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Sister Maureen Carroll, Belmead’s executive director, vows theproperty will never “become a land of mega-mansions.”
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Last May, the “Belmead Bioblitz” attracted more than 100 naturalists andscientists to count and record the flora and fauna at Belmead.
On the drive out to Belmead in Powhatan County, most of what you see is grass, brush and fences. An occasional horse grazes in a rolling meadow. It's a peaceful place, and you'd never guess the land has a paradoxical and somewhat revolutionary history.
Today, the stewards of Belmead — the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order of religious women founded in 1891 by St. Katharine Drexel — are working hard to maintain the 2,200 acres sitting on the James River. This is land where 150 slaves labored under their master, Philip St. George Cocke, a brigadier general who committed suicide in 1861, after leading Confederate troops in the Civil War battle of First Bull Run.
Thirty-four years later, in 1895, as Drexel used her family's banking fortune to set up schools for American Indian and black students nationwide, Belmead's land — donated to Drexel and the Sisters — housed residential schools for young black men and women, an oasis of education and social justice.
These Catholic schools — St. Francis de Sales School for women, St. Emma for young men — served as a powerful countermeasure against segregation, poverty, prejudice and slavery's other legacies. Students came from all over the South to attend the schools, where they learned trades and later prepared for college. Drexel, whose family money reverted to her father's charities upon her death in 1955, started schools all over the country and has since received sainthood from the Vatican.
Her death left Belmead in the hands of the Sisters, who managed to keep the schools running for 17 more years without Drexel's funding. But the schools were forced to close in 1972, as desegregation finally took hold in most parts of the South, and there was decreased interest in institutions like St. Francis and St. Emma. Today, the sites of both former schools, along with a granary and horse barns, comprise the modern-day Belmead estate.
Keeping the Land Vital
Although the students are gone, the sisters continue to live on and maintain the property, with considerable volunteer assistance from alumni and other friends. Sister Maureen Carroll, Belmead's executive director, says she and her team are fully engaged in keeping the land relevant and vital, particularly in terms of conservation and education.
"This place will not become a land of mega-mansions," she declares. A thousand-acre segment of the property is under a conservation easement, which means nothing can be built there, even if the ownership passes to another person or group. Also, the buildings — including the mansion and auxiliary structures — are protected under federal and state historic statutes.
In 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Belmead one of 11 most endangered historic places in the country because of the natural decline of the buildings. This may sound like a bad thing, but the National Trust and its counterparts in individual states often announce these lists to promote interest in undervalued historic properties. Belmead, in fact, has since found support for improvements, as Preservation Virginia has included the land on its most endangered list.
In 2006, the sisters had decided as a group to dig in, raise funds and make repairs, instead of selling the property. They are leading a $7 million capital campaign (which was halfway to its goal as of late April) to make needed repairs to the mansion, parts of which date back to the 1840s, and to renovate St. Francis and potentially transform it into a post-secondary residential school for young women graduating from disadvantaged school systems. It would serve as a bridge to college, emphasizing science, technology, math and the arts.
"That's one of the visions we have for the place," says Carroll, a former school principal from Chicago. A St. Francis alumna, Carol Johnson, is working with the Sisters on the plan; she is a former superintendent of Boston schools.
Over the past eight years, they have received grants, one of which provided needed repairs to the mansion's roof, and are continually coming up with new ways to raise money. In May, proceeds from the staging of Lady Patriot, a play at the University of Richmond about a former slave who spied on Confederate President Jefferson Davis, went to Belmead's capital campaign, and the Sisters hope Belmead's latest project — hosting wedding receptions — will bring in added income.
Other activities at Belmead include a horse-boarding and riding business, a newly opened preschool (which has room for growth), occasional lectures on a variety of educational topics, stargazing events with the Richmond Astronomical Society, clearing and mapping 37 miles of riding and walking trails, and replacing loblolly pines with Virginia hardwood trees, which have been on the decline.
It's a busy place, but the sisters are up to the task and hope to bring more members of the public to see, listen and learn.
Last May, more than 100 naturalists and scientists (many coming from the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University) scattered across the land and waded into wetlands and waterways to count and record the species of flora and fauna at Belmead. Experts on birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, insects and plants attended the event, which the sisters dubbed the "Belmead Bioblitz."
"We need to develop a land plan," says Sister Jean Ryan, a master gardener and naturalist who oversees Belmead's gardens. She also monitors water quality in Deep Creek and West Creek for the James River Association's RiverRats group. With 90 known acres of wetlands and additional vernal pools — mini-wetlands that appear only in spring and draw amphibians — Belmead is a prime place for natural research, Ryan says.
The Bioblitz was a highlight of 2013, but Ryan also enjoys some of the smaller events, like when students from nearby high schools met animal rehabilitators and some of their patients. She's also working on the trails project, creating maps and raising matching funds for a $200,000 grant, while her fellow RiverRat, Sister Elena Henderson, is clearing away a great deal of barbed wire that dates back several decades. Products of the "human invasive species," Ryan jokes.
Meanwhile, Sister Angela Lydon plans programs for the Thomas Berry Educational Center at Belmead, which brings together stargazers, educators, researchers, teachers and interested members of the public for lectures and other activities, most of which promote reflection on culture, history, spirituality, creativity and the natural world.
Although the sisters are busy with many tasks, Carroll says "social justice is very connected to everything, to treat people and the earth well."
For more information about Belmead, its history and its future, visit francisemma.org .
PLUS: Read an interview with actor and St. Emma alum Lou Beatty Jr. , who is helping to raise funds to restore the school.