STONE HARBOR — Villa Maria by the Sea, the sprawling retreat home for the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary since 1937, is slated for a downgrade.

Parts of the four-acre property will be sold and the existing building will be torn down and replaced by a smaller, energy-efficient one, according to a letter sent out Monday by the property’s manager, Sister James Dolores.

A demolition permit has not been filed, according to a worker at the borough’s construction zoning office, and official plans for the replacement building are not yet public.

In the letter, Sister James cited diminishing numbers of new vocations, a rising median age among the remaining sisters and “ever-increasing” operational costs.

“In the light of all of these factors, and to ensure the continuing presence of the Sisters here, it is necessary to diminish the size of Villa Maria — the buildings and property — to meet our present needs and to create a viable future for Villa Maria,” she said.

Longtime residents say the sisters have been an institution in the seaside borough since their arrival.

Kim Park, director of the Stone Harbor Museum, lives near the property and has lived in Stone Harbor for about 20 years. She got a call from her mother Monday and thought the letter had to be an April Fools’ joke.

“They’re great neighbors,” she said, citing the Nun’s Beach Surf Invitational contest held every September to raise money for the home.

Park said for much of the property’s history, lay people weren’t permitted on the beach in front of the retreat. She sees the nuns she knows around town at restaurants, but isn’t sure how many use the retreat.

“I don’t really know how many (sisters) come in the summer,” Park said. “It’s obvious when school lets out because most of them are teachers. You see the American four-door sedans all parked along that side of 111(th Street).”

About a year ago, according to Father Mark Cavagnaro, pastor of St. Brendan the Navigator Parish, Sister James asked that he pray for them because they were in “negotiations” of some kind.

So he wasn’t surprised by Monday’s news, he said, but he was disappointed.

“They have been very active in the community, present at many civic ceremonies,” he said. “And really they’re a spiritual force in the community.”

He also noted an upside to the news: Because the current building isn’t heated, the sisters have been in town only in the summers. A more modern building would allow for year-round retreats.

“People go to them often for consolation and just to talk over things,” Cavagnaro said. “And they visit the sick.”

A portion of the property, including the beach, affectionately referred to as “Nuns’ Beach,” was purchased in January 1937 for $1, according to records reviewed with the city’s tax assessor, Margaret Slavin. Construction of the residence cost $200,000, according to an article from the time, and began later that year.

Over the next 20 years, the property expanded from 111th Street to 113th Street, and from Second Avenue to the water’s edge, according to the property’s deed.

A prayer garden featuring the Stations of the Cross anchors the property, and the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary sits across the street.

Now, portions of that land, an ideal plot on a quiet end of the borough, will be sold off. The order hopes the sale will cover operational costs “for years to come,” Sister James said.

The letter sent out Monday was no eulogy. Sister James ended on a hopeful note.

“May our future in Stone Harbor continue to be blessed by God’s Providential guidance of our Congregation, as we continue to firmly believe and entrust this present undertaking to His enduring, loving care,” she wrote, “and to that of Our Blessed Mother whose name we bear.”

Contact: 609-272-7260 cshaw@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressColtShaw

Staff Writer

I cover breaking news on the digital desk. I graduated from Temple University in Dec. 2017 and joined the Press in the fall of 2018. Previously, I freelanced, covering Pennsylvania state politics and criminal justice reform.

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