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Nuns strike $2.3M deal with Suffolk County to preserve 27 acres of land

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood since 2015 has dedicated some of its 212-acre central campus to try to bring back farming to western Suffolk.

Sister Helen Kearney, left, leader of the Sisters

Sister Helen Kearney, left, leader of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone are shown at Friday's announcement of an agreement to preserve 27 acres of the order's Brentwood campus that is used for farming. With them are Sister Mary Lou Buser, coordinator of the order's land initiatives and Sister Karen Burke, at right, .who is in charge of the organic garden Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A $2.3 million deal to preserve 27 acres of land owned by nuns in Brentwood and used for farming was announced Friday as the religious sisters' latest effort to help save the planet.

Amid a crowd of nuns gathered by plowed fields and tractors, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled the deal to buy development rights to land owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood so it can be preserved as farmland.

The sisters will “perpetually extinguish” their right to develop the 27 acres for residential, commercial or industrial purposes, the order said. But they will retain ownership.

“This is a great day for Suffolk County," Bellone said. “None of this is possible without an incredibly deep commitment and a broad vision" that the nuns exhibited. "They are models for what we need to be doing."

The head of the order, Sister Helen Kearney, said the agreement marked "an historic moment for the county and for our congregation." The nuns also have 3,192 solar panels on their 212-acre central campus and two alternative waste management systems. They hope to preserve 40 acres of pristine woodlands as well.

The largest order of religious sisters on Long Island, the Sisters of St. Joseph since 2015 have dedicated several parts of their bucolic grounds to try to bring back farming to western Suffolk County. The order's farms produce organic produce that is sold to people in the area at two farm stands on the property.

It is part of an environmental conservation effort that the nuns see as a central part of their mission, bolstered in part by Pope Francis’ major 2015 encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si.”

The other major order of nuns on Long Island, the Dominican Sisters of Amityville, also runs a farm on its central property.

“At this time of planetary degradation and aware of the needs of the Long Island bioregion, The Sisters of St. Joseph are responding by keeping their land as a sacred place of respect and healing for Earth and the community,” the 400-member order said in a statement.

Bellone noted that “there used to be farms all around here but they are long gone. They have brought back farming to western Suffolk."

Teddy Bolkas, one of the main farmers on the land, called the preservation "wonderful."

"Where else can you find this much land in western Suffolk County?" he said.

Bolkas and his workers soon will plant strawberries, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and other foodstuffs on the land, with the first harvest expected by June. He has a 10-year lease with the sisters to work the land and sell the produce at reasonable prices.

The funds received by the nuns for the purchase will be used to continue and enhance their environmental efforts, including a wastewater treatment facility elsewhere on the property, an initiative in which they already are partnering with the county. 

The Sisters of St. Joseph obtained the 212 acres, some of it still pristine, more than a century ago. Its massive motherhouse is located there, along with a school, a chapel and a nursing home.

Kearney said the order has been "committed to meeting the needs of the people of greater Long Island through education, social service, health care, and pastoral ministry since 1856."

She noted that the congregation's environmental initiatives "stem from a commitment to all creation that was affirmed in a Land Ethic Statement in March 2015." That statement led to a partnership with the Peconic Land Trust to protect the Brentwood campus that the order holds “in sacred trust,” she said.

The Peconic Land Trust, which works to conserve Long Island’s working farms, natural lands and heritage, has conserved more than 12,000 acres on Long Island. The group gave the nuns ideas on how to preserve their land.

That, in turn, led to the deal with Suffolk County and its farmland preservation program, which has conserved 10,750 acres of farmland since 1974. Farmers continue to own their land but relinquish the right to develop it into residential subdivisions. The county pays them for the development rights.

“All of us at the Peconic Land Trust feel fortunate to have the opportunity to assist the Sisters of St. Joseph in achieving their conservation goals for this incredible land,” said Kim Quarty, the trust's senior project manager. “Connecting them with the landmark Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program is a win-win.”

The Brentwood order, based mainly in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, also works in education, health care, social justice, spirituality and empowerment of women and girls.

Kearney noted that after the sisters arrived in Brentwood in 1896, the nuns and their co-workers farmed the land to feed themselves and students who attended a boarding school they ran. "Well, history repeats itself, and once again this farmland will sustain the lives of our neighbors," she said.

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