A place apart: Presiding Bishop joins celebration of New Jersey retreat house's ministry

April 3, 2016

The day after he was consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Newark in 2007, Mark Beckwith headed for the Community of St. John Baptist in Mendham, N.J. "I needed a place to go for silence and sanctuary," he said.

Beckwith joined Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and other visiting clergy, local politicians, community members and convent members and associates on April 22 in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the community's St. Marguerite's House -- once a home for girls, now a retreat house -- and in launching the public phase of a $2.5 million capital campaign to repair and restore the retreat house and convent.

Other attending bishops included Bishop Herbert Donovan, the convent's episcopal visitor; Bishop George Councell of the Diocese of New Jersey; and Bishop Mark Sisk of the Diocese of New York.

"This is an opportunity to say thank you to God for this ministry that goes on in this place and to plant seeds so that ministry can continue to grow and heal," Jefferts Schori said in her keynote address.

She talked of the importance of "going apart," as Jesus did. "Jesus called people to go apart for rest and recreating, recentering, rediscovering who we are in relationship to God in order that we might better serve our neighbor."

When the word "conversation" came into the English language, she noted, it meant "to spend time with." Conversation is "the way we build intimate community," she said. "Building intimate community with God involves listening and going apart. That is the center point of retreat ministry. We all need that place of solace, that place of hospitality."

"A central part of the ministry in this place has been hospitality," she said, describing it as a place for healing. She recalled how the Good Samaritan brought the injured man to an inn -- a place we might recognize as a caravansary, or an inn along a road where travelers would stop -- for healing.

The order's work is a caravansary, healing ministry, she said, noting its work not only with retreatants but also with teenagers recovering from substance abuse through the Daytop residential program in the convent's former girls' day school building. "I hope you will bless this ministry with your help and support," Jefferts Schori said.

The order first bought land in Mendham in 1902 and originally brought groups of city children there to visit the country. The sisters subsequently relocated from New York to New Jersey, where they built St. Marguerite's House, a school and a convent. The school closed in 1983. St. Marguerite's operated as a home for young ladies until 1946, when the state ended funding and shifted its resources into foster care, said Sister Barbara Jean, community superior.

Most recently, two of the order's sisters opened a small convent, St. Mary's Mission House, at St. Mary the Virgin Church in New York in 2007.

The April 22 event began with a tour of the retreat house, where two former girls' home residents reminisced.

Standing in a former playroom/classroom, Judith Smith, 74, recalled sitting at a small table there and hearing about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "I was 7. We knew it was something serious, but not sure what it was or where Pearl Harbor was."
On Sunday nights, they would gather around the fireplace and listen to one of the nuns read a chapter from Exodus. "The books of Exodus were my mystery stories," she said. "We couldn't wait till the next week."

Upstairs in the dormitory, she said, the girls took advantage of a proctor whose hearing "was not the greatest."

"We were all jumping up and down on the beds and throwing pillows and having pillow fights," Smith said. "But we would know when the mother superior would come by, because her keys would kind of jingle. … Fortunately, she always wore them, so she never caught us."

Smith arrived at the home at age 5 with her younger sister after their father, a single parent, was drafted into the Navy. She lived there from 1939 to 1946 and enjoys returning, including visiting the cemetery -- "to see the family, really," she said.

Standing in the former chapel, now a solarium, Ethel Dennis recounted the time the home's Saint Bernard disappeared during a thunderstorm. The next day, they discovered the dog had hidden behind the chapel altar. "He knew where he was safe," she said.

Dennis, 82, arrived at St. Marguerite's at age 3. "I was the youngest of six girls. I understand my mother had died. My father, I guess, couldn't take care of us. I was here from 1929 until I was 18."

"It's still my home," said the Tennessee resident.

While the April 22 event was Jefferts Schori's first trip to the convent, she recalled that her mother visited there for retreats in the 1960s when the family lived in Summit.

"I remember her talking about coming here," Jefferts Schori said before touring the retreat house. "She was on the spiritual quest her whole life. I think she also went to Grace Church in Newark." Her mother also spent time at a charismatic church and, after moving to Seattle, became Russian Orthodox, Jefferts Schori said. "She was always on this journey."

For the Presiding Bishop herself, going apart always has been important -- and is harder to achieve with her current busy schedule, she said.

In her speech, she concluded, "I hope that I will be able to come here to take some time apart."

Sharon Sheridan of Flanders, N.J., is Episcopal Life copyeditor and author of Pages of Faith: The Art of Spiritual Scrapbooking (Morehouse)

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