Nature meets nurture at St. Mary-by-the-Sea

Nuns 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 Presbyterian.

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 1945.

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 night.”

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.