A family practitioner and the mother of a West Seneca Army sergeant who was killed in Iraq have purchased the St. Columban Center in Evans for $1.4 million to turn it into a lodging and wedding venue.
The Diocese of Buffalo announced the sale of the 27,000-square-foot retreat center on the Lake Erie shore Thursday.
Dr. David Johnson, who has had a practice in Kenmore for 32 years, said he plans to also offer creative learning workshops for music and art at the mansion.
Johnson's business partner in the purchase is Brenda Shaw, whose son, Sgt. Daniel J. Shaw, was killed in action on Nov. 5, 2007, while serving in the U.S. Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We'd like to reach out to veterans and their families, possibly offering programs to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or to Gold Star families who lost a loved one," Shaw said.
The Columban Center at 6892 Lake Shore Road had been the diocesan retreat center for decades, but the diocese put it up for sale earlier this year for $1.9 million, and later lowered the price to $1.59 million.
The original 17,000-square-foot mansion, built in 1914 as a summer home for Buffalo businessman Hans Schmidt and his family, has 14 bedrooms on its second and third floors, six fireplaces, six boilers and two garages holding a total of five cars. It had been known as Suncliff Manor, according to the diocese. A stately promenade lined with trees connects the house to the 550 feet of lake frontage. There are steps to the beach. The 10,000-square-foot, two-story addition, built in 1959, has an additional 46 small bedrooms.
The 15.3-acre property was purchased in 1947 by the diocese, through the support of the St. Columban Retreat League.
Bishop Richard J. Malone approved the decision to sell the property this year.
"We review diocesan operations on a regular basis," he said, "and we determined that it was time to put the Columban Center on the market."
Thousands attended individual and group retreats at the center over the years. Retreats will be shifted to Christ the King Seminary in Aurora.
"The way we feel about this is that it's a sacred place," Johnson said of the Evans property. "We want to leave that cross up in the garden and we want to honor the history of the place. We don't want it to be forgotten that this was a half century of people praying and following their religious path."
He said he was surprised when he saw that the property was for sale. The first time he saw it was in 2011, when he was playing in a band there. He said the planned creative workshops would include such diverse subjects as boat-building and creative writing. He said the plan is to develop lodging first and also a restaurant.
"The history is remarkable," said Shaw. "We're only the third owner and it's the first time it's going to be used for a commercial venue."
The two buyers will be looking to recruit assistants to help them in the venture.