For the last 70 years, the grand Victorian mansion atop 18 acres of waterfront on Bay Street — with its wraparound porch, extensive gardens and remarkable stillness — has welcomed the lost, the sick and the weary, accepting them as they are.
It has served as a haven for the scared and out of touch, a place for religious awakenings and spiritual reconnections through prayer, walks in nature and communion.
But above all, Cormaria — the last surviving retreat on the East End, sitting on the banks of Sag Harbor — is continually synonymous with peace, quiet and home.
“I love on a Friday night, watching people come in for a retreat, and then see them leave on Sunday, the transformation on their faces, to see the peace on their faces,” Sister Ann Marino, director of the retreat, said during a recent telephone interview. “Or they’ll say, ‘I feel I’m at home. This is my home.’ And I always tell the retreatants, ‘Welcome home’ when they arrive, because it’s their home away from home.”
When Sister Ann found her way to the retreat in 1982, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary — the founders behind Cormaria — already had a century of history in the village. In 1879, five nuns had left the South of France to moved to the United States, where they first opened St. Andrew Roman Catholic School, followed by what is now the Sag Harbor Elementary School.
Then, it was the Academy of the Sacred Heart of Mary, which predominantly taught girls from Latin America, who traditionally attended finishing schools in Switzerland after completing their studies. But when World War II broke out in Europe, many families felt it was too dangerous to send them abroad — and simultaneously, the Bay Street property hit the market, rather serendipitously.
Once the estate of shipbuilder and real estate tycoon Frank C. Havens, the circa-1905 home was lavish and luxurious, sparing no expense with hardwood paneling, French plate glass windows, a grand staircase and interior design by Tiffany Studios.
In 1943, it would become Cormaria Institute of Arts and Science — “Cormaria” meaning “heart of Mary” — before yet another reinvention six years later. With the opening of Marymount Junior College in Virginia, the Sag Harbor institute was forced to close its doors, leaving the property vacant.
“The nuns said, ‘Let’s take a risk and open it up as a retreat house for women,’” Sister Ann said. “And the first retreat for women was Thanksgiving weekend, 1949.”
Cormaria has seen many more Thanksgivings in that Tiffany dining room, overlooking Sag Harbor Bay. In the last seven decades, the retreat — “a place of celebration and of life, in all its phases,” Sister Ann said — has expanded to include all genders, persuasions and religions. In the mid-1980s, Cormaria became one of the first retreat houses to welcome people suffering from AIDS and HIV and it continues to hold weekend retreats for 12-step programs.
During her time as director, Sister Ann is responsible for expanding the retreat program offerings and opening the hermitage, as well as overseeing renovations to the house and chapel, which is now more open to nature, she said. Several additions allow the home to comfortably accommodate about 60 guests, who pay $250 for a retreat weekend and five included meals.
“Our greatest challenges are development and fundraising, as prices are going up everywhere. We’re not a spa, we can’t charge $500 a night, and it’s keeping the cost down so that people can afford to come,” Sister Ann said. “The 70thanniversary does feel like a milestone. When I first came here in 1982, there were retreat houses on Shelter Island, in North Haven and in Water Mill, and we’re the only ones left.”
Sister Ann will soon take a step back from the retreat, which is actively seeking a new director. It is time, she said, looking back on her 37-year tenure and the history of Cormaria, a place she visited as a high school student in the 1950s, as part of her education.
“You gathered here and you met friends,” she said, “and it was just wonderful.”
History would repeat itself 30 years later, as she walked the streets of Sag Harbor during the earliest days of her directorship. She knew no one, and characters such as Joseph Schiavoni, Michael Grimm and Jim Osburn became fast friends, embracing her in the same way the village has embraced Cormaria.
“I have a great hope. I think that Cormaria will continue, because we’re needed,” she said. “Cormaria is like a sign of contradiction in the Hamptons. It’s not glitz and glitter. We call Cormaria ‘the soul of the Hamptons,’ where people can just come and rediscover their soul, rediscover who they are.”
Sister Ann imagines the retreat will serve the same purpose for her, she said. She looks forward to focusing on her own spirituality while welcoming new ideas and new vision.
“It’ll be a little difficult, but I think stepping back and looking and being engaged in all that has been done — like a mother steps back and a mother lets go — it’s time,” she said. “You don’t want to hold on and you don’t want to smother, and you want to let people have the freedom of new ideas and dreaming. And we have to dream.”
The cross that Sister Ann wears around her neck every day is a reminder of that, and of Cormaria’s mission. On it is a line from John 10:10, which reads, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
“That’s our mission,” she said. “To bring life to the full, to anyone who may need.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express and Southampton Press