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November 02, 2021

Cape May Point retreat St. Mary by-the-Sea to become nature center

Preservationists will take over the historic property at the Jersey Shore

Development Preservation
Cape May Point Retreat Google/Street View

St. Mary by-the-Sea Retreat House was a longstanding destination for silent retreats and spiritual enrichment programs at Cape May Point. The property is being preserved as a science and nature education center.

Cape May Point's historic St. Mary by-the-Sea, a religious retreat owned by the Philadelphia-based Sisters of St. Joseph, will live on as a science education center.

The seaside property temporarily shuttered in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, but it permanently closed in February when the Sisters of St. Joseph determined it would not be feasible to resume retreat offerings in 2022.

A formal closing ceremony for the three buildings, which had hosted thousands of nuns and laypeople over the last century, was held to honor the landmark.

For years, the property has faced encroaching beach erosion and remained open thanks to a series of dune projects, jetties and a sea wall that was constructed to protect its most vulnerable structures. The retreat is located a short walk from the Cape May Lighthouse in Lower Township.

In 2016, the Sisters of St. Joseph said they eventually planned to "return the land to nature," signaling they would sell the property to a conservationist to tear the retreat down and prevent future redevelopment. The Chestnut Hill-based group's core teachings include respect for the natural world, wildlife and the climate.

Local preservationists, hoping to keep the buildings intact, instead advocated for the property to remain and be repurposed after the retreat's closure.

As recently as February, it still appeared likely that the buildings would be torn down. Even prior to the pandemic, the retreat was expected to close after the 2021 season.

But the Sisters of St. Joseph said Monday that they have received assurance that the property is not at risk of an imminent environmental threat.

"When the sisters were ensured by professional authorities that the site was no longer in imminent danger from the sea, plans were modified," the group said. "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."

The proposal for a science education center came from a newly-formed nonprofit, the Cape May Point Science Center Inc., that will purchase the property and preserve it for the study of nature and the environment, according to the Press of Atlantic City. The sale of the property comes with a deed restriction that will prevent future commercial development of the site. The new owner also has agreed not to redevelop the site if it is destroyed by a natural disaster.

In the late 19th century, the property was the Shoreham Hotel of Cape May Point. It later served briefly as the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People in the early 20th century prior to its purchase by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who opened the retreat in 1909. The site was temporarily leased to the U.S. Army during World War II.

The new nonprofit that will take over the property was established by former Cape May Point Commissioner Bob Mullock, who was instrumental in bringing the Harriet Tubman Museum to Cape May.

A timeline for the property's transition into the new science education center has not yet been determined.