Sisters of St. Francis have sold property that runs for a quarter-mile along Niagara River in Lewiston to WNY Land Conservancy for $2.25 million.

LEWISTON – The largest privately owned piece of undeveloped waterfront along the Niagara River will be the site of a perpetual nature preserve, and in the process, a community of nuns obtains a substantial sum of money.

The nuns, operators of the Stella Niagara Education Park and Motherhouse on Lower River Road, sold the land, which runs for a quarter-mile along the riverside opposite the school and motherhouse, on May 20 for $2.25 million.

The Western New York Land Conservancy announced Thursday that it has completed the purchase of the 29 acres from the Sisters of St. Francis.

“This is a pretty significant addition to the Greenway,” said Nancy Smith, executive director of the conservancy.

Smith added that she hopes the preserve will act as a catalyst for other efforts along the Niagara River Greenway.

The nuns asked the conservancy in 2013 to purchase the land. The preserve fits the nature-loving ethic of the Franciscan order as laid down by its founder, St. Francis of Assisi.

“Our hearts are filled with gratitude for the community’s support for the protection of this ecologically, culturally and spiritually uplifting place,” said Sister Edith Wyss, provincial minister of the Sisters of St. Francis. “The creation of the Stella Niagara Preserve aligns with our beliefs in respecting and appreciating the beauty of this land as a reflection of the Creator. We are elated that it will now endure forever.”

She said the order will use the proceeds for its Catholic elementary school, inner-city ministries in Niagara Falls and the care of elderly sisters.

The order had owned the property since 1907. Several statues, a chapel and a peace shrine adorned with murals by Polish artist Jozef Slawinski will be preserved. It’s also historic, as it was the landing site for British troops who captured Fort Niagara during the War of 1812.

Counting the purchase price, the East Aurora-based not-for-profit organization will invest $3.8 million in the project. That includes a stewardship fund of about $800,000, for which donations are still being solicited, dedicated to keeping up the property.

“It’s going to be wonderful, and it’s going to evolve,” Smith said. “We want to allow time for public input and for planning. We have forever, so there’s no rush. We want to make sure we do it right and do it carefully.”

The group this week hired Darrel Morrison, a New York City ecological landscape designer, to bring its vision to life.

Morrison said in a telephone interview that he hasn’t visited the site yet but that he knows what his work, likely starting in 2016, will entail.

“The main element will be to restore native prairie or savannah, which is grassland with scattered trees, so that it will more or less bring back the feeling of that land before it was cultivated,” he said.

Working with Morrison is “beyond exciting,” Smith said.

“He has helped create landscapes that are beautiful and inspiring, but also enhance the diversity and ecology of the land,” she said.

Morrison’s résumé includes a role as lead designer of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas; a native plants garden at the University of Wisconsin; and native gardens at the New York and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

Smith said that there will be mowed trails following the topography of the gently sloping site, but no paving. Parking for visitors will be provided at the nearby Lewiston Senior Citizens Center, with a sidewalk and crosswalk helping guests reach the preserve safely. There will be an opportunity for boaters to launch kayaks into the river from the preserve, but because of the way the land lies, there is no need to build a dock or other facilities to accommodate that use.

The conservancy obtained $150,000 from Lewiston’s share of Greenway funding, which will be paid over three years, as well as a wide range of foundation gifts.

Those include $200,000 from the Tower Family Fund; $65,000 from the East Hill Foundation; $50,000 each from the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Gallogly Family Foundation; $25,000 each from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo; $15,000 from the Hahn Family Foundation; $10,000 each from the M&T Charitable Foundation and the Joanne & Frank Collins Foundation; and $2,000 from the Western New York Foundation.

Also, a $200,000 challenge grant from a Lewiston couple, Joseph and Pamela Priest, was “pivotal” in pushing the fund drive over the top, Smith said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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