Stone Harbor's surf-side sisters

Sisters Amy Summers, left, and Pat Walsh enjoy each other's company on Nuns' Beach in Stone Harbor. The beach and an attached retreat are owned by the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a teaching order based in Immaculata, Pa. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )
Sisters Amy Summers, left, and Pat Walsh enjoy each other's company on Nuns' Beach in Stone Harbor. The beach and an attached retreat are owned by the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a teaching order based in Immaculata, Pa. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer ) (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 24, 2014

STONE HARBOR - In the old days, the surfers tended to keep their distance from the sisters.

The nuns of Villa Maria by the Sea generally limited their daily beach time to between 1 and 3. Because the order owned the 111th Street beach, it paid for lifeguards only during those hours.

The rest of the time, the town's surfers took advantage of the unguarded beach, with the nuns' tacit OK, and dubbed it 111th Street Nuns Beach.

"It was always known when the nuns were there, you just didn't go there," said Brian Lafferty, a longtime surfer in Stone Harbor, now sidelined by knee problems. "We respected their privacy."

But this was before.

This was before the new era in Stone Harbor, born of the Nuns' Beach Surf Contest, now in its 19th year, this year Sept. 13, before the joyful if kooky massive branding of Nuns' Beach, with its Sister-insisted-upon plural possessive apostrophe and cartoons of the nuns on surfboards.

Before the daily devotion of Sister James Dolores and Sister Andrew Marie to selling Nuns' Beach merchandise out of the Villa Maria by the Sea garage on Second Avenue, like two aging Deadheads with leftover T-shirts who just can't let the tour end.

Buying the year's Nuns' Beach merchandise - suggested donations $15 for a shirt, $50 for a sweatshirt, $17 a hat - has become the singular ritual in this tony beach town.

"They're characters," says Brooke Iacono, who works at Pete Smith Surf shop on 96th. "They drop off T-shirts. We see them in restaurants and stuff."

Sister James, 77, is a willing mascot, though, who has managed to keep the 160-bedroom retreat house - built in 1937 on land purchased for $2,000 - financially solvent and in decent working order, in part through proceeds from the sale of Nuns' Beach hats, T-shirts, and towels. A former schoolteacher, she is the building's property manager. "We do pay taxes," she notes - a whopping $150,000 last year. "If I had the tax money, I wouldn't need the surf contest. It's a tremendous financial boost for us, to keep the place for us."

The hazy memory of this era of mutual respect and distance - when the sisters wore bathing suits to their knees and old-timer surfers such as Lafferty were mere lads - has yielded to a modern era of Stone Harbor surfer-sister synergy. "Pray for Surf," one of their more popular hats reads. Unlike at similar places - the Sisters of Charity retreat house in Ventnor, the nearby vacation home for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, both sold - these sisters have not had to yield to the temptation of a buyer at their beachfront door.

Sister James and the others have been embraced by the people of Stone Harbor - from its typical affluent polo-shirted visitors to its super-wealthy benefactors who sponsor the Surf Contest to its summer celebrities such as former Eagle Ron Jaworski, in particular, a 12-year home owner in Stone Harbor who has made Sisters James and Andrew honorary Soul Sisters at his Philadelphia Soul games.

"We flew them to New Orleans for the Arena Bowl," said Liz Jaworski, Ron's wife. "That was a whole other story, having the nuns in New Orleans."

Somewhere, she says, there are photos of Sister James parading down Bourbon Street.

Sister James, a huge Eagles and Phillies fan who as a child prayed for spiritual guidance on whether to become the next Babe Ruth or a nun, is nobody's fool, though.

She recalls meeting Jaworski in Henny's in Stone Harbor and immediately saying: "How about when you froze on the field during Super Bowl XV?"

The sisters say the double garage that houses the merchandise store has given the nuns, part of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pennsylvania, a visibility and daily interaction with the people of Stone Harbor unusual for a Jersey Shore retreat house - especially one that hosts silent retreats all summer long, for more than 100 sisters at a time.

For some, it's a quick stop for this year's Nuns' Beach hat (this year's logo features Sisters James and Andrew refereeing the contest from a lifeguard stand; sadly, Molly Maguire, the Bichon dog that belongs to Joseph Maguire, a neighbor and longtime friend, but is often with Sister James, was left out this year). The logos are conceived by Sister James, drawn by Dick Ressel, an art teacher at Lancaster Catholic High School. A talented handyman and artist herself, Sister James painted the image onto the surfboard they are raffling.

"We've always been mindful of the people who come here," Sister Andrew says. "Sometimes they just come to talk. That's a big dimension. People come back to you if they've had their prayers answered, or if it hasn't turned out the way they want, they've had the faith and strength to go on."

Behind the table where they display Nuns' Beach T-shirts and sweat shirts, towels and polos, the Sisters keep a spiral journal with the words "PRAY FOR" written on a white sticker on the front. Inside is a list of prayer requests to keep track of.

This summer, Sister James has been busy with three hospice patients she visits daily, including Maguire, a longtime obstetrician in Drexel Hill, who offers the tease of a dear friend when asked about the Sisters. "They're mean and nasty," he said.

Maguire and his wife, Mary, are part of the "Get Sister James off Her Tractor" club, whose 12 members donate $1,000 a season to pay for professional landscaping. "She can do anything," Mary says. "She used to cut all the grass and plant all the flowers.

Out on Nuns' Beach this week, Stephen McHugh, of Kennett Square, recalled: "We were scared as hell to walk on their beach."

Back then, in the '60s and '70s, when it really was the nuns' private beach, they wore old-fashioned bathing suits, down to their knees and elbows and sometimes formed a circle and passed a ball around.

Surfers waited until they went back inside the massive retreat house, and then hit the waves.

"That's why we have a thing with the nuns because they let us surf at their beach," Lafferty says.

The whole deal changed in 1982, when Marguerite and the late Louis Capano, who had purchased a beachfront lot next to the Villa by the Sea, won a federal lawsuit contending that the borough was showing favorable treatment to the nuns by keeping the beach unguarded. (The order's property rights extend to the mean high tide line.)

That ended the routine of just two hours for the nuns and their lifeguards, and brought regular all-day lifeguards to 111th Street. (It also brought Stone Harbor's first female lifeguard on board, assigned to Nuns' Beach in the early years.)

In exchange for giving up their private beach, the nuns do not need beach tags, said Sister Patricia Walsh, sitting on the beach earlier this month. She says the tag checkers can tell who's a nun - "no makeup, no jewelry." These sisters wear typical one-pieces and rarely wear habits in summer. The older sisters will still wear habits, and most will make it only to the private overlook in the dunes, escorted there from the house by golf cart. The surfers were moved one beach away to 110th Street, though many migrate back to Nuns' Beach when lifeguards leave.

"The lifeguards always had our backs down here," says Sister Walsh, a Catholic school principal for many years, including at St. Barnabas in North Philadelphia. "When they were trying to have the beach not be a private beach, the surfers went to bat for us. We did lose. But we don't use beach tags. It really is a private beach."

But the surfers still wanted to express the gratitude for their unusual alliance and symbiosis with the Sisters. It remains, even though after hours, an excellent place to surf. Nineteen years ago, one of the surfers approached Sister James about staging a contest in their benefit, to say thank you. It grew to become an invitational, with entries capped at about 100.

Although the surfer-sister alliance seems odd, at least at first, Sister Patricia says there is spirituality to be found in the stoked masses waiting for the waves. "The tenacity of them to keep getting up after falling back down, that could have everything to do with spirituality," she says. "It's been good for us."


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

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