By Mara Certic
In 1949, with just $100 in her pocket, Mother Frances Dunne set out to transform a stately summer home into a retreat for those in need of some peace and quiet. And this Sunday, November 23, Cormaria will celebrate its 65th anniversary of Mother Frances’s dream coming true.
Shipbuilder and real estate tycoon Frank C. Havens built the Victorian mansion atop 18 acres on the waterfront on Bay Street in 1905 when he returned to his hometown of Sag Harbor after making his fortune in California. As the story goes, Mr. Havens wanted to build a summer home on the highest land in the area.
The interior of the house was grand and luxurious. Designed by Tiffany Studios of New York, the interior of the house was decorated with embossed wall-coverings made of leather.
Mr. Havens died in 1917, and that year the house was sold to the Marshall family, owners of the famed Chicago department store, who also used it as a private house.
In 1943, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary bought the building to use as a finishing school for young Catholic women. According to Sister Ann Marino, the director of Cormaria, the majority of the students were Hispanic girls who traditionally had gone to finishing schools in Switzerland after completing their studies. After war broke out in Europe in 1939, however, many thought it was too dangerous to send their children there for schooling, and so Cormaria became a place of learning.
“Then the nuns decided they would take a risk and open the retreat house for women—we never had retreat houses, we were in education,” Sister Ann said during a telephone interview this week.
Cormaria held its first retreat on Thanksgiving Day, 1949 and hasn’t stopped since. The first retreat was rather small. Sister Ann imagines there were 15, possibly 20 women there.
In 1960, an extension was built to add 28 more beds, and in 1999 there was another addition. Cormaria can now accommodate up to 72 guests. Last weekend alone, it hosted 40 women.
Originally a women’s-only retreat, Cormaria now opens its doors to people of all genders, persuasions and religions. In the early 1990s, Cormaria became one of the first retreat houses to welcome people suffering from AIDS and HIV. It now holds weekend retreats for people in 12-step programs, and in the summer time it holds eight-day retreats in silence.
Cormaria also holds workshops, teacher conferences, and students from Marymount schools all over come to visit and stay.
“But the theme is be still and know your God,” Sister Ann said. “It’s a place for people to stop. We’re living in a world that is too busy and we need to slow down,” she said.
Sister Ann built a hermitage at Cormaria in 1989, and the center also has a chapel, a professional kitchen, a dining room and several small conference rooms. The entire building is handicapped accessible.
Sister Ann believes the future of Cormaria “looks good,” she said. But it has had its share of financial difficulties, and keeping prices of weekend retreats reasonable—they currently cost $180—can be trying, she said.
“It’s very affordable, and we try to keep it affordable,” she said. When Cormaria first opened, there were retreat houses both on Shelter Island and in Water Mill. Now, Cormaria is one of only two retreat houses on Long Island. Sister Ann attributes the dwindling number of these escapes to not only staffing shortages, but also financial difficulties.
The immediate future of Cormaria may involve some renovations, Sister Ann said.
“The lady on the bay has weathered many storms, and we’re hoping to give her a facelift—she deserves one,” she said.
“We’re not tearing anything down but painting and plumbing,” she added.
“Cormaria is here, it’s a treasure, it’s a jewel in the heart of Sag Harbor. And it’s here for people to come and be still,” she said.
“Every week I get calls from people to pray and we feel we’re really part of the community. People do come, and anyone can come, we never close our doors to anyone,” she added.
“Mother Francis told me when she began all this all she had was $100,” Sister Ann said, “Never in her wildest dreams would she have thought Cormaria would grow like this.”
On Sunday, November 23, at 2 p.m. Bishop William Murphy will celebrate a liturgy of Thanksgiving at Cormaria.