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Out of an eyesore, hope; Former orphanage transformed into residential complex

Wishes really can come true.

For Sharon Wolfrum, they came in the form of a brand new home at St. Martin Village, a former orphanage on Dodge Street on the city's East Side that has been transformed into a residential complex.

It's a 60-unit affordable housing project that was created under the auspices of the Community Action Organization of Erie County.

A grand opening was celebrated Wednesday at the site with dozens of people on hand, including residents like Wolfrum, who was one of the first tenants when St. Martin Village opened in July.

"I was here since they opened the door, and I'm still excited four months later," she said. "I was praying for a living space, and this was the answer, and it's better than I imagined and expected to find."

Devastated by a house fire that left her and her 11-year-old daughter, Paula, homeless, Wolfrum moved from hotels to shelters looking for a permanent place to live. While she was staying in Buffalo City Mission's Cornerstone Manor, a friend also living there handed Wolfrum an application for St. Martin Village.

"I filled it out. We went through the process, and here I am. I love my apartment. I prayed day and night for a nice place to live," she said.

The $16 million redevelopment project included the rehabilitation of two long-abandoned structures into 24 two-bedroom apartments and 36 townhouse units with green space and play areas. An old chapel on the site was restored and turned into a community center, said L. Nathan Hare, president and chief executive officer of the CAO.

"It will look like an Internet cafe with a library, a table for people to read the books they take out of the library," he said. "The computers will have programs for kids to do work after school, and adults will use it."

Located in the 500 block of Dodge Street near Wohlers Avenue, the new housing center will serve as an anchor in the community along with other nearby assests like Olmsted's Martin Luther King Park, the Buffalo Museum of Science and the historic Hamlin Park community.

The 5.3-acre site originally was used as a German Catholic orphanage when it was built around 1900. After the orphanage closed in 1956, the property became the site of the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary. In 1972, it became the Diocesan Educational Campus, an elementary school that served children from several central city parishes. The school closed in the late 1980s, and the building had been empty for more than 20 years.

The apartment complex, which features energy-efficient technology, was funded through numerous sources, including $2.4 million in federal housing money, state funds and other grants.

Mayor Byron W. Brown was joined at the grand opening by community activists and other local government leaders such as Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo. "It went from a rat-infested eyesore in the community to a place of hope and opportunity," Brown said.

CAO worked with the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, Key Community Development Corp. and other partners.