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Saint Mary by-the-Sea Retreat House Saved

Saint Mary by-the-Sea is saved from demolition and will become an environmental center. Photo taken Nov. 1

By Vince Conti

CAPE MAY POINT – Plans called for Saint Mary by-the-Sea, the iconic religious retreat house at the tip of Cape May Point, to be demolished and “returned to nature.” Now, the three buildings with red roofs will be repurposed as an environmental center that will focus on education, research, and advocacy of environmental goals. 
A new nonprofit entity, Cape May Point Science Center Inc., was formed with the intention of using the property to establish a collaborative environmental center.
Robert Mullock, a former Cape May Point commissionerand the moving force behind the establishment of the Harriet Tubman Museum, in Cape May, has been quietly negotiating with the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Joseph to save the structures he considers important to Cape Island’s history.
A Nov. 1 statement from the Sisters of Saint Joseph said they entered into a purchase and sale agreement with the newly formed Science Center. The anticipated closing will occur in early 2022.
The property has been used as a religious retreat house for over a century, but its history predates that. In 1889, the property became home to the Shoreham Hotel, one of the grand hotels that helped make Cape May and the surrounding area a resort long before seaside resorts were the norm.
When the hotel closed, William Still, whom some call the father of the underground railroad, bought the building with his partner, Stephen Smith, a former slave whose house still stands in Cape May. The building was briefly converted into a home for aged and infirmed Blacks.
Mullock said some of the first slaves escaping Delaware and Maryland came across the Delaware Bay using the lighthouse as a navigation beacon. They landed in what is now Cape May Point, making it an important waystation in the underground railroad.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph have owned and operated the retreat house since 1909. In a statement earlier this year, the sisters said that those who have come to the retreat house over those many years “have found God in this sacred place.” The Nov. 1 statement said that the mission of the Science Center aligns “with the sisters’ land ethic and their commitment to the ocean, climate and marine life.”
Mullock pointed to the unique timing of the announcement. 
“While world leaders are meeting in Glasgow, we are establishing a new mission for this property at the junction of ocean and bay, at the very tip of our peninsula,” he said, adding that the new venture would be dedicated to the study of the environment “that we see and what we don’t see.”
The link of Still to the underground railroad was important to Harriet Tubman and other Blacks in the area. The conjunction of sea and bay, fresh water and saltwater, bird migration paths, and the importance of this area for the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly are examples of confluence of purpose that make the property special.
Mullock admitted that a “lot of work” lays ahead. He talked of reaching out to environmental groups to join the collaborative, of fundraising to pay for the new venture, and of the sheer effort ahead to build an institution that embodies the goals of the sisters and the new Science Center.
Mullock stepped down as a Cape May Point commissioner to devote himself to the task ahead. He needed the time and said he wanted no hint of a conflict of interest. 
Mullock emphasized that the new nonprofit was purchasing the retreat house with what he termed a “fair, strong offer.” He said he would leave it to the sisters to divulge the terms when they choose.
For their part, the Sisters of Saint Joseph noted that explicit deed restrictions will safeguard the property from any development.
For Mullock and the Cape May Point Science Center’s new Board of Trustees, the work of putting this together starts now.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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