issue and the health facility being another."

The Sisters built a new motherhouse and infirmary at 5229 South Park, in a building that can house 72 people. The order currently has 83 sisters, down from 200 that were housed in the former facility, and significantly less than the maximum of 600 sisters it had more than 40 years ago.

Additionally, the order also has sisters teaching or working in parishes in New Jersey, Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

"We definitely downsized," said Sister Sharon Goodremote, a member of the five-person leadership team for the Franciscan Sisters. "We thought about staying in the current building, but it was cost-prohibitive to bring it up to handicapped-accessible and other standards."

The new building is "environmentally friendly" and "sustainable," in keeping with the order's Franciscan roots. It even received "platinum" LEED certification. "That's our investment for the future," Goodremote said. "We wanted to give the example that you can be earth-friendly and accommodative without being bare-bones."

The Sisters have had a tremendous influence locally. The Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph were originally founded as educators of immigrants by Mother Colette Hilbert and the Franciscan Friars in Trenton, N.J. They moved to Buffalo at the turn of the century, at the Friars' request, to run the elementary school at Corpus Christi Church, a Polish parish located at 199 Clark St. in Buffalo, near the Broadway Market.

When the nuns outgrew their space at Corpus Christi, they moved to Hamburg and, in 1928, acquired 69 acres of land on the east side of South Park, where they built the main convent, Goodremote said. The order also purchased 38 acres on the west side of the road, some of which was used later for St. Anthony Home for the Aged.

In Hamburg, the Sisters continued with their educational tradition, starting Immaculata Academy in the main building as a school to teach young women in preparation for becoming nuns. But after local neighborhood residents heard about the high school for women, they asked if their own children could attend, so the Sisters obtained state certification for the school, and young lay women were admitted in 1953.

The school remained there through 1953, and then moved to the current Immaculata building in 1954 after outgrowing its previous space. Today, the high school has an advisory board, but the order still sponsors it, Goodremote said.

Meanwhile, as the Sisters needed training to become teachers in the Catholic secondary schools, Sister Edwina Bogel started the two-year Immaculata Teacher Training School, also in the motherhouse.

Lay women were admitted in 1959 after additions were made to the building, but the school, then called Immaculata College, soon grew too big. So the Sisters sold some of their land to the school for $1, and it changed its name to Hilbert College -- named for the order's founder.

The order continued sponsoring Hilbert for "quite a while," Goodremote said, but it eventually became independent with its own board of trustees. Today, the order no longer owns or sponsors Hilbert, but "we've always kept a close relationship," Goodremote said.

More recently, People Inc. approached the Sisters in the 1990s because the nonprofit wanted a Southtowns presence and housing for the elderly and low-income population it serves. So the nuns sold some more of their land, a former potato farm on the west corner of Sowles and South Park, to that organization for less than the market value, leaving it with the remaining parcel today.

"We've used all of our land around us that we've owned since the 1920s as service to other people," Goodremote said. "It is truly holy ground."