STONE HARBOR — The only private beach on all of Seven Mile Island is a stretch of sand on 111th Street with a pretty righteous history.
Seventy-five years ago, an order of Catholic nuns based in Philadelphia known as the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary purchased six acres of beachfront and built a spiritual retreat called Villa Maria by-the-Sea.
When they weren’t using the beach, they let surfers ride the waves. The locals were stoked, and they dubbed it Nuns’ Beach.
“We were more strict then, and we were only allowed to go on the beach from 1 to 3 p.m.,” said Sister James Dolores, the property manager of the Villa Maria, “so we used to let them surf before then and afterward.”
As a way to thank the order for its kindness, the surfers created the Nuns’ Beach Surf Invitational, and the 17th annual event takes place today. The event originally was supposed to raise money to maintain the retreat, but it has done more than that: It has also raised awareness of the unique bond between the sisters, the surfers and the rest of the seaside resort.
“Unless you got into the inner sanctum of the convent there, you wouldn’t know what they do,” said Bill Lauth, owner of Pete Smith’s Surf Shop, a longtime sponsor of the competition. “But with Sister James and the public relations she has done through this one event, it has fostered quite a gathering and brought the community together.”
Dolores, who is best known as Sister James, used to be a teacher at a number of schools. She is originally from Philadelphia, and her phone ringtone is the voice of the late Philadelphia Phillies announcer Harry Kalas.
She injured her leg in 1993, retired from teaching and moved to Villa Maria full time.
“I think God pushed me off that ladder,” she said.
When she first came to the retreat she said it was in poor shape, but the structures were still very sound. She set to work fixing it up.
The surfing competition has proven crucial in helping to pay for the upkeep and repairs to the property over the years. She said she never talks numbers, but the money helps “a great deal.”
“I can’t emphasize enough how good people are to us,” she said. “We couldn’t survive without our benefactors.”
Among her helpers is Anthony Hillman, of Cape May Court House, who was among the original surfers who started the competition. On Thursday, he was in a garage at the retreat writing names on a board that showed this year’s competitors.
This will be his first year not competing, but he is still judging.
“It’s going to be big here this week,” Hillman said of the surf. “In fact, there are some guys out there right now.”
On the other side of the campus that spans from Second Avenue to the dunes is another garage, where Sister Andrew Marie was folding T-shirts. She had a variety of merchandise bearing cartoon nuns on surfboards, from T-shirts to beach towels to bumper stickers to hats.
“‘Pray for Surf,’ that’s a popular one,” Marie said about one of the hats hanging from a hook on the wall.
Inside the retreat building, Nancy Walker was wrapping gifts for the fundraiser dinner that takes place after the surfing event. So far they had wrapped several baskets to raffle off, including donated merchandise such as a signed goalie mask from Philadelphia Flyers great Bernie Parent and a variety of signed gear by Philadelphia Eagles legend and Stone Harbor homeowner Ron Jaworski.
Walker is not a nun, but she first came to one of the fundraiser dinners, as many locals do each year, and decided to keep lending a hand afterward.
“I’ve been wrapping gifts for about 10 years now,” the Stone Harbor woman said.
The Sister Servants order was founded in 1845, and in 1936 it purchased most of the land it owns in Stone Harbor for $2,000. At that time Stone Harbor was simply two dozen small beach cottages.
In 1956 the order bought some additional land next door that it keeps vacant as a buffer between the retreat’s buildings and new houses that were being built on the island’s southern end.
Today the whole property is worth nearly $22 million. Only the chapel is exempt from taxation as religious property.
The competition’s fees and merchandise sales that come with it have been a unique fundraising technique to help pay for the taxes that come with owning such an expensive set of parcels.
Coincidentally, The Archdiocese of Philadelphia also will be hosting an open house today to try and sell its massive retreat for priests in Ventnor. The diocese plans to auction off the property later this month to pay for a $6 million deficit.
In Cape May Point, the Sisters of Saint Joseph similarly had trouble funding their gargantuan Saint Mary by-the-Sea retreat complex, but they now host the “Sole Sisters Run/Walk” event in October that helps raise funding for the facility.
Saint Mary by-the-Sea also has its Women’s Wellness Weekend this weekend, for which any interested woman can pay $350 for a room, meals and holistic spiritual workshops on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
At Villa Maria, Sister Dolores said someday they, too, may have to welcome outsiders in to make money off the retreat in its off-season.
“I think the day’s going to come when we’ll not only be able to, but we’ll have to,” she said.
There are about 850 sisters in Dolores’s order today. The retreat can sleep about 147, and as many as 600 sisters visit each summer for a period of 10 days each.
It’s Dolores’s job to keep the retreat modern and well-kept during the off-season, and she keeps busy.
“Some people say, ‘Don’t you get lonely here all those months by yourself?’” she said. “But I say, ‘Come and see what I’m doing with my time.’”
As she gave a tour through the retreat’s halls, wearing a black, blue and white T-shirt that matches the color of the order’s habits, she pointed out dozens of tile floors she installed, walls and statues she painted and bedrooms she rearranged.
“I tell people I go to bed with a problem, and then I wake up with a solution,” she said.
Donations have helped pay for an elevator that allows elderly sisters to get to the second and third floors, a courtyard with the Stations of the Cross, new stained glass windows in the chapel and automated external defibrillators throughout the whole building.
“Our benefactors have allowed us to continue to come down here and renew our spirit each year,” she said.
Outside the building, there is a path of sand, grass and gravel, wide enough for a golf cart, that leads over the dunes to the beach.
There is a private area, fenced off and raised above the rest of the sand, where the sisters have benches and beach chairs to relax and watch the seas.
On Thursday, Dolores stood overlooking the water, where there were a few surfers already looking to ride some impending storm swells.
“It looks like we’re going to have some great waves this weekend,” she said.
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