CAPE MAY POINT, N.J. - It is a storied place, one of prayer and providence.

And when St. Mary-by-the-Sea, a religious retreat owned by the Philadelphia-based Sisters of St. Joseph, throws open its doors this weekend to the public, it will be among the few times it has welcomed nonreligious people into its sacred space during its 100-year history.

Artists, poets, writers, and others can wander the muse they long admired from afar - the distinctive U-shaped, white-framed building, so long the sanctuary and solace for only those in religious life.

The celebration, called "Lifting the Creative Spirit and Tapping the Artist Within," runs Friday through Sunday and includes tours, a wine tasting, an art show and sale, and lectures and workshops in fine art and photography.

"Although this retreat house has been here for 100 years, there is still a sense of mystery about us," said Sister Carol Zinn, who works as the order's general counsel. "So we wanted to take the opportunity to allow the public to see this unique place that for so long has offered peace to so many others."

A celebration began last summer in the normal fashion of the red-roofed, three-story house - as quiet, contemplative reflection among the sisters.

The retreat, built in 1890, has been used by the Jesuit-based order since 1910 to give its members an escape from the city's summer heat and to help them find spiritual nourishment in the quiet rush of the sea, Zinn said.

But as the order's numbers declined in recent decades - from a high of about 2,000 in the 1960s to just under 1,000 - the Sisters of St. Joseph opened the property to other religious orders and lay people for retreats as brief as a weekend or as long as a month.

To use the spartan accommodations of the 130-room former Shoreham Hotel, participants - usually women - agree to a vow of silence for the length of their stay.

This weekend, by contrast, is expected to stir much chatter.

It starts Friday with an "early bird" art workshop and continues with drawing, painting, photography, and other arts classes Saturday. Prices range from $75 for one session to $275 for the entire weekend.

On Sunday, after morning worship, the public may join the sisters for a "sketch crawl" and guided tours, including the historic chapel, dining room, and a lace-adorned room reminiscent of the order's 17th-century lace-making skills, which raised money.

People will be dressed in Victorian attire, and sisters will don habits similar to those worn by the order in 1910.

The order, founded in France in 1650, no longer wears black-and-white habits, now mostly worn by cloistered nuns. After Vatican II, the Sisters of St. Joseph decided to become more a part of the community the order served, no longer setting itself apart by attire.

Over the last century, the beach in front of St. Mary's has eroded so much that at times waves have lapped against its front porches. Artist Carol King Hood, whose family owns a cottage in Cape May Point, often has been among those praying for the salvation of the precariously placed landmark.

"This is such a special place for people here for so long, even if they've never been inside," said Hood, who will be among the artists exhibiting work throughout the weekend and will teach a workshop on figure drawing Saturday.

One of Hood's most popular paintings, After the Storm, was inspired by a black-and-white photograph of the sisters in their habits in a procession on the porches and grounds of St. Mary's decades ago. "Divine inspiration," she said, led her to paint a stormy sky in the background.

Remarkably, some months later, Hood learned that the photo had been taken shortly after the notorious 1962 nor'easter that flattened many Jersey Shore buildings. It shows the sisters, who had returned to St. Mary's to assess the damage, holding a joyful prayer procession when they saw that their beloved retreat had been spared.

"People leave here different than when they came," said Joan Dollinger, St. Mary's administrator, who plans and schedules the retreats. "I think there is a transformative quality about the place."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline
L. Urgo at 609-652-8382