Villa Maria Academy, operated by the Felician Sisters of St. Francis, graduated 6,000 high school girls during its 88-year history before declining enrollment forced its closing in 2006.
The six-floor Gothic revival fortress in Cheektowaga was vacant for more than a decade, but a $15 million construction project will return it to service providing housing and support for women military veterans, families of domestic violence and individuals with low-to-moderate incomes.
Angela’s House – named for Felician foundress Blessed Mary Angela Truszkowska, who began her charitable work with women and children – will feature 66 apartments and occupy 80,000 square feet in the western side of the former high school at 240 Pine Ridge Road.
“We were looking to provide housing for women in need, and we’re not in the business of separating families,” said Sister M. Francesca Buczkowski. “Every day I see that empty building outside my kitchen window, and it breaks my heart. We sought funding three times to convert the academy to lower-income housing, and three times we were denied. When this idea was brought to us, we jumped on it.”
Co-developers CB Emmanuel Realty and Delta Development of WNY are partnering with the Felicians to ensure the order’s mission of community service survives despite its decreasing numbers.
“God bless the Felician Sisters for meeting people’s needs and wanting to turn their former school into a much-needed facility,” said Dennis C. Walczyk, CEO of Catholic Charities of Buffalo, which will provide case management support, services and counseling to the residents.
"There is a need for affordable housing in Cheektowaga, said Richard J. Willis, director of Community and Economic Development for the Town of Cheektowaga. He is looking to direct $200,000 in federal funding – about half of the town’s expected allotment this year – to the Felician project.
Willis noted the project location near the town’s border with Buffalo as a targeted area for redevelopment.
“We’re looking to improve that area, so the development the Felicians are proposing works tremendously with the town’s strategic plan,” said Willis, who pointed to eight newly constructed homes on nearby Randolph Street.
A site plan for the project is expected to be submitted to the Cheektowaga Planning Board in April, according to a monthly status report received by town officials. Meanwhile, the development team is continuing to meet with elected officials, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Brian Higgins, to gain funding support for the project.
Project developer Benathan Upshaw, CEO of CB Emmanuel, noted that 20 percent of the housing will be reserved for people with disabilities.
“Oftentimes female veterans have children, and while there are fewer of them, women are often left to their own devices," said Upshaw. "They have the same burdens as male veterans plus they have children and they don’t have the same support mechanisms. Like their male counterparts, they return with problems such as post traumatic stress disorder and depression.”
Rents will be subsidized by Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative that provides up to $25,000 per unit, said Upshaw. Apartment size ranges from studio to one- and two-bedroom, said Upshaw.
"Ours is an important ministry for women-led households and the challenges they are facing," Sister Jeremy Marie Midura said. "After talking to the social workers, we determined there were women veterans locally living and sleeping in their cars with children. We initially looked at senior housing, and housing for people with mental illness There are needs out there, and we will identify them and help the people in need."
Villa Maria was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. As a result, renovations must adhere to architectural guidelines such as preserving the windows and maintaining sight lines and interior corridors, said Upshaw.
Many Western New Yorkers share memories of the Felician nuns, who worked as teachers in many of the area's Catholic grammar schools. So, too, the former academy played a huge role in the life of many Felician nuns.
At age 75, Buczkowski is a former assistant principal and teacher at the academy. She was treasurer of the Felician Franciscan Buffalo Province for 17 years.
“My homeroom was on the second floor,” she said. “You could always sneak into our second chapel if you needed a quiet place. Students could just run in there.”
Buczkowski entered the convent in 1961, when there were 800 sisters in the Buffalo Province, and eight provinces in the United States and Canada. “Today at most there may be 800 [nuns] total,” she said. She also serves as president of the board of directors for the St. Felix Transition House for Women in Toronto.
“We still do get candidates. We’re still active. We still try to make a difference,” said Buczkowski. “We may not be here 100 years from now, but this mission will, and it will continue to carry on for Blessed Mother Angela.”