OCEAN CITY — The historic Ocean Rest religious retreat on the corner of Central Avenue and 31st Street will likely receive its last rites this year.
The two historic structures, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have served as both memorable landmarks and spiritual destinations for countless locals, visitors and members of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the order that owns the property.
However, facing dwindling membership and exorbitant costs to repair and upgrade the structures, the order has decided to demolish the buildings, sell off half the land and rebuild a new, smaller structure for its brothers to use.
Brother James Martino, director of administration for the order’s District of Eastern North America, said that for the brothers to stay, the buildings must go.
“We’re selling the lots to try and stay in Ocean City,” he said.
This is just the latest religious group to face such a situation in recent years. Many organizations established retreat buildings by the beach decades ago when land was worth little, but now they contend with both high taxes and the potential to make huge sums from selling their properties.
Retreats in Stone Harbor and Cape May Point have turned to fundraisers such as a beach run and surf competition to maintain their old buldings, while the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia auctioned off its villa in Ventnor for $4.5 million last year.
Christian Brothers plans to divide its oceanfront property into four lots, two 45 feet wide and two 50 feet wide, that run from Central Avenue to the water. It will keep the southernmost lot, sell the two northernmost lots, and determine whether to sell or keep the fourth after the sale of the other two.
In the past year, the order held two meetings to solicit local input on the plans. Hundreds of residents and visitors would attend Mass at the chapel in past summers, so neighbors feel a personal connection to the place.
Nora Smeader has lived just up 31st Street from Ocean Rest since 1987, but the 89-year-old has been visiting the Catholic institution much longer than that. She said she attended both meetings the order organized and was unhappy to hear about the structures getting knocked down.
“The building itself represents holy ground as far as we’re concerned,” she said.
Initial plans were to retrofit the larger four-story building on the southern side of the property, but Martino said that would have been cost prohibitive. Now they plan to simply rebuild with a simple, single-family home sized building.
These plans are in the preliminary stages. The group released a statement announcing the project March 1, and it still needs to submit applications to the city Planning Board and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“It would be a shame to see it go, but it’s one of those things that you can’t save everything,” said city planning board Chairman John Loeper.
According to the Christian Brothers’ history of the property, the main structure was built in the late 19th Century by developer George Langley and called the Ocean Rest Hotel. At that time it was one of few structures on the island’s oceanfront.
Department store magnate John Wanamaker came to own the property, and sold it to the order in 1898. The Christian Brothers made it their summer sanctuary for both relaxing and instructing new members.
They built an adjacent chapel in 1906, and opened a summer school in 1926. More than 400 brothers would gather there for spiritual retreats each year in the mid-20th Century.
Today, the tall wooden buildings are partly closed because they are not compliant with fire codes. Martino said the structural problems pose serious safety issues.
While much smaller than it once was, the Christian Brothers’ northeastern district still has more than 330 brothers who sponsor and operate more than 30 ministries, including La Salle University in Philadelphia and Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, Monmouth County.
For some residents, the loss of their historic retreat buildings is unfortunate, but the fact that the brothers will still be able to vacation in Ocean City is all that matters.
“I would hate to see them leave us,” said Marie Barry, a longtime resident who lives just across Central Avenue.
Barry also said that the old structures were picturesque for outsiders but had to be uncomfortable for the brothers who had to climb stairs in stifling heat. She said she cares more for their well-being than the scenery.
“It’s more about their convenience because they’ve been very good to the people around here,” Barry said.
Still, Smeader said she and many others would not be happy to see more large-scale development once the order sells its properties. She said she just wishes the retreat could always stay as it was.
“It was absolutely something that went along with the image of Ocean City,” she said.
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