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Historic retreat in Cape May Point to be preserved as science center
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Historic retreat in Cape May Point to be preserved as science center

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CAPE MAY POINT — The Sisters of Saint Joseph have officially closed their century-old retreat house overlooking the dunes where the Delaware Bay meets the ocean. But it now looks as though the beloved building will be saved.

In the shadow of the Cape May Lighthouse, the Saint Mary-By-The-Sea has served as a retreat house for the religious order and their guests since 1909.

Local preservationists were dismayed when the nuns announced plans in 2016 to return the site to nature, in keeping with the order’s environmental ethos.

On Monday, the order posted a letter announcing the property would instead be sold, to become a science education center.

In previous statements, the sisters said they wanted to keep the site from development, citing both the migrating species that pass the center and the potential danger from sea level rise.

“When the sisters were ensured by professional authorities that the site was no longer in imminent danger from the sea, plans were modified,” reads the statement released Monday. “The sisters knew that those red roofs are iconic and a treasured part of the landscape of Cape May Point and explored options for this property consistent with their pledge.”

Plans call for the creation of an environmental center that will focus on education, research and advocacy devoted to the conservation, protection and preservation of nature.

“This mission is aligned with the sisters’ land ethic and their commitment to the ocean, climate and marine life,” the statement continues. “The agreement calls for the long-term preservation of this iconic building and if ever destroyed by nature, the site would return to its natural ocean side habitat.”

A deed restriction will prevent commercial development at the site in perpetuity.

The posted letter is signed by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. The administrator of the retreat, Sister Sharon McCarthy, said Monday she is pleased the building will remain while serving the environment.

“I’m excited. It’s a great thing,” she said. “We pledge that we will be attentive to the needs of the Earth.”

She has been administrator for the final five years of the building serving as a retreat center, and has attended retreats there for far longer. McCarthy said she understands the fondness of residents and visitors for the building, saying whenever she sees it she feels like she’s coming home.

“More than the building, I valued the relationships that grew through my ministry here,” she added.

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Little further information about the deal was available on Monday, including the sale price. The statement lists the purchaser as the Cape May Point Science Center, Inc.

Former Cape May Point Commissioner Bob Mullock organized that group. On Monday, he said they are reaching out to environmental groups and universities to collaborate on the project, as well as raising funds.

“This is going to require a tremendous amount of work,” he said.

He was not sure how long it may be before the site is up and running.

“You go as quickly as you possibly can,” he said. Mullock also declined to give the purchase price for the property. “Any of those details, you’d have to get from the sisters.”

He praised the sisters for their work and for their commitment to the environment, and predicted the center will play an important role in the study of climate change and the impact of a planned offshore wind farm.

Mullock, a driving force behind the creation of the Harriet Tubman Museum in neighboring Cape May, had discussed the creation of a nonprofit nature and environmental center at the site last year. He also sought a rural business development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to transform the building into a science center.

The sister’s initial announcement about returning the site to nature sparked a flurry of preservation efforts, including online petitions and other advocacy. But until now, the religious order remained steadfast in its plans.

The original plan was to open the religious retreat for one final summer in 2021, but in February, the order said that would not happen. The COVID-19 pandemic meant the retreat remained closed for 2020 and 2021.

The order held a closing ceremony marking the end of the building’s service. It had hosted thousands of people, both nuns and laypeople.

“The heartbreaking and difficult decision to close the facility was the result of comprehensive planning that clearly identified the need for the divestment of this property. Given its beachfront location and our congregational commitment to care for Earth, our desire is to return this land to nature rather than use it for further development,” read a statement at the time.

Along with the lighthouse, technically just over the border in Lower Township, and the historic St. Peter’s By the Sea Episcopal Church at the other end of Harvard Avenue, St. Mary’s has been a Cape May Point landmark for generations.

Although the nuns have operated it for more than a century, they did not build the sprawling building. The building was originally constructed in 1889.

Before the nuns purchased the building in 1909 for $9,000, it operated as the Shoreham Hotel, and later as a “home for aged and infirmed colored people.” The nuns changed little, aside from transforming the ballroom into a chapel and adding crosses to the roof.

Contact Bill Barlow:

609-272-7290

bbarlow@pressofac.com

Twitter @jerseynews_bill

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