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From the former rectory and convent on its East Side campus to the numerous donated houses nearby, St. Luke's Mission of Mercy has been steadily building a community for the people it serves.
Soon, the mission's programs for at-risk single mothers and their children will become a village unto itself: Gospa Village, a secure compound of 12 single-family homes and a community center to be built on a block of mostly vacant lots now owned by the City of Buffalo.
"We feel really strongly women and children need a family setting," said Amy Betros, who co-founded the mission with Norman S. Paolini Jr. in 1994.
"Some [women] just don't know how to be mothers," Betros said. "We can teach them and help them. We can help keep families together."
Gospa Village gets its name from the Croatian word for "mother" - the mother of God. The name was inspired by a pilgrimage Betros made to the former Yugoslavia in 1990.
"It was always in my heart to build a project for her, to thank her," she said.
Overall, the project is expected to take several years to complete. St. Luke's, which recently received designated developer status from the Buffalo Common Council, is in the process of buying the vacant lots.
"The sales are pending," said Susan M. Marriott, an associate at Phillips Lytle. "We are negotiating the actual purchase agreement."
Appraisals determine lot prices, which, in that part of Buffalo, run between $1,500 and $2,000 each. The agreement should be ready for a Common Council vote in September or October.
Groundbreaking is expected soon after the deal is done.
The block on which Gospa Village will be built is directly west of St. Luke's Church, bordered by Oberlin, Walden and Ruhland avenues, and Sycamore Street.
There are two home models, based on lot size. Each is 1,400 square feet and will house a live-in missionary among its four bedrooms, two bathrooms and open concept living spaces. A small interior play area will be separated from the living space by a low wall.
The houses will back up to the street and be fenced in, with covered porches facing an interior courtyard and playground. Plans tentatively call for building three houses a year, beginning with three along Oberlin Avenue.
A community building, to be built on Sycamore Street during the final phase of construction, would serve as a multipurpose space. Betros said St. Luke's will apply for grants to help cover its estimated cost of $500,000.
An independent mission with a Catholic tradition, St. Luke's doesn't receive funding from the government or the church.
Donations in hand will cover construction of the first four homes, whose estimated price of $100,000 each is expected to be reduced significantly by donated labor and materials. A benefit to raise additional money for the project, the sixth annual Gospa Gala, is scheduled for Oct. 26.
St. Luke's Mission, in general, is run by volunteers - mostly lay people. Similarly, Gospa Village is being steered by volunteer professionals who found they couldn't say no to Betros' vision.
Coordinating the effort is David E. Knauss, president of Lehigh Construction Group, who met Betros approximately 15 years ago while working with a Southtowns church group on a St. Luke's house.
"Somebody came up to me and said Amy Betros would like to meet you," Knauss recalled; Betros had heard that a contractor was among that weekend's volunteer crew.
"Amy, back then, proceeded to lay out for me ... her vision for St. Luke's and the surrounding area," related Knauss, who said Betros told him: "I think God sent you here today to help me carry out this mission."
"She just laid it out for me and I basically couldn't say no," Knauss said.
And so it began.
Knauss said he has become a conduit for Betros to reach out to others in the construction industry. "I never really ask them to donate anything. I just introduce them to St. Luke's," he said.
Douglas M. Scheid, owner and president of Scheid Architectural, said his firm has worked on projects with Knauss since 1985 and he became involved with St. Luke's maybe five or six years ago, when he was consulted about a kitchen renovation.
Scheid said he "kind of got hooked. Hooked on helping. It's a great thing that Amy does."
Scheid said Knauss approached him about Gospa Village about three or four years ago. "I had some experience with residential development," he said.
In turn, Scheid contacted a collaborator of his: Adam S. Walters, a partner at the Phillips Lytle law firm, who specializes in land-use planning.
Walters recalled Scheid telling him about Gospa Village and saying: "They could really use your help."
"Once I found out what it was about, I was fully on board," said Walters, who noted that he already was aware of Betros' work at St. Luke's Mission for the past 20 years.
"I met with Amy and that was it," Walters said.
"Bottom line: they are doing such great things over there and there's such a dire need for what they do. They really make a difference," Walters said.
Scheid also recruited Lender Consulting Services, which does environmental site assessments; Nussbaumer & Clarke, engineers and surveyors; and Advanced Design Group, which specializes in sewer and stormwater retention projects.
Scheid speaks with enthusiasm about Betros' vision for Gospa Village.
"This is just the start. We want to really invigorate the East Side," he said. "If this is the catalyst - perfect."

email: jhabuda@buffnews.com