The Nation's Pulse

The Bells of Cape May

The Army Corps of Engineers works in mysterious ways.

By 6.26.07

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CAPE MAY, N.J. --- Whether it's due to Jesus or America's taxpayers, there's no doubt that St. Mary-by-the-Sea is on firm ground this year.

We stopped by the other day to check out the status of this 150-year-old summer retreat for nuns at the Point in Cape May, the very southern-most tip of New Jersey. Owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia, this historic Victorian building sits at one of the most vulnerable spots on the Jersey shore, an area where dozens of blocks of houses have been washed into the ocean over the years.

"To say that Cape May Point is vulnerable to the erosive forces of the ocean would be an understatement," explains Courier-Post reporter Lawrence Hajna. "More than a half-century ago, the sea pounded the little town of South Cape May into oblivion; the site is now underwater. And through the 1980s, the ocean steadily ate away at beaches surrounding a World War II bunker, once 900 feet inland, until it stood on pilings in the surf."

In recent years, erosion and ocean storms have destroyed virtually the entire beach in front of St. Mary-by-the-Sea. All that existed between the massive 165-room retreat house and the pounding power of the encroaching ocean was a line of trucked-in boulders.

Today, there's sand out front of the retreat house, tons of it, and there's little chance that any porch-sitting nun will be knocked off her rocker and floated out to sea during high tide.

"We got a miracle," explained Sister Agnes Frederick Blee, 81, referring to the new beach. "It's very profound. I think our prayers were answered."

Viewed in more secular terms, the newly dredged sand at the retreat house came from the Army Corps of Engineers. Initiated two years ago with $15 million, the beach replenishment project is set to run through 2055 with a total price tag of $73 million in maintenance costs (the sand keeps washing out).

Still, one might say that prayers have been answered. Jesus could have sent the Army Corps! Or as Sister Ann Raymond, the convent's director, puts it: "We firmly believe that it was only through prayer that we have survived. I think the Lord got tired of hearing us and said, 'I'll send someone out to put sand in front of them.'"

Or one could argue that Jesus saved the retreat by creating yellow-rumped warblers. The millions in tax dollars didn't come to Cape May to protect vacationing nuns or help home owners. The town qualified for the Army Corps project because of the birds that migrate through Cape May, yellow-rumped warblers included.

"Cape May Point Mayor Malcolm Fraser acknowledges he was able to exploit a loophole in Army Corps' guidelines to justify spending the money to protect birds while getting beaches his town never would have gotten otherwise," explains Hajna. "Cape May Point, with just one business and a year-round population of about 240, had little hope of producing the kind of numbers it would take to justify millions of dollars in beach replenishment. But, in 1991, the first President Bush signed an obscure executive order that allowed the Army Corps to disregard its normal cost-benefit analyses to protect critical wildlife habitats."

Explains the mayor, Mr. Fraser, "We didn't engineer it, but we huckstered it."

Isn't there also something in the Bible about giving and then getting it back a million times over? During World War II, with German U-boats sinking ships in America's East Coast waters, the sisters at St. Mary's leased their retreat to the United States Army for $1 a year from 1941 to 1946. On February 4, 1942, a German U-boat spotted the tanker India Arrow about 20 miles off Cape May. Following the ship northward, the Germans successfully torpedoed the tanker, loaded with diesel fuel, into a ball of fire in the waters off Atlantic City.

And so, the warblers are happy ("At Higbee Beach, 100,000 warblers, mostly yellow-rumped, have been counted in one morning," according to local accounts). And so are the estimated 373 other species that reportedly stop by Cape May in their travels, plus the million or so shorebirds that gather each May to feed on the horseshoe crabs that beach themselves to breed.

And the nuns are happy, frolicking again in the surf. Says the lifeguard at St. Mary's beach, "It's the complete antithesis of Baywatch."

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.