By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
For 75 years, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace sought spiritual renewal for themselves and scores of faithful in Stella Maris Retreat Center, their sanctuary by the sea.
At the core of this sanctuary is the original house – a Bavarian style chalet built in 1868 for a prominent banker. Historians often cite this iconic structure as the catalyst which sparked the lengthy and glittering reign of Long Branch as the “Queen of Resorts” along the Jersey Shore.
But World War II brought this era to a close, and in 1941 the sisters purchased the chalet, renamed it Stella Maris – Star of the Sea in Latin – and charted a course that saw its outreach expand from being a spiritual oasis for them to a place of renewal for many.
At its peak in the early part of this century, Stella Maris welcomed more than 12,000 people per year to a range of programs that magnified the soul and engaged the senses. Relics of St. Therese, the Little Flower were venerated by scores in one of its great rooms just two years ago, scholars and theologians came to share their insights on the faith, and thousands came to understand the significance of water in context with God’s creation by way of a special ministry there.
Sadly, like so many great houses along the Atlantic coastline over the decades, time and tide have taken a severe, and so far irreparable, toll on its landscape. And after years of effort by the sisters and their devoted friends to save their section of the shoreline from the ravages of the waves, Stella Maris closed Dec. 31.
It was water, after all – the sisters’ much beloved resource on so many levels – that put an end to Stella Maris as their retreat center on the 6.8-acre, oceanfront tract nurtured and refurbished by them.
As far back as 2009, state and area newspapers were painting pictures of their efforts to raise an estimated $500,000 to repair an already badly compromised sea wall. The Star Ledger described the property as being under assault by the ocean while the sisters strove to “hang onto a spot that defines their existence.”
An article quoted Sister Clare McNerney expressing hopes for the future. She told the Star Ledger, “I hope that whatever goes on over the years, we’ll be able to retain it so that we can save it for posterity.”
But in 2012, Hurricane Sandy inflicted the cruelest cuts, demolishing the pavilion, deck and changing rooms as the unchecked surf rampaged wildly, eroding the sand. A new retaining wall was needed to contain the sea in future storms – but at an estimated $1 million, that objective was far out of reach.
After all avenues for its salvation as a retreat center were explored to no avail, the painful decision was taken to sell the property, said Sister Kristin Funari, assistant congregation leader of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.
“It was Sandy and everything that followed Sandy – climate change, ocean rise, Pope Francis and Laudato Sí – that bolstered us. … We were making the right decision. That part of the New Jersey coastline (is so over developed). There are so many high rises on such a delicate strip of land. We felt that in moving forward, we could put in the kind of restrictions that would not allow development in a dense way.”
And that is what the sisters are working toward. They are seeking to place the Ocean Avenue tract in safe hands – hands that would retain as many of its natural gifts as humanly possible.
Sister Kristin pointed out that under their stewardship, the natural aspects of the tract were dramatically enhanced. They cultivated a meadow of native plants and an organic garden and established Waterspirit, a wide reaching program that offers a unique variety of opportunities for people to acquaint themselves with critical water issues.
Waterspirit is looking for a new home but remains on the grounds for now.
Though serious proposals with a partnership that included the Monmouth County Park System, two non-profit organizations and a land conservation group did not come to fruition, Sister Kristin said the sisters are still focused on “leaving that land in conservation. That is a goal of ours,” for the property which is assessed at $12 million. “We won’t know (the outcome) until we go out for a second round of proposals.”
In the meantime, a committee will begin working on a feasibility study for a retreat house in another, yet to be determined, location. “Not Stella Maris as it was,” she pointed out. “But Stella Maris as it could be.”
Processing the Loss
For so many, whether or not another retreat center is developed, “Stella Maris as it was,” will always be holy ground. And as the reality unfolded, that ground was being mourned.
“It’s been a death not just for the staff at Stella Maris, but for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace,” and the retreatants, said Sister Kristin, who is based at the order’s Eastern Regional Office in Englewood Cliffs.
Sister Kristin has known and loved that holy ground since first arriving there as a young postulant in the ’60s to help open up the house for summer retreats and gatherings.
The decision two years ago to close the 42-room-center, purchased by the sisters as a vacation spot for $14,000 in 1941, was incredibly painful, she said. “We are acutely aware of the retreatants and there is a lot of mourning going on.”
To help ease the sense of loss, a number of events were held before its actual closing, Sister Kristen said.
But the wound is fresh for many, including Pat Stephens, a spiritual director in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Red Bank. Stephens expressed her sadness about the closure in a letter to The Monitor.
She wrote of witnessing the closing Mass. “As I sat in the chapel, I thought about all the people who prayed in this place, many asking for a healing from God and others entrusting their lives to his service.
“I know (the decision) can’t be overturned,” said Stephens. She feels so called to retreats that “the practice will always be in my life.” Times of spiritual renewal and rest are so important to the soul, she said. “But, this wonderful place is gone.”
Kitty Parisi, a member of Precious Blood Parish in nearby Monmouth Beach, is a lay associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.
A member of the committee looking for a possible alternative site, she reflected on the major impact Stella Maris had on her life. “It was a place of tremendous peace … it (was) very important to me. … The silent retreats were so extremely helpful – you experienced God’s presence,” said Parisi, a former non-governmental representative at the United Nations for the Sisters of St. Joseph. In that role, Parisi had coordinated peace and justice activities and authored a newsletter on those topics for the sisters.
She understands that many who found warmth, comfort and faith at Stella Maris are dispirited by its loss. “It wasn’t (just) that it was so beautiful,” she said, remembering a fellow parishioner who always said, “‘you really find God there. ‘There was a beautiful sense of God’s presence.”
Camille Herr, whose husband, Edward is a deacon with St. Dorothea Parish, Eatontown, thinks fondly of the 8:30 a.m. Mass celebrated in the retreat house chapel and how people would stay afterward and pray.
“I know nothing remains the same but I think of how many people were touched by God there,” she said. “It’s important to have a place to retreat to. We’re all so busy with our lives we need to take that time and come away and be with the Lord.”