Long Branch — After extensive analysis and deliberation, the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace (CSJP) and the Board of Trustees of the Congregation’s Stella Maris Retreat Center have decided to begin the process of relinquishing the 6.8 acre property at Ocean Avenue, in the Elberon section of Long Branch.
Due to the environmental concerns of the congregation, they say they plan to examine how to conserve the coastal property rather than sell it.
Tom Schember, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Stella Maris, and Sister Margaret Byrne, CSJP, Congregation Leader, cited the deleterious effects of Superstorm Sandy on the coastline, the financial challenges of maintaining and restoring Stella Maris, and the aging of Congregation members, in the decision to let go of the property and discontinue their retreat ministry at that site.
While a definitive timeline has not been established, the Center will offer its current programs and hospitality through December 31, 2015, after which no new bookings will be accepted.
”For 80 years, the Sisters have given the gift of Stella Maris to the Long Branch community,” said Schember. ”Through their conscientious stewardship, they have cultivated an oasis of peace and prayer for so many. Our hope is to perpetuate this healing ministry through an evolution that will honor the Sisters’ mission and charism.”
The summer vacation and ecumenical retreat property known as the Stella Maris Retreat Center has enjoyed a rich history, most notably having been the summer residence of President Ulysses S. Grant until 1884. The President’s mansion, in a state of disrepair, had been demolished by the time the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace purchased the property in the early 1940s.
The Sisters made significant additions to the existing building, later adding a chapel and conference space in the 1990s. Drawing upon their charism (the spiritual goals of their order), which places heavy emphasis on care of creation, the Sisters and friends of CSJP initiated an ecological project in 2000, which focused on planting organic gardens and creating an environmentally-friendly habitat for birds, butterflies and small animals.
In addition to the retreat ministry at Stella Maris, the Sisters also sponsor Waterspirit with offices on the same site.
The board says keeping the property would require extensive work to the oceanfront and upgrades to the retreat building’s interior.
Superstorm Sandy eroded approximately 18 feet of land along the oceanfront, destroying most of the dunes, the organic gardens, and the Center’s pavilion, which had been used by retreatants for outdoor prayer and contemplation. To slow erosion, a retaining wall will be built in the area where the land now drops approximately 20 feet and prohibits beach access.
The Sisters’ belief in the sacredness of the Earth led to the decision that Stella Maris be let go rather than sold for purposes that may be inconsistent with CSJP philosophy.
“’We are deeply concerned for the fragility of the coastline and have seen the destructive consequences of overbuilding along the oceanfront,” said Sister Margaret. “There is evidence of climate change with rising sea levels and environmental degradation, and we do not wish to contribute to it. It is our hope that the property will continue to be a place of nurture and harmony. For these reasons, we are investigating how this parcel of land could be held for conservation purposes in line with our concerns and hopes.”
In considering the decision to surrender something they regard as so precious, Sister Margaret cited an excerpt from the retreat notes of Mother Evangelista, one of the Congregation’s founding sisters: “So Christ is our model and in order to imitate Him we have to do strange things — things that seem almost inexplicable, but at the last days, when our work is taken off the loom of life, we shall see the beauty that comes into our soul by this work.”
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While Stella Maris may be closing, The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, whose congregation offices are in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, operate numerous other education, health care, social justice and humanitarian missions.
They are the founding sponsors of Holy Name Medical Center and Holy Name Medical Center School of Nursing, both in Teaneck, NJ. Several of their ministries are located in Jersey City, including the York Street Project, a multifaceted educational initiative for women and children; St. Ann’s Home for the Aged; Cusack Care at St. Joseph’s Home for the Blind; and Concordia Learning Center for students with visual impairments or multiple disabilities. The Congregation also has a presence on the nation’s West Coast, and in the United Kingdom, as well as outreach into Haiti and El Salvador.