Ocean City landmarks 'the Christian Brothers' could be facing change

The larger of the "Christian Brothers" would be retained and renovated as a retreat and prayer center.
The larger of the "Christian Brothers" would be retained and renovated as a retreat and prayer center.
Posted: March 04, 2013

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - The two blue-painted and yellow-trimmed buildings where John Wanamaker once presided and Grace Kelly later worshiped - known simply as "the Christian Brothers" - have stood as landmarks for generations in the south end of this Cape May County resort.

But the landscape may soon change.

The Brothers of the Christian Schools, District of Eastern North America, which owns the property, has proposed dividing it into four lots, and selling two of them for development. Each would be about 100 feet long and 50 feet wide - twice the local building-code requirement, officials said.

One of the lots to be sold contains the smaller of the two buildings. The religious organization would retain the two southernmost lots, with a plan to renovate the structure there - the larger of the two - as a new retreat and prayer center, according to Philip C. DeRita, director of communications for the Brothers of the Christian Schools, which operates 30 ministries in the northeastern United States.

The project would upgrade 19th-century plumbing, add a heating system to allow year-round use, and conform to modern fire and handicapped-access building codes. There would be 28 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, according to the plans.

"We enjoy, and are really working hard, to maintain our presence in Ocean City, while taking into account the community's concerns, and being fiscally responsible," said Brother James Martino, director of administration for the group's eastern North America district.

The religious organization came up with the plan, Martino said, because the aging buildings require a long list of fire-code modifications and the numbers of Christian Brothers are dwindling - there are about 340 in North America vs. 10 times that during the order's heyday in the mid-20th century.

Community input is important to the group, which Martino says wants to "be a good neighbor."

So far it has held two town-hall-type meetings with local residents to discuss the plan and hear concerns. It has made no formal application to the city and must still obtain final approval for the plan from within its congregation.

"We know that Ocean Rest has evolved over the years into an important part of the local community," DeRita said, referring to the compound.

There wasn't much around when developer George Langley built the larger of the two structures as part of the beachfront Ocean Rest Hotel complex in the 1880s. Later, Wanamaker acquired it.

Wanting to create a Roman Catholic presence in this heavily Methodist summertime retreat, in 1898 the Brothers of the Christian Schools bought the property from Wanamaker, the department-store magnate, who collected such holdings up and down the New Jersey coastline.

Over time, low-rise beach cottages cropped up at the sandy feet of the two buildings, and for decades, well into the 1970s, the simple, wood-frame, three-story edifices remained the tallest structures around for miles. Beachgoers came to know their favorite spot at 31st Street and Central Avenue not by street signs but by its proximity to the sentinel Christian Brothers.

"When I was a little girl and we used to drive down here to the beach from Pennsylvania, we never looked at the street signs, we always knew we were here when we saw the Christian Brothers," said Madeline Pike, 76, who has lived year-round in the south end for more than 30 years.

"I'll miss these buildings if they take them down. . . . I really wish I wasn't going to see this in my lifetime," said Pike, whose home sits within the shadow of the larger building.

Others in the local community have voiced concerns about further development of the area.

"It's so built-up around here to begin with, so it was nice to have these old buildings that are so much different than all the duplexes and summer homes around here," said Stacey Culver, 32, whose family has owned a small summer cottage nearby for three generations. "I just like that they look so different."

Culver remembers attending Sunday Mass in the chapel in the northern building during summers, just as the young Grace Kelly did decades before.

"It was so nice, so casual . . . the fresh air, the breezes coming in off the ocean. You really felt renewed in spirit when you left," Culver said.

The Mass for the public ceased some years ago, and it is unlikely the Christian Brothers will use Ocean Rest again until the fire-code concerns are addressed.

Beginning in July 1898, the Christian Brothers made Ocean City their summer sanctuary, enjoying "ocean activities" while teaching religious courses to younger members of the congregation.

In 1906, the Brothers constructed the smaller chapel building, and they added electricity to both structures in 1916. They opened a summer religious school in 1926 and would invite the surrounding community to celebrate Sunday Mass. Well into the 1960s, as many as 400 Brothers would gather for weeklong summer spiritual retreats.

In recent years, the group has been restricted from using the top two floors of the buildings because of fire-code issues. Only a handful have been staying there in recent summers.

And over the years, their various rituals - including a nightly one in which the black-robed Brothers walked the beach at dusk before their evening prayer that came to be known as the "Walk of the Penguins" - endeared the congregation to the local community.

"I would miss them if they ever left," Culver said with a tear in her eye.


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo

at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at philly.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.

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