By John Burton
LONG BRANCH – The Monmouth Conservation Foundation hopes to play a role in the preservation of the oceanfront Stella Maris Center Roman Catholic retreat grounds.
The Roman Catholic order of Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace is looking to cease its operations at the 981 Ocean Ave. retreat in the city’s Elberon section at the end of 2015 and has begun looking at options for the site’s future.
“It’s extremely preliminary” to discuss any long-term plans, Tom Schember, president of the center’s board of trustees, stressed.
However, William Kastning, executive director of the Monmouth Conservation Foundation, said the foundation and a handful of other organizations were contacted by the religious order to find “whether there would be some interest by us” in working with the sisters on a long-range plan.
The foundation has expressed an interest in working on a plan, “This sounds like a great opportunity … to preserve a parcel of the Atlantic coastline,” Kastning said.
The Monmouth Conservation Foundation is the county’s only continuing land trust organization and has worked to preserve 6,500 acres over the last 36 years.
“We would like to be the lead organization, but it’s up to them,” Kastning said.
If eventually selected by the board of trustees and the sisters, the foundation would function as a facilitator for a future project, bringing together interested parties to preserve the site.
Kastning said it is his hope to see the location preserved as some sort of educational facility, possibly continuing as a religious retreat in part and/or as a home to not-for-profits, while saving the oceanfront property for public use.
“We now have more of an urban focus” in preservation work, Kastning said of the foundation. He noted that recent work by the foundation included the acquisition of Chris’s Landing in Middletown, just over the Hubbard Bridge from Red Bank, for a future county park site, and efforts in Asbury Park to establish public space. The Stella Maris property would be a continuation of those efforts.
“I would like for this to be a facility that provides access to the beach for the local residents,” Kastning said.
Stella Maris, which translates to Star of the Sea, is an approximately 6.8-acre site on the Atlantic Ocean. It has been owned and operated by the religious order since 1941, according to Schember.
The family of copper magnate Adolph Lewison donated the property to the nuns, who then went on to establish the site as a religious retreat facility that now has 42 dormitory rooms, according to information the foundation provided.
The property – though not the main structure – was heavily damaged by Super Storm Sandy in October 2012. A portion of the beachfront was seriously eroded and the bathhouse damaged with repairs estimated to cost millions of dollars.
Members of the St. Joseph of Peace are aging. “They’re not sure they’ll be able to maintain it,” Schember said, with the nuns and board looking at alternatives.
The board is getting a series of appraisals on the property done, Schember said. After that it will seek requests for proposals from interested organizations “to make sure that it is preserved.”
Meanwhile, the sisters are continuing to operate the site and are taking bookings for retreats until December 2015.
“By that time we hope to have resolutions as to what will happen to the property,” Schember said.
The sisters also hope to continue to have a role in the site’s future, using the location for some of their activities, he said.
Kastning has visited the site on three occasions; once with his staff; another with representatives from the Monmouth County Park System; and a third with a representative from the Conservation Fund, a national preservation organization, he said, in hopes of eliciting their interest in working with the foundation on preserving the site in some public-benefit capacity, he said.