Dominican Sisters of Hope easement protects 'oasis' of land in New York

Property on land owned by the Dominican Sisters of Hope in Ossining, New York, that is part of a conservation land easement (Courtesy of Dominican Sisters of Hope)

As Catholics mark the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4, a small but significant part of one of New York's great footprints of creation is being preserved, thanks to the efforts of a Dominican congregation.

The 145-member Dominican Sisters of Hope and local officials in Westchester County, New York, announced Sept. 28 that slightly more than half of the sisters' 61-acre property along the Hudson River will be closed to further development, a move the congregation said "protects significant ecological resources."

The announcement comes as the sisters, other congregations and the wider church mark the end of the Season of Creation, which culminates today, Oct. 4, with the feast day of St. Francis, the patron saint of ecology and protecting the Earth.

"Our hope is that in the future, this land will be a source of healing for body, mind and spirit, as well as a place of refuge for the wildlife," Dominican Sister of Hope Prioress Lorelle Elcock said during a Sept. 28 public ceremony at the sisters' property, known as Mariandale, which houses the sisters' motherhouse and a retreat center.

Dominican Sr. Lorelle Elcock, prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Hope in Ossining, New York (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

"We have a responsibility to be in right relationship with Earth, not over it or owning it, but as part of it, caring for it," Elcock said, noting the timing of the announcement with the feast day of St. Francis and of wider efforts in the church to promote greater appreciation for creation.

She added: "We are protecting undeveloped land for not only humans but for the wildlife, the river, the air: all of the things that Pope Francis has talked about in [his encyclical] Laudato Si'."

Elcock said the land is "an oasis in the midst of development in Westchester County" and it is important that those visiting Mariandale for retreats continue to enjoy what she called "this sacred space."

And with 34 acres being preserved in perpetuity as natural space, she said, "we hope that the animals and plants who call this home will continue to thrive here, as well."

A view across the Hudson River from the property owned by the Dominican Sisters of Hope in Ossining, New York (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Overcast skies and the threat of rain kept the announcement of a conservation easement indoors. But a tour of the acreage confirmed Elcock's description of the land as an oasis: A forested bluff buffets the land that overlooks the scenic Hudson, forest that in a few weeks will exhibit the colors of fall.

An easement is an agreement "between a landowner and a land trust that permanently restricts the development of a property in order to protect the land's important conservation values," the sisters noted in a statement.

In this case, the land of varying habitat types — including a meadow, a steep ravine along the Hudson River, wetlands and woodlands — will become part of a nearly 1-mile stretch of conserved and undeveloped shoreline along the river.

The property is adjacent to a 30-acre nature preserve owned by the village of Ossining, about 40 miles north of New York City. Like other communities in suburban Westchester County, the village is feeling population strains: With a population of about 38,000, Ossining is now the densest village in the county, officials said. The easement means there can now be no development on this parcel of land.

An illustration of the land easement is displayed during a Sept. 28 public announcement about a land easement by the Dominican Sisters of Hope in Ossining, New York. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

The sisters partnered with Westchester Land Trust, a local organization that works to preserve land in Westchester County. The trust, the congregation said, "retains the obligation to ensure that the terms of the conservation easement are honored forever."

The sisters will continue to own and manage the property covered by the easement, however, and the easement does not extend to the part of the Mariandale campus that houses the sisters' retreat and conference center. That allows the sisters to initiate a planned renovation of its campus buildings, the congregation said in a statement.

Local and state officials attending the Sept. 28 announcement praised the sisters for the easement, noting the congregation received no financial benefit.

"It's a really strong gift. It's a selfless gift," said Kara Hartigan Whelan, vice president of Westchester Land Trust. "These acres will never, ever be developed."

"It sends a strong message to the community that the sisters are protecting a resource that really protects everyone here," Whelan told GSR in an interview following the public announcement. "It's really benefiting the greater good."

Elizabeth Feldman, a member of the Ossining Town Board, said the easement is a continuation of the sisters' contributions to the community, which include making the retreat and conference center a haven for reflection and education.

Sisters and visitors receive seeds as part of a Sept. 28 public announcement about a land easement by the Dominican Sisters of Hope in Ossining, New York. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

"The sisters have been so good to our community," she said.

The idea of affirming the common good comes easily to the sisters, Feldman and others said, something noted when city and county representatives honored the sisters with official proclamations, including one by Ossining Mayor Victoria Gearity that praised the sisters for their commitment to the common good and protecting the environment.

"We're stewards," Elcock told GSR, adding that the congregation does not know what will happen to the land "after we're gone." But, she said, the easement is a step toward guaranteeing the integrity of the land "beyond our lifetimes."

In a statement, Lori Ensinger, president of Westchester Land Trust, said the preservation of the 34 acres holds "special meaning" for her organization, particularly knowing the property "is sacred to the sisters." Her organization, she said, "worked to ensure that they felt comfortable with their decision to preserve the property after they are gone."

"Our hope is that in the future, this land will be a source of healing for body, mind and spirit, as well as a place of refuge for the wildlife," Sr. Lorelle Elcock said during a Sept. 28 public ceremony at the Dominican Sisters of Hope property. (Courtesy of Dominican Sisters of Hope)

"Every action they have taken demonstrates their clear stewardship ethic and a deep reverence for the land," Ensinger said. "This project has been one of the most inspirational we have ever been involved with."

The congregation's partnership with Westchester Land Trust is part of a larger trend: Religious communities have preserved land for decades. Another Dominican community, the Dominican Sisters of Peace, has utilized land it has owned since 1949 to support gardens and a center for environmental education in Plainville, Massachusetts. That congregation has also partnered with a local land trust coalition on a project to assist other religious communities' work with conservation groups.

Sr. Anastasia Lott, general secretary of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, another congregation based in Ossining, was among visiting sisters attending the Sept. 28 event. She noted agreeing to land easements is just one way sisters in the United States and elsewhere are taking seriously the idea of Earth protection. Other initiatives include urban farming and using solar power for energy at facilities that religious congregations run and own.

Taken together, Lott said, the various efforts are "really trying to do something for the next generation and do something right for the Earth."

Property on land owned by the Dominican Sisters of Hope in Ossining, New York, that is part of a conservation land easement. The fence is a safety measure because of a steep cliff to the left. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]

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