Saturday, April 16, 2022 / by Teresa Dipeso
A retreat for nuns that withstood nine major storms also dodged its most recent demolition bullet when a nonprofit purchased it in the hopes of using it to fuel scientific study in the ecologically rich area.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, a Catholic order of women who practice educational, social services and parish ministries, sold St. Mary By-the-Sea to Cape May Point Science Center, LLC for $5.5 million.
The Sisters had owned the 1.5 acres, 135-room red-roofed former hotel located yards from where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay in Cape May Point since 1909. They announced in the Fall of 2016 that they wanted to sell it to a conservation group that would return the property to its natural state.
“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,” the Sisters said in a statement at the time.
A mortgage was taken on the Cape May National Golf Club to make the purchase, and the money was loaned to Cape May Point Science Center, LLC, said Bob Mullock, the golf club president who spearheaded the St. Mary By-the-Sea purchase.
The 133-year-old building at 101 Leigh Avenue had been the Shoreham Hotel. The Victorian wood-framed structure was luxurious for its time. President William Henry Harrison was a frequent guest, and his wife, Anna, had an art show there, Mullock said.
The Shoreham Hotel fell on hard times in the early 1900s when rail travel replaced steamboat travel and drew visitors to other places, such as Atlantic City. Abolitionist William Still purchased the mortgage, and the former hotel became a home for aged and infirm Black people. Mullock said the upkeep became too much, so the Sisters of St. Joseph bought it in 1909 and used it for retreats until the pandemic.
Within 250 yards of the site, a billboard keeps track of predatory birds that come into Cape May Point. “They come right over this building,” Mullock said.
In the nearby water, where the Delaware River, Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean converge, he said dolphins, whales and sharks pass through, adding that the area is known as a common breeding ground for dolphins. Horseshoe crabs come onto the beach to lay eggs, some of which are eaten by Red Knot birds as they migrate from the North Pole to the South Pole.
Cape May Point Science Center is open to a lease, purchase or partnership as long as the university or environmental group has the same aspirations as they do.