Saint Mary by -the-Sea, the summer retreat house of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has stood, for over a century, in the quiet landscape of Cape May Point, at the tip of the New Jersey Coast.
Tradition holds that Henry Hudson discovered The Point in the first decade of the 17th century. In 1621 Cornelius Mey was commissioned by the Dutch West India Company to explore the coastline of the region. Subsequently, in 1630, the Dutch West India Company purchased from the Native Americans a four-mile tract of land from The Point northwards.
In 1710, Henry Stites purchased the area now known as Cape May Point, calling it Stites Beach . Over a century and a half later, in 1876, a Presbyterian summer resort called Sea Grove was established. In 1878, the name of the area was changed again, this time to Cape May Point.
In 1889, the history of Saint Mary by-the-Sea began when the Shoreham Hotel of Cape May Point was built. For nearly a decade the hotel remained, but the fading popularity of The Point as a resort area eventually forced the closing. Once touted as "one of America's foremost hotels," it boasted 150 rooms, 1200 feet of porches, and a beautiful lawn leading 200 feet to the ocean.
In 1898, the old Shoreham was sold and became the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People. This venture also met with failure and in 1909, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, aided by Rev. Daniel I. McDermott, pastor of Saint Mary's Church in Philadelphia, purchased the entire property from the Hazzard estate for $9,000. Crosses were added to the roof, the ballroom became the chapel, and the sisters came for retreat and vacation.
In 1923, the property holdings of the Sisters of Saint Jospeh were further expanded by the purchase of the McAvoy House, then christened The Queen of the Sea. This house, used for retreat accommodations for the Sisters, was also originally located on the beach front but had to be moved to its present location after the storm of 1962.
In 1941, the United States government requested the use of the property and Saint Mary's by-the-Sea was leased to the U.S. Army for $1.00 a year until 1946. During the five -seven year period no retreats could be held. When the sisters finally returned in 1946, the property was in such "shambles" that complete renovation was necessary to restore its former condition. Because the ocean had been scattered with mines, the sisters were not permitted to swim. In 1966, the ban was lifted and the water declared safe for swimmers.
Beach erosion has been steady since 1900. Over the years, forty blocks of beach front have been lost to the encroaching sea. Since 1936, a total of 160 lots have been lost, in 1932, far-sighted Mother Mary James Rogers, Superior General of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, wanted to construct timber jetties. She had blue prints drawn and an application for a building permit filed. Beginning in 1956, rocks and concrete were laid each year for five years in an attempt to stem the tide of erosion. In 1958, a new sea wall was built. By the next year, however, it was battered and broken and new boulders had to be sunk at a cost of $50,000.
In 1962, the worst winter storm ever to hit the Jersey coast struck Cape May Point with savage force. After the storm, Saint Mary was badly damaged but still standing, while many other houses had succumbed to the sea. The porches were severely damaged, the bath houses completely destroyed, and the boulders of the sea wall scattered along the beach. Repairs on the porches were begun immediately, and Saint Mary was restored to its former state. In 1964, a concrete wall was built, and three years later plans for dunes and for four jetties, costing $100,000 each, were begun. The Borough of Cape May Point received a million dollar grant from the government to provide for greater security against the sea. In addition, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, spent over $150,000 since the 1930's on sea walls and other deterrents in the on-going war against erosion. As recently as 1989, the Army Corps of Engineers donated 45,000 cubic yards of sand, as part of a reclamation project costing $155,000. Beach replenishment at Cape May Point continues to occur on a regular basis. An extensive dune structure is in place to help prevent damage to properties surrounding the beaches/
While the basic structure of Saint Mary has remained virtually intact since it thrived and faded as the Shoreham Hotel, the retreat house has undergone varied changes including the renovation of the chapel, electricity added in all rooms, air conditioning placed in the common areas, and the installation of a small elevator.
In 1982, Saint Mary welcomed sisters from other congregations for retreat, followed in 1989 with the Associates of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, and in 1991 lay women. The population of lay women and men coming for retreat continues to grow each year.
For 108 years, this magnificent house we call Saint Mary by-the-Sea has stood against time and the sea, a monument to a bygone era, and a living testament to the faith of generations of Sisters of Saint Joseph who believed and continue to believe that Saint Joseph and Mary, Queen of the Sea, will guard this cherished place for generations to come.
Thank God we can still enjoy our house of prayer
and relaxation here by the ocean!