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Former St. Columban Center to become destination wedding site

Brenda Shaw has rehabbed houses for years, including three she rents through Airbnb, the leading home-sharing website.

Her family friend, family practitioner Dr. David Johnson, has an Airbnb business, too.

The two are now the new owners of SunCliff on the Lake, the former St. Columban Center on Lake Erie in Evans that the Buffalo Catholic Diocese used for decades for retreats.

Together, with the help of their families, they will be running the 27,000-square-foot inn with nearly 60 bedrooms as a wedding, banquet and lodging destination.

They took control of the Lake Shore Road property Thursday, after buying it for $1.4 million.

"It's a stretch for both of us, we're not really wealthy people, not by the standard people would think opening something like this," Johnson said. "We're regular people who have worked hard all our lives."

Johnson first saw the former St. Columban Center eight years ago when he was playing saxophone in a band that was performing at the retreat center.

They think the property is perfect for weddings, but what really gets them excited is that they also plan to offer weeklong creative workshops by various experts, such as languages, jazz, painting, creative writing, photography, fishing, sailing, wooden boat building and car kit building.

"All my life I've wanted to do something like this," Johnson said, "but I've been busy being a family doctor."

Shaw also wants to offer programs for veterans and their families.

She lost a son, Sgt. Daniel J. Shaw, who was killed in action on Nov. 5, 2007, while serving in the U.S. Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Over the years, Shaw and her family have taken part in programs offered through TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, for those grieving the loss of a military loved one, and they believe SunCliff will be the perfect spot for some TAPS retreats.

"The main thing is they let you know you're not alone, there are other people experiencing the same loss as you, whether it be a son or a daughter," said Ronald Shaw, Brenda's husband. "Try to help each other out, everybody's facing the same sorrow. We get to talk about our children to each other."

What would Daniel, who was known for his sense of humor and practical jokes, think of his family's venture?

"He would be screaming all over the place, he'd be making a lot of noise," said Ronald Shaw, Daniel's older brother. Ronald Shaw will be the caretaker of SunCliff and is living there.

"He'd be a big help," his mother added.

Brenda Shaw and Dr. Donald Johnson, the new owners of the former St. Columban Center at 6892 Lake Shore Road in Derby. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Johnson said the plan is to get rooms in the main house ready to rent first, possibly through Airbnb. They want to be hosting weddings in the sprawling mansion on the waterfront by spring. No major renovations are planned, mostly cleaning and touching up paint. There are 14 bedrooms in the mansion, plus 43 rooms in the two-story addition, a large portico and promenade lined with trees connecting the house to the 550 feet of lake frontage.

It will be a year-round business, they said.


"I'm not going to stop and think about that. I'm too busy," Brenda Shaw said.

She said she first heard that the property was for sale in the spring, when friends posted it on Facebook, and said, "Here's your next project."

Little did they know. She sent the post to Johnson.

"He said 'Let's go look at it.' Before I knew it we were looking at it," Shaw said.

She got to know the story of the home that was built in 1914 by Hans Schmidt, a Buffalo tannery owner who had married Jacob Schoellkopf's youngest daughter, and was sold and turned into a retreat center in 1947. Shaw was captivated by the property.

"I was impressed by the beauty of it, the beauty of the grounds, and the beauty of the place, and historical value of it is not to be missed," Shaw said.

Shaw and Johnson believe the property is in a great location, close to Graycliff, as well as Sturgeon Point Marina and the lake and creeks nearby for fishing. Once they open, they will welcome the public to the grounds.

"We will be available to the public, anyone who wants to come and look at the lake. They can't bring their pets and they can't bring food, but the public is welcome here," Johnson said.

Anyone with experience in the learning workshops, or who has questions about future weddings, can email the business at

"We're not going to let it fail," Johnson said.

For sale: Lakefront mansion with 60 bedrooms, 13 baths

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