Harvey Cedars — Maris Stella Retreat and Conference Center in Harvey Cedars has been providing a ministry of hospitality for 60 years.
“People are fed here spiritually, emotionally and physically,” Sister Patricia Dotzauer, program director, explained. “People who are going through extremely difficult times come to our offerings. Their burdens are evident when they arrive, and by the time they depart, their demeanor and body language have changed. People say over and over again that they find peace here.”
In 1959 Mother Ellen Marie McCauley purchased the property spanning the bay to the ocean from the estate of Frederich Small, the former CEO of American Express who spent time there earlier in the century. Mother Ellen Marie was looking for a vacation spot for the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth. Most of the buildings are original and date back to 1926 when Small built his estate.
There are eight buildings on 11 acres. The chapel was the original boathouse and St. Vincent’s dormitory-style housing was the former garage. In the devastating storm of 1962, the two grand beach houses were washed out to sea, and from time to time their pilings are revealed at the water’s edge.
After Vatican II, 1962 to 1965, Maris Stella welcomed sisters of other congregations and their families to liturgy and vacation. In the early 2000s programs began to expand. Sunday Mass was offered for vacationers on the Island with an inspirational view of the bay. Originally, Maris Stella was closed from October to May, but a capital campaign provided for the building of a conference center, a renovated chapel, and heat and air conditioning in St. Vincent’s. A grant from the Littoral Society allowed for part of Small’s original gardens to be transformed into the Bayscape Butterfly Garden.
Today Maris Stella is open all year long. Retreats once reserved for sisters are now open to lay women. Additional retreats for parish, high school, college and university groups abound. Stepping on to Maris Stella grounds, one may encounter AA meetings, women’s writing workshops, or even Celtic teas.
Family Promise, conducted by St. Francis Church volunteers, has found a home at Maris Stella as well as coastal camps for young people in the summer.
Sr. Mary Morley, director of Maris Stella, maintained, “Mother Ellen Marie would be happy we’re still here. The spirit of hospitality, which is inherent in the charism of the Sisters of Charity, is evident here. We are able to pray with everyone. Hospitality is our hallmark.”
The sisters don’t operate the facility alone. Over Memorial Day weekend, 40 to 50 people come to clean up and get the place ready for the summer. Nearly 30 volunteers staff the complex during peak season.
“These volunteers are saving the Sisters thousands of dollars that can go instead into the mission of Maris Stella,” Morley said.
Benefactors who attend summer Masses are greatly appreciated. They have become a supportive community helping Maris Stella financially maintain its mission. The presiders who offer daily Mass during the summer months complete this network of support.
The chapel is generally open, and if it is closed during the off-season, Morley, who sees all from her office window, will come out and open it for someone wanting to worship.
“Wonderful people of strong faith searching for God come here,” she said. “They are such an inspiration. I am in awe of their desire to grow in God’s love.”
Plans for the future include increasing use during the week in the off-season with programming and vacation rentals as well as utilizing the website to publicize rentals for pot-luck suppers, birthdays, anniversaries and receptions of all kinds. The expansive view of the bay from the conference center enhances any occasion.
Maris Stella “is a rich resource for study and reflection on the sacredness of creation,” says its mission statement.
Morley summed up, “Maris Stella, or Star of the Sea, is one of Our Lady’s titles. She has protected us here. After Hurricane Sandy, we did not have even one broken window. Those three Hail Marys at the end of each Mass asking for protection from storms has really worked.”
— Margaret Ronan