History of Villa María
by the Sea

Our History

The IHM seashore tradition began in 1913 when the sisters sought a place where they could enjoy a time of spiritual and physical renewal surrounded by the natural beauty of God's creation. It was then that they purchased a building in Cape May Point, formerly known as the Hotel Carlton. This retreat house served the IHM Community well for almost 20 years until severe beach erosion forced the sisters to leave the house in 1936.
After departing from Cape May Point, Mother M. Kostka and her Council searched diligently for an area where they could erect a summer retreat home for the sisters. Their search led them to Stone Harbor, New Jersey where they purchased four and a half acres of land at 111th Street and First Avenue for $2,000. Groundbreaking took place on Tuesday, February 2, 1937.
Work on the three-story retreat house, which could accommodate 250 sisters, began almost immediately. In just 118 days at a cost of $200,000 the new Villa Maria by the Sea was completed. Newspaper accounts at the time called it a miracle that construction could be completed in less than four months! On Sunday, June 20, 1937 at 3 o'clock, the Dedication Ceremony took place with the laying of the cornerstone.
Villa Maria by the Sea served as a summer retreat center for more than eighty years, welcoming the sisters for a ten-day period of spiritual and physical renewal and relaxation. The time spent there was a special blessing for the sisters and they returned to their various apostolates with renewed dedication, zeal, and energy.
Over the years, the Congregation, with the help of many benefactors, maintained their summer facility. One major source of income for the retreat house began in 1996 with the Nuns' Beach Surf Invitational and Family Fest. This yearly event lasted 23 years and brought the sisters and the community together to enjoy a day of surf and fun.
The Surf Contest generated a new fad-the "Nuns' Beach" t-shirts. Each year people flocked to the retreat house to purchase the popular t-shirts that sported a different logo each year. This exchange enabled the community to chat with the sisters and to build relationships.
In 2019, it became clear that neither maintaining nor renovating the 1937 structure was practical or sustainable. The decision was made to demolish the structure and build a new, smaller, energy-efficient retreat center that would be open year-round to serve, not only the sisters, but all those wishing to come for spiritual renewal. On September 27, 2021, Sister Mary Ellen Tennity, General Superior, and members of the IHM General Administration broke ground for the new Villa Maria by the Sea Retreat Center.
In May 2022, five sisters were assigned to staff the new Retreat Center. These sisters arrived in Stone Harbor in late July eager to embrace their new ministry. They lived on the grounds of the former building while preparing for the opening of the Retreat Center. On March 3, 2023 the sisters moved into Villa Maria by the Sea Convent which was nestled within the newly constructed Retreat Center.
The Dedication of Mary, Star of the Sea Chapel and Villa Maria by the Sea Retreat Center took place on May 15, 2023. Bishop Dennis Sullivan presided at the Eucharistic Liturgy and the Blessing of the new Chapel, Retreat Center and the Cornerstone. Priests, religious, local leaders, and all those instrumental in the Center's creation joined the General Administration for a day of prayer, blessings, and celebration.
The new Villa Maria by the Sea Retreat Center stands as a stunning edifice which glorifies God and provides a sacred space of tranquility and natural beauty where sisters and guests can come to pray, rest, and experience the presence of God.
The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary gratefully acknowledge the many people who supported them throughout the construction of the Retreat Center and they entrust the future of the new Villa Maria by the Sea to the loving Providence of God.