Land deals like this only come around about once a century.
With majestic oaks and stunning views of Lake Jovita in the background, Sister Roberta Bailey, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida, shook hands with Saint Leo University President Arthur Kirk, thus sealing the deal to sell the Holy Name Monastery and surrounding land to its neighbor.
"Thirty-seven acres is now yours," Bailey said. "We're living in a rented house, probably for the first time in our existence."
Saint Leo is the oldest Catholic university in Florida, founded in the town of St. Leo by Benedictine monks in 1889 — the same year the first five Benedictine sisters moved in next door.
"The university was very generous with us," Bailey said.
When the deed is filed, the university will have paid $3.9 million for the property, including the 100,000-square-foot monastery the nuns could no longer afford to maintain.
"We rattle around in this building," Bailey said. "This was built at a time when we still have a boarding high school. We had 65 sisters, now we have 16."
The sisters, who first settled in St. Leo in 1889, will remain in the three-story building until they construct a new monastery and retreat ministry on property they own across the highway. Bailey said the sisters hope to move into the new 28,000-square-foot building in time for the 125th anniversary in February 2014.
"We're really glad to be selling to the university," Sister Eileen Dunbar said. "We don't want this property to be carved up into little bitty lots."
Donald Tapia, chairman of the university's board of trustees, promised to be a good landlord for the next two years. "I'll take that dollar for your rent," he joked.
"Actually," Bailey corrected him, "the agreement says our rent is $1 a year, paid quarterly."
Tapia and Kirk said they first started discussing a possible land deal with the sisters in the late 1990s. "We were landlocked for our growth, so we had to do something," Tapia said.
The university has been in building mode but was limited to its 186-acre campus. In the past two years, it has invested millions of dollars to build two new dormitories, a new business school and an underground parking garage with a lacrosse/soccer stadium on the roof.
The St. Leo campus serves 2,200 students, but the college has almost 16,000 students nationwide at satellite campuses and online academies. Tapia said he expects enrollment to double in the next 20 years.
Kirk said the college trustees would hold a retreat next week to discuss plans for the monastery and land. "We're very excited about the potential," he said.
Kirk said the monastery, built in 1960, has "good bones" and could be renovated for classrooms. "Our hope is, no matter what, we'll be able to maintain the chapel," he said. "It was renovated about five years ago, and it's just gorgeous. So we want to preserve the integrity of that space."
As for the rest of the property, the sky's the limit. Kirk said the university has enough campus housing to accommodate the student body for the next five years, but it needs more classrooms and more dining space.
"It gets pretty crowded around lunchtime," he said. "We could expand the dining hall, or we could think about offering something different and complimentary at another location."
A future college of engineering is another possibility. Saint Leo offers engineering as a minor but not as a degree.
Kirk said the college also needs more space for the arts, both visual and performing. "We have small music and theater programs, but they are constrained by the size of their space," he said. "We don't have sufficient art studio space or performing space."