Sister Ann Marino, the director of Cormaria, a retreat house in Sag Harbor, knows that people passing by often wonder about the mansion with a wraparound waterfront porch and extensive gardens barely visible from Bay Street. In celebration of her 30 years as director, Sister Ann will welcome the public to explore the compound on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m.
Sitting near a large picture window with a view of the bay in the building’s oversized dining room, Sister Ann said on Monday that she had no idea how long she would be at Cormaria when she arrived from a mission in Rome in September of 1982. She thought she had been sent to Sag Harbor to facilitate retreats, but learned upon arrival that she would be in charge.
Knowing no one in the area, Sister Ann said she was embraced by women from Montauk, East Hampton, and Sag Harbor, who helped her settle in. Today, Cormaria offers retreats for persons of all religious faiths who are “looking for direction and a closer connection to their spiritual lives,” she said.
The house was built in 1905 by Frank Havens, whose fortune was made in real estate. Before becoming a retreat house in 1946, the property had been a finishing school for young Catholic women. During her time as its director, Sister Ann has renovated the house and chapel, which is now connected to a small building with living accommodations, expanded the retreat programs, and worked with landscape artists to create calm and peaceful gardens.
The gardens are dedicated to the many friends of Cormaria, including of a woman who lost her life helping others escape from the twin towers on Sept. 11. A block from one of the towers is in a meditation garden.
Sister Ann speaks of the “very special sea” and the sunsets as part of Cormaria’s magic, and she enjoys sharing them with visitors. “You can see the stars at night and hear the whisper of the wind,” she said. No matter what religion, she said, you can meet your inner spirit at Cormaria.
“We have a gift,” she said. “Summer people try to get that,” she said, which is why they come to the East End. She also loves the hamlets and villages here, where she said people support each other.
Growing up in the Bronx, Sister Ann said she was not aware of the changing seasons. Nor had she ever known a farm stand. “For everything there is a season,” she said, explaining that she especially enjoys the beauty of snow, and hopes it for this winter.
“I try to teach what is really important in our lives,” she said. “How to be at peace with ourselves in a world of chaos.” She said she had heard a loud voice early in life that told her to become a nun; she made the decision at 18.
Now, 57 years later, after having had a varied career — she taught second grade internationally, was a school principal in Barcelona, and a teacher in a rough inner-city New York neighborhood for 12 years — she is pleased as she looks back at what she has accomplished.
Cormaria offers a safe haven at which to recover from substance or domestic abuse and provides quiet contemplation time during lifetime transitions or difficult periods, including medical issues.
It also runs 12-step programs, as well as retreats for young people and women, whom Sister Ann said she guides to “Walk tall in their truth, and realize they are a gift.”
Cormaria can accommodate up to 72 guests. The facilities include several conference rooms and a professional kitchen. It has had approximately 4,000 visitors each year.
With the recent closing of several retreat houses, such as St. Gabriel’s Passionist Center on Shelter Island and the Dominican Sisters complex in Water Mill, Cormaria is now the only retreat house on the East End with a year-round schedule.
It is entirely self-funding, with an annual strawberry tea and fashion show, golf benefits, and small and large donations. Its newest fund is named for the director, the Sister Ann Marino Endowment Fund, which will be used for maintenance. Donations can be sent to Cormaria, P.O. Box 1993, Sag Harbor 11963.
As for how long she will be at Cormaria, it will depend on what her Provincial order decides. She may go to Africa as an AIDS worker. For now, she stays focused on the present. “If I find myself bored, it will be time,” she said. “God of surprises calls the shots.”