The Headwaters at Incarnate Words 50-acre nature sanctuary in the middle of San Antonios urban core isnt well-known, perhaps by design.
Its bordered by Highway 281, Olmos Dam and Hildebrand Avenue and sits up against Alamo Heights and the University of the Incarnate Word, hidden in plain sight.
Its use stretches back more than 12,000 years to the indigenous people who were the areas first and longest inhabitants. Others followed their trails there to the head of the river in pilgrimages to the famous Blue Hole.
Today the Headwaters property is really a small forest trapped within the city, filled with oaks hundreds of years old and abundant springs and wildlife.
Long owned by a congregation of Catholic nuns, the nature sanctuary now has what environmentalists and land conservationists hoped it would perpetual protection from real-estate development.
Those assurances were enshrined in July in a legally binding conservation easement signed by Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas, a land trust focused on the Edwards Aquifer, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and its environmental ministry Headwaters of Incarnate Word.
Those involved in the agreement say it took years to reach and was the work of godly patience, in part because so many entities were involved.
No doubt it was difficult because the acreage remains an enormously expensive piece of real estate, now forever off the market.
As part of the deal, the congregation gave up the rights to its development and to all those who may own the property in the future.
Its an infinite gift at a poignant time, when members of the congregation have not escaped the effects of a global pandemic and its declining membership looks to its own legacy and future generations that will enjoy and find solace in the preserve.
The congregation closed its 150th anniversary with the gift to those they may never minister to, nurse or educate.
They have 260 members in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Columbia, Peru, Ireland, Tanzania and Zambia, 100 of them are retired in the United States and Mexico.
Sister Teresa Maya, the groups leader, said the nuns were influenced by Pope Francis encyclical on the environment five years ago. It was the Vaticans most powerful instructions on the care of the planet and its poorest inhabitants.
Weve had an ecological conversion, said Maya, who led the national Leadership Conference of Women Religious through turbulent times. She said the conservation easement was the logical next step to that conversion.
It was a sacrifice, she said of the agreement and the valuable land to which the congregation has given up rights. We were not thinking of selling or building on it, but this agreement confirms that intent.
The day the agreement was signed, a letter arrived at the motherhouse in San Antonio from Rome celebrating Laudato Si, the papal encyclical on the environment. Maya took it as a sign that saving the green space in perpetuity was the right decision.
Former City Councilman Weir Labatt found his own validation in the Headwaters nature sanctuary, which he calls a spiritual forest. The conservation easement has been the only item on his agenda as chair of the Headwaters board.
Labatt thought of nothing else as he and other volunteers worked on clearing chinaberry and ligustrum trees, invasive species that overgrow and choke the sanctuarys majestic oaks. That project will take another 20 years, he said.
Douglas Dillow, CEO of the Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas, called the agreement tremendously important to San Antonios environment.
As a steward, the alliance wont do the day-to-day management of the sanctuary, he said. That will remain the work of the Headwaters of Incarnate Word. But the alliance will remain involved in perpetuity.
Maya and the congregation have no problem with that.
Having an environmental ministry reminds us we are stewards of nature, not owners of nature, she said. If we take care of nature, nature takes care of us.
She has seen the benefit of that first-hand.
Last spring, Maya said fireflies were spotted in the preserve for the first time in a long time
This spring, another gift arrived.
We saw so many Monarch butterflies, she said. It was absolutely magic, just magic.
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