believe in miracles. And they’ll tell you it’s miraculous that their
116 year old St. Mary-by-the-Sea retreat still survives the wrath of
the aggressive Atlantic
Ocean. The storm-tossed high dunes are at
their back door, at the very tip of New Jersey.
The U-shaped white Victorian building, with its aprons of
open porches has a picturesque red roof with hipped dormers that is
topped with crosses and sits in the shadow of the Cape May
Lighthouse. Both are visible for miles at sea and are twin sentinels
from the air as one approaches Cape May Point where the Atlantic
Ocean and Delaware Bay meet.
The Sisters of St. Joseph are part of the landscape of this
very unique place that is Cape May Point. They have owned, preserved
and prayed over their beloved hulk of a summer-retreat house for
almost 100 years. The burden of backing off the sea has cost these
thrifty nuns tens of thousands of dollars. The Atlantic has pounded
and punched without mercy at the man-made concrete sea wall. The
mountain of 10-ton boulders installed by the nuns in the late 1950s
to protect St. Mary’s from collapsing into the sea has fared no
better. "We pray unceasingly that we will be spared," says Sister
Ann Raymond, St. Mary’s Director.
The 135 rooms at St. Mary-by-the-Sea appear much the same now as in
1909 when the sisters purchased the Shoreham Hotel for $9,000. A
bed, a bureau, a chair, a clothes’ tree, a towel rack, white walls,
bare floors, white lace curtains, a very small corner closet, a
shared bath. No air conditioning or elevators. More recently, a desk
and chair have been added. Some of the bedrooms were not wired for
electricity until the 1990s.
Despite the fact that it is high season at this seaside
resort, Cape May Point remains a quiet community. At one o’clock in
the afternoon, on a hot August day, the only sound is the squeak of
the front screen door and the quiet lap of the waves beyond.
A statue of St. Joseph, the carpenter, stands sentry over the
mail table. At his
feet is a small glass containing wildflowers from
the dune outside the tall windows of the sprawling Community Room.
Its functional sofas and chairs are occupied by women, heads bowed,
in books or writing in journals. The only sound is that of the
ceiling fans above.
A dune covered over with thick, tangled vegetation sits just
three feet from the back door of the chapel, once a hotel ballroom
where Victorians danced the waltzes of the day. A solitary sister
prays. A nun walks the boards of the 200-foot long veranda, takes a
seat in a rocker and looks to the sea.
The Sisters of St. Joseph are educators. It is, in fact, a
major part of their legacy. Over the past 50 years, while the
Atlantic advanced, stealing the entire beach at St. Mary’s, the
Sisters of St. Joseph-Philadelphia retreated in number from 2,700 to
the current 1,100. Many of them are now older and retired. This
environmental and social erosion has created a perfect storm which
the nuns call challenge.
The sisters hold a special place in Cape May Point lore. Locals
remember the days before they wore street clothes. They like to
recall Vespers and the sounds of hundreds of sweet voices singing
Latin chants. After supper, sisters walked the pathways lined with
simple cottages and pretty gardens, gliding along in their long
black habits, veils flowing in the breeze. There are still those who
wonder how some sisters raced around the streets on bicycles, their
long black skirts sailing in the wind while their starched-linen
headdresses and veils stayed in place.
Sister Ann Marguerite Kearns, a nun for 70 years, has
vacationed at the Point every summer, the exception being World War
II when the military used St.
Mary’s as a barracks. She recalls the
old days when habits were required attire, whether in the water or
out of it.
"We wore a black bathing suit," she remembers, "a black
cover-up, black stockings, a black swim cap – no hair showing – and
black rubberized shoes. We didn’t think anything of it. We jumped
right in the ocean and took off swimming. All the clothes didn’t
make any difference."
It’s easy to see why the Sisters of St. Joseph would choose
Cape May Point as their summer retreat. One can trace its roots to a
wilderness called Stites Beach that was transformed in 1875 as a
Presbyterian "moral and religious seaside retreat" by John Willdin,
whose wife was a Stites and owned the land. Willdin called the
community Sea Grove and was joined in the venture by the
Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, a fellow
It’s hard to forget the power of nature out at the Point. Its
particular geography creates ephemeral effects: light, mist, fog,
currents, reflected moon and sunlight, winds, the fresh waters of
Lake Lily. Bird watchers and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts come from
around the world. It is that same geography, however, that produces
vicious storms. Lightening rods are visible atop the crosses on the
roof. The nuns admit it can be scary to ride out a storm here.
They recall Sister Saint Remi who walked the halls with a
lighted candle in hand, pleading with the other nuns to pray hard
when the winds and lightening blew in from the sea.
Sister Mary Elizabeth Gebhart remembers a flood in which "the
water breached the dunes and spilled into the streets all around the
building. The water rolled into the courtyard, but stopped short at
the feet of our statue of Mary."
There were major storms in 1933, ‘34 and ‘38. St. Mary’s was
younger then, with more beach protection, and escaped destruction.
Fierce storms in 1944,
1954 and especially the Great Ash Wednesday Nor’Easter of 1962 created high mounds of sand on two sides
surrounding St. Mary’s. Recent dune replenishment projects have
added so much sand to the landscape that the ocean is no longer
visible from the first floor of the retreat house. You have to climb
the steps to the second level verandas to enjoy a seagull’s view.
The seawall the nuns installed, in addition to the jetties
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built to stop erosion, have
conspired to help nature tear out the sand. Cape May Point Mayor
Malcolm Fraser says the jetties interfere with the natural drift,
eroding sand rather than replacing it. And there is a back swirl at
the tip of the Cape that has chewed out the Delaware Bay side.
Mayor Fraser, in office for 15 years, is understandably
obsessed with beach erosion. He describes a "scour" or 35-foot deep
hole on the sea bottom, 200 feet offshore from St. Mary’s. He said
the Army Corps of Engineers analyzed it and found it was caused by
waves hitting St. Mary’s aging seawall, and with equal force,
bouncing back onto the ocean floor, digging the ditch. The Corps, in
its most recent $15 million beach replenishment project, filled the
hole with sand to ease further erosion.
The nuns were literally up against a rock and a hard place
with the sea leaping ever closer to their retreat house. Then in
2004, they felt their prayers were answered when the Army Corps of
Engineers began building dunes and replenishing beaches from the
Cove (in Cape May City) to St. Mary’s and down the Point (to Sunset
Boulevard) with more sand than has been seen in 40 years, providing
the nuns with some protection again. Will those millions of grains
stay? Already much has washed away. Mayor Fraser says it was
shocking last fall when a storm, hitting at high tide, flooded the
expanse of brand new beaches, the water lapping all the way to the
top of the new dunes.
"The sea has taken 40 blocks around us," said Sister Ann.
"Some of the homes lost themselves to the Atlantic." The nuns saved
two houses that now sit across the street from St. Mary’s on Lehigh
Avenue, at Lincoln. St. Joseph House was purchased in 1913, and
later moved back from the beach. They acquired Queen of the Sea in
1923, and moved it in 1962 after its foundations washed away in the
ferocious March Nor’Easter.
When the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 barreled up the
coast, on September 14th, soldiers occupied St. Mary’s. Winds up to
63 miles-an-hour blew off shingles and sections of her porches. A
storm surge breached the beaches from the Point to the City of Cape
May, wrecking, for all time, the last remaining homes in the eroded
neighboring borough of South Cape May. The borough dissolved in
The nuns speak in grateful tones describing the destructive
sea, remembering what once was. Once there were four hotels on the
beach – Sea Grove House, Cape House, Centennial House and the
Shoreham – now only theirs, the old Shoreham, remains.
As soon as the war ended, the nuns flocked back to their
beloved summer place.
"It was January, the place was like a tomb with no heat, and
we were to clean up after the soldiers," remembers Sister Claire
Annice White. "We were in our black habits, 10 yards of heavy serge,
with our white cotton chemise underneath. That provided some warmth.
We rolled up our sleeves, hiked our skirts and washed away evidence
of wartime. The goal was to have St. Mary ready for the season. The
vision of summer pushed us on. Sisters Frances Claire and Anthony
Padua worked so long and hard they got pneumonia and had to be
evacuated by ambulance from St. Joseph House (across the street)
where we stayed at night because it did have heat."
Sister Ann Muriel Ronan and classmates of 1944 arrived later
that spring to scrub the bedsprings, kitchen bricks, floors, wash
the dishes, and make the beds.
The year the war ended, Sister Catherine Newell entered the
convent and remembers her first visit. "It was extremely rustic
here. No curtains. No electricity in our rooms. If we wanted to read
at night, and many of us did, we put a chair in the hallway. It was
a sight – those long hallways and a sister in front of almost every
door, with heads bowed under a string of bare bulbs reading into the
The reality of the upkeep of this Victorian building, which
sits, it seems, on the
edge of earth, would make even the most
inventive and wealthy whimper. The sisters take it one step, one
section, at a time, always aware of the big picture. Sister Dorothy Annas oversees the maintenance and Sister Kathy Hart, who joined the
convent in 1971, is the on-site assistant director. The nuns
describe Sister Kathy as a good carpenter and a creative force. She
says of herself, "I have some skills."
The nuns quietly manage the upkeep of a mansard-gambrel roof,
dormers, hundreds of windows, dozens of doors, aging rockers,
screened porches, pillars, verandas, spindles, boardwalks, outdoor
showers, indoor plumbing, a large lawn and courtyard which Sister
Kathy mows herself. They do so with the help of many volunteers.
For example, the repair of rocking chairs is an eternal
volunteer project. "Some of the chairs are 100 years old," says
Sister Terry Shaw, as she re-rushes a seat of an old rocker that was
stripped of its ocean wear, sports a new coat of Spar varnish, and,
once finished, might last another few decades. The rushing is
painstaking work. "We square the seat with tiny tacks making a
perfect square before weaving this paper rush tightly." She works
with her blood sister Sally Duffy, one of the lay volunteers, and
Sister Kathy McShane. They estimate they have restored about 80
chairs. Not an easy task in near 100-degree temperatures.
"Without our devoted volunteers this retreat house would not
be possible," says Sister Ann. "They come in the spring – nuns,
relatives, lay people, and neighbors – they return in the fall to
help close down. Their generosity has no boundaries." Sister Ann
Raymond sends the bills to The Hill – Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia,
where their Motherhouse is located.
The nuns charge a modest donation for the six-day retreats and
vacationing sisters. Even the kitchen staff is volunteer. Everyone
says the meals are generous and delicious, prepared from the best in
local provisions, stored in three giant converted iceboxes original
to the Shoreham Hotel. The boxes are paneled with oak and the
volunteers have refinished the wood to a soft patina.
Sister Alice Christine Hanley, class of 1947 says of St.
Mary’s, "We are teachers most of us, and it is where we regenerate
and rejuvenate. It is a blessing we can always come back home. Now
the stairs take longer and the memories are sweeter.
"This place by the sea means so much to all of us
spiritually. This place speaks of the thousands of sisters before us
who have taken such loving care of this building at this special
place on earth."
The nuns worry and pray about the heat wave and tropical
storms brewing this year. In their care, St. Mary-by-the-Sea has
survived a century of hurricanes, Nor’easters, wars and dramatic
social change. They knew about the "Gift of the Sea" before Anne
Morrow Lindbergh wrote her best seller 50 years ago. They live what
she learned: "Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches.
Patience and faith."
"My heart is here, and always has been," says Sister Ann
Marguerite, as she darts off and comes back with a sign: And, on the
8th Day God Created Cape May Point. "That says it all," she says.
The Sisters of St. Joseph are looking forward to 2009 when
they will celebrate 100 years of life at St. Mary-by-the Sea. It
will be one big party, they say, and you all can come.
Editor's note: This article
originally appeared in the
Fall 2006 issue of
Cape May Magazine.