CAPE MAY POINT — The Sisters of St. Joseph, a group of nuns based out of Philadelphia, are considering knocking down the beachfront St. Mary by-the-Sea Retreat House they have owned for more than a century and “returning it to nature.”
“As we engage in both demographic and financial planning, we believe it is necessary for us to plan for the divestment of this property,” the congregation said in a statement.
The Sisters of St. Joseph declined to comment on specific reasons but said in the statement they are working with a law firm to seek preservation and conservation organizations that would be interested in buying the land. They intend to use the large main retreat house at 101 Lehigh Ave. until at least 2021.
“Given its beachfront location and our congregational commitment to care for Earth, our desire is eventually to return this land to nature rather than use it for further development,” according to the statement.
The sisters bought the beachfront property, which is the size of a city block, for $9,000 in 1909, or more than $215,000 today if adjusted for inflation.
It is located one block from the iconic Cape May Lighthouse and is assessed at $4.1 million, although the congregation does not pay property taxes there.
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Beachgoers relaxing on the shore near the retreat house said they were sad to hear the property might be knocked down but pleased with the idea of returning it to nature.
“I think more people would take advantage of the nature preserve than people who take advantage of the convent,” said Ed Kling, 65, of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, who has a home nearby in Lower Township.
Gretchen Whitman, director of the Nature Center of Cape May, called the proposition “intriguing.” She said Cape May Point is an important area for migratory birds and butterflies.
“Every square inch, even if it’s small, matters,” Whitman said. “We would definitely be interested in what’s going on.”
St. Mary by-the-Sea currently runs retreats for the Sisters of St. Joseph, other congregations and laypeople.
Before being bought by the sisters, the building was the Shoreham Hotel of Cape May Point and then a nursing home for African Americans, according to a website run by the congregation.
“We’re very sad to see it go,” said Rick Eslinger, of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, who bought a house in the borough 12 years ago. “It’s a landmark here.”
There’s no indication the sisters would be willing to sell to a developer, despite its value. Some frequent visitors to the area said they would oppose large-scale development on the site should the nuns change their minds.
“I personally would hate to see it torn down,” said Judy Kling, 65, also of Schwenksville. “I’d hate to see it turned into a big hotel.”
“I don’t think anyone in the community would like to see a major development there,” said Whitman, adding she couldn’t speak for everybody.
Ollie Tomasello, 44, and Candice Boblett, 43, both of Hammonton, go to the beach at Cape May Point because it’s peaceful, they said. They said they also don’t support development of the site.
“We would find some other quiet place to go,” Boblett said.