LEWISTON – The public will get a chance to tour the future home of the Stella Niagara Preserve and support the venture as well when the Western New York Land Conservancy hosts a private fundraising tour of the site from 1 to 3 p.m. next Sunday.
The 29-acre site, along the Niagara River across from the Stella Niagara Education Park, is owned by the Sisters of St. Francis, and the Land Conservancy has been working with the sisters to acquire the property and create a public nature preserve. Already the group has raised $2.3 million of the $3.2 million needed, and it has just announced receipt of an additional $300,000 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Grant, a federal grant through the Joint Venture Habitat Protection and Restoration Program.
The property sits on more than a quarter mile of shoreline on Lower River Road and is one of the largest remaining undeveloped privately owned sites along the Niagara River. It has been under the care and stewardship of the Sisters of St. Francis since 1907.
Nancy Smith, executive director of the Land Conservancy, called the Stella Niagara Preserve one of Western New York’s most scenic, ecologically important and historically significant places.
“It’s just such an extraordinary piece of property,” she said.
Those attending the private tour will have a chance to learn more about the project, meet the Sisters of St. Francis, learn some of its history from the War of 1812 and discover some of the beauty of the site, which supports rare, threatened and endangered species. Refreshments will be provided.
A few gems will be discovered, such as the shrine and chapel that feature the murals of the late Józef Slawinski, a Polish-born Buffalo artist. The specially commissioned etched stone murals at the shrine feature the Last Supper and the President John F. Kennedy Peace Memorial. They have been beautifully preserved since they were completed in 1964. The property has been nationally designated as a “Peace Site.”
The property also is part of the Niagara County Historic Trail. It was a historic canoe landing for Haudenosaunee people and the site where the British landed in 1813 to capture Fort Niagara.
In addition, attendees also will be able to tour the Little Chapel, which is one of the smallest religious structures in Western New York. The small chapel was in the national spotlight in 1955 when it miraculously survived the Niagara River ice jam. The ice blasted its way down the river, destroying everything in its wake, but when it got to the Little Chapel, 30-foot walls of ice divided, leaving the chapel intact.
The preserved grasslands are home to endangered plants and bird species.
Tom Melius, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest regional director, and Wendi Weber, Northeast regional director, jointly announced the $300,000 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Joint Venture Habitat award. The federal grant is one of five grants given in the Midwest and Northeast regions. Stella Niagara was the only project selected for the Northeast region.
Protecting Stella Niagara Preserve is part of a broader strategy to protect wildlife habitat along the Niagara River. It is internationally designated as an Important Bird Area on par with places like the Everglades and Yellowstone, according to the Joint Venture program.
“Undeveloped areas along the Great Lakes are some of most important places in North America for migrating birds,” Weber said. “This initiative supports local land protection efforts and leverages funding to conserve the nature of the Great Lakes for wildlife and for people.”
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, who wrote a letter in support of the project, said in a statement, “I am pleased efforts to help the Western New York Land Conservancy secure funding for the creation of the Stella Niagara Preserve were successful.”
Once the property is acquired, the Land Conservancy will open it to the public with walking trails, fishing access and a launch for kayaks.
Sister Edith Wyss, provincial minister of the Sisters of St. Francis, the current property owner, said, “We are so happy that the Land Conservancy is working to protect this awe-inspiring and spiritually uplifting place for future generations to enjoy. The proceeds from the property sale will help us care for our sick and infirm sisters as well as support our ongoing ministries.”
Some programs of Stella Niagara include a school, educational and health programs for academically struggling, low-income inner-city youth at the Francis Center in Niagara Falls, and a women’s respite program for low-income single mothers, grandmothers raising grandchildren and women with cancer.
She said that there are 130 sisters in the province and that 60 live at Stella Niagara.
She said as sisters retire and stop earning, they needed to look at other ways to support their mission.
“This gives us additional funds to meet our needs,” said Wyss, who added that preserving the entire parcel along the river was important to the order. “It is a perfect match.”
Smith said part of the funds already raised include more than $2.3 million in New York Power Authority Greenway funding.
“It fits in so beautifully with the larger effort to create a greenway along the American side which is similar to the Canadian side, where there is significant access to that resource,” she said.
Smith said the Western New York Land Conservancy in East Aurora services the eight counties of Western New York. In its 23-year history, it has protected about 6,000 acres of land.
She said the organization’s ecological goals are aligned with those of the sisters.
“There is a nice match between the core values they care about and the values of our organization in protecting the ecology of this special place in perpetuity,” she said.
Smith said the goal of the fundraising efforts is to both purchase the property at the appraised value of $2.25 million and secure funds for an endowment for the future upkeep of the property. She said the Town of Lewiston has not contributed any funding for the preserve but will be asked to share its parking at the Lewiston Senior Citizens Center for visitors.
The property had been made available for some special tours, but Smith said they hope to have the property open to the public by next summer.
“Or earlier if we raise the funds sooner,” Smith said.
The cost to join the tour is $100 and interested attendees must make reservations by Monday by calling the Western New York Land Conservancy at 687-1225 or going online at www.wnylc.org.
If you are interested in supporting the Stella Niagara Preserve, checks may be sent to: the Western New York Land Conservancy, P.O. Box 471, East Aurora, N.Y. 14052. An online giving page is available at www.wnylc.org.