Before St. Katharine Drexel gave up a $7 million fortune to dedicate her life to religion and charitable works, she was a young heiress playing in the ocean waters of Long Branch, N.J., then a Gilded Age resort for the One Percent.

The young St. Katharine and her family traveled from their house in Center City to the pristine shores of the Monmouth County beach town most summers, often staying at publisher George Childs’ chalet-like cottage next to the house where President Ulysses S. Grant spent his vacations.

But for the girl who loved to swim and play at the beach, the Long Branch cottage that would eventually become the Stella Maris Retreat Center was more than the place where she hobnobbed with presidents and business moguls. It was the quiet spot for contemplation where Drexel considered trading in her material wealth for what the Bible calls spiritual treasures in heaven.

“I am not happy in the world,” she wrote in a letter to Bishop James O’Conner while she was staying at the cottage. “There is a void in my heart that only God can fill.”

St. Katharine Drexel before she entered religious life.
St. Katharine Drexel before she entered religious life.

For 141 years, the place that served as a refuge for St. Katharine, and later thousands of others, has stood on the six-acre stretch of beach as the town’s oldest oceanfront property. But it will soon cede that position to the Ocean Beach Club next door. Stella Maris has been sold to a developer and is slated to be demolished.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, who have owned and operated the retreat center since the early 1940s, have sold it to the Chehebar family, of New York, for $18.5 million. The Brooklyn-based family owns the Rainbow Shops retail chain, which includes more than 1,300 stores throughout the nation. Local officials have approved the family’s plan to build four houses on the parcel overlooking the ocean.

The property’s fate, now a sad inevitability for preservationists, had been the subject of efforts to save some or all of it for months.

“It’s tough for historic-minded groups to save properties if development pressures are strong and property values are high," said Richard Fernicola, a local historian, author, and longtime resident of Long Branch. They can’t raise enough money to buy and save them, Fernicola said.

The original cottage was built in 1868 and purchased a year later by George W. Childs, publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger and a close family friend of the Drexels. President Grant eventually moved in next door.

The white house, called Sea Cliff Villa, designed by Edward T. Potter, resembled a Bavarian-style chalet with wraparound porches that caught the sunlight and ocean breezes. Potter later designed Mark Twain’s house in Connecticut.

“Long Branch’s whole history and rise during the Gilded Age stems from [Sea Cliff Villa],” said local historian Beth Woolley, a trustee of the Long Branch Historical Association.

The interior of the Stella Maris Retreat Center in Long Branch, N.J., which is slated to be demolished to make way for four new houses.
Courtesy of Dr. Richard Fernicola
The interior of the Stella Maris Retreat Center in Long Branch, N.J., which is slated to be demolished to make way for four new houses.

During the late 1800s, the town would become known as the nation’s summer capital. Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Chester Arthur visited. President James Garfield died there. Actors Lily Langtry and Edwin Booth (half-brother of John Wilkes Booth), Pullman railroad car mogul George Pullman, and financier “Diamond Jim” Brady also vacationed there.

It was in this rarefied air that St. Katharine “wrestled with her sense of call,” said Cordelia Frances Biddle, author of Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel and an instructor at Drexel University. Biddle’s great-grandmother was St. Katharine’s cousin, Emilie Drexel Biddle, whose father Anthony founded Drexel University.

In 1885, after a stay at a German spa (for what Biddle described as a nervous breakdown brought on by grief over the death of her father), St. Katharine returned to Sea Cliff and wrote O’Connor about her calling.

“If Our Lord wishes me to go to a convent, I should be an idiot, did I not obey the call,“ she said in one of two letters sent from Long Branch about the tug of religious life.

St. Katharine’s time at Sea Cliff was ”a huge turning point in her life,” Biddle said. The bishop and her family tried to dissuade her from entering a convent, but in 1889 she did it, and two years later founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, headquartered in Bensalem.

By 1941, Long Branch had fallen out of favor with the wealthy and become more of a vacation destination for middle-class families, said Randall Gabrielan, vice chair of the Monmouth County Historical Commission. That year, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace purchased Sea Cliffs and turned it into a retreat center, using an ancient title for the Virgin Mary as its name: Stella Maris (Star of the Sea in Latin).

Over the next seven decades, as Long Branch’s economic fortunes fluctuated, the nuns offered a seaside refuge for contemplation. They added two wings to the building and purchased the property next door that then contained Grant’s summer house, but demolished it when they couldn’t afford to renovate.

In 2014, the Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based nuns, by then an aging and dwindling community, decided to sell. They sold the estate, which had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy, to the Chehebars in 2017, in the midst of a Long Branch building boom that has attracted investors including the family of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. The nuns inserted deed restrictions designed to preserve open space on the property.

"We did the best we could in line with our values,” said Sister Susan Francois, a leader of the religious community, “Everyone that was there is sad that it is no more.”

Preservationists and government officials began negotiating with the new owners in hopes of saving at least some of the building, said Jim Foley, president of the Long Branch Historical Museum Association. In December, the Chehebars agreed to give preservationists at least two months to raise an estimated $150,000 to $250,000 to move the most historic section (the original cottage built in 1868) to a parcel adjacent to the museum association’s nearby headquarters.

When the association couldn’t raise the money, the group moved to save interior woodworking, a downstairs floor-to-ceiling fireplace and mantels on the first floor — the most significant items in a building that had been altered by the nuns, Foley said. The Chehebars agreed to donate the pieces, which have been removed from Stella Maris and will be used at a former Catholic school building that is being transformed into an office co-op. The historic items will be part of a conference room dedicated to St. Katharine, Foley said.

An 1873 Harper's Weekly cartoon depicting President Grant in Long Branch (the lion pointing to the sea), a commentary on Grant when he considered running for a third term as president. His cottage is in the background.
Harpers Weekly
An 1873 Harper's Weekly cartoon depicting President Grant in Long Branch (the lion pointing to the sea), a commentary on Grant when he considered running for a third term as president. His cottage is in the background.

“If money were no object, if we had someone say, ‘Here’s $200,000, just move the whole building,’ we would have done that,” Foley said. Even so, the board is “very happy” about the resolution, Foley said. The Chehebars donated $50,000 to pay for the woodwork removal and reinstallation, Foley said.

But in January, Fernicola decided to launch a last-ditch effort to save the estate. He filed a petition with the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office arguing for the property’s historical and architectural significance, but his application was rejected. Fernicola and Foley will participate in a community discussion about the fate of the property at 7 p.m. March 27 at the Long Branch Free Public Library.

The history of the Jersey Shore is undervalued, Fernicola said. People “look at summering at the Jersey Shore and think of it just as a vacation spot, but it’s so much more.”