By Christine Sampson
As people across the nation prepared to give thanks in the coming days for the blessings in their lives, the sisters of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and their guests and friends at Cormaria on Saturday expressed their own gratitude for the extensive renovation and restoration project that local contractors recently wrapped up at the 138-year-old retreat house on Bay Street overlooking Sag Harbor Bay.
Over the course of about two years, crews led by architect James Laspesa and builder Tim Mott gutted, rebuilt and refinished the main house. They ripped out toxic asbestos, updated the kitchen, installed new windows and a fire suppression system, repaired the stairwells and restored the oak beams, Greek-Italianate arches and scrolled capitals. It was all on display Saturday as Cormaria opened its doors for an unveiling so joyful and monumental that Bishop John Barres of the Archdiocese of Rockville Centre, which oversees the Catholic Church regionally, made the long trek east to bless the newly reopened main house at Cormaria.
“I invite you to believe that dramatic missionary growth on Long Island is possible,” Bishop Barres told the more than 100 people who gathered in the chapel for the service. He called Cormaria “the beautiful blending of the old and the new” and “a beautiful expression of the mission of the Catholic church.”
“It is so deeply connected to dramatic missionary growth,” he said. “So much of what needs to happen is an inside job. Let’s open ourselves in a new way to Cormaria … to do the archaeology of the heart.”
Funded through sponsorships and donations, including the Jackey Foundation’s support of the Tiffany dining room restoration, the extensive renovations are expected to take the building many more years into the future.
“It’s thanks to the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary that Cormaria has been renovated and renewed, because they see that Sag Harbor was their first mission in 1879, and they want to continue the mission as we go forward,” said Sister Ann Marino, who leads the retreat house. “They realize it’s an important mission.”
She said Bishop Barres’s thoughtful words and his blessing are “a new beginning” for Cormaria. And despite all the construction work, she said, “it feels the same inside. That was important that they did that. I didn’t want it to become cold and modern.”
Mr. Laspesa, who was born and raised in Sag Harbor, said in his 42 years practicing architecture in the village, this project was the most worthwhile and satisfying he has ever completed.
“I like to help. My mission as an architect is to help the public,” said Mr. Laspesa, who is also on Cormaria’s board of directors. “It’s safe for the public. The finished product is a building that conforms to New York State building code in regards to life, safety and welfare.”
Sister Ann said the workers didn’t merely perform a job.
“It was like a creation,” she said. “Every one of the artisans who worked on it, from the painters to the men who put down the tile piece by piece to the plumbers, it was all a work of love.”
The retreat house first limited its visitor capacity from 70 to 40, then closed altogether for about six months during the most intense parts of the construction. But the sisters still lived there, cooking on hot plates and making do however they could.
“We toughed it out,” said Sister Ann, who has been with Cormaria since 1982.
Folks who had come here over the years, who were recovering from addiction, trauma or grief or who perhaps were in need of spiritual comfort or other kinds of respite, were overjoyed its new “old” look.
“Everyone should come and witness really a work of art,” said Joan Lycke, who stayed at Cormaria after the death of her daughter. “To have been coming since 1987 and to witness the renovation when I came back is magnificent. The time spent renovating it to its authenticity by the craftsmen who did the work just leaves you in awe.”
Bob Collins observed when he was here years ago that “this place was falling apart at the seams.”
“Sister Ann has been a godsend,” he said. “When they were tearing down retreat houses all over Long Island, she had the forethought to come in and build this one up. You see the results here today.”