Stella Maris Retreat & Renewal Center, situated atop a hill overlooking Skaneateles Lake along stately East Genesee Street in Skaneateles, provides a welcoming refuge for those who are seeking peace, renewal and spiritual growth.
The mansion that is now the retreat and conference center was designed by Stanford White, built in New York City and brought to Skaneateles Lake where it was assembled in 1879. It was originally the summer home of Frederick Roosevelt, cousin of Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1945, Burns Lyman Smith of the Smith Corona Typewriter Company acquired the home. He then left it to his sister, Flora Bernice Smith. She sold it in 1952 to the Sisters of the Third Franciscan Order of Syracuse. After some renovation it was blessed as Stella Maris, Latin for “Star of the Sea” by Bishop Walter Foery in 1954.
The property is enhanced by the allure of Skaneateles Lake, which is in close proximity. William Henry Seward, the 12th governor of New York, called Skaneateles Lake the “most beautiful body of water in the world.”
One of the Finger Lakes, it is sometimes referred to as the “Roof Garden of the Lakes” because at 863.27 feet above sea level, it is higher than the other Finger Lakes.
What began as a retreat house for Catholic women has expanded to welcome people of other denominations and to serve as a conference center for groups seeking a quiet and reflective setting.
The center offers one-day, extended-day and individual retreats to people who come from all over the U.S. In addition, groups such as the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, secular Franciscans, parishes, quilters and the West Lake Conservators (an organization devoted to restoring artwork) have utilized the facility for their own programs.
The center can accommodate up to 100 people for conferences and up to 45 people for single occupancy overnight lodging.
In addition to a large conference room, the mansion offers a number of gathering spaces. One of the most popular is the solarium, which can hold up to 35 people. Two other spaces are the library and the Olivia Room. They are lakeside rooms more suited to smaller groups. The dining room, with a beautiful view of the lake and surrounding grounds, provides space for lunch or dinner meetings.
The St. Francis Waterfall Garden, located to the right of the entrance of the building, contributes to the serene atmosphere of the center. A statue of St. Francis stands nearby.
The center’s chapel provides inspiration with a breathtaking view of the lake.
Susan Major, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Lake Church in Skaneateles, has visited Stella Maris many times. “It’s an amazing place of refuge and sanctuary,” said Major, who is a cancer treatment survivor and mother of three children, ages five to 10.
Major said the opportunity to visit Stella Maris has given her the strength she needs to face her illness. “I love it there. I sense the prayers of all the people who have gone there before me. It makes me feel the presence of God. I went to a healing Mass there just last week. Going to the center has provided me with the opportunity to deal with the challenges of cancer and has given me an opportunity to get away from everything for a while.
“At the retreat in June, I celebrated the end of my cancer treatment and celebrated my life.”
Rosemary McPeek has been attending weekend retreats at Stella Maris for the last 32 years. A parishioner of Ss John and Andrew Church in Binghamton, McPeek organizes a weekend retreat every September for a group of 25 to 30 women from Johnson City, Endicott and Binghamton. “It’s an uplifting weekend,” said McPeek. “We come back so refreshed and satisfied.”
McPeek said she especially likes spending time at the boathouse on the property where she reads and reflects.
“It’s such a beautiful setting,” she said. “When I go in the chapel to sit and look out at the lake, I wonder at how God has created nature. It’s inspiring.”
Father Thomas McGrath, former pastor at St. Mary of the Lake in Skaneateles, has been serving as administrator and chaplain at Stella Maris since the beginning of July. “It’s been a fairly easy transition,” said Father McGrath. He said the good spirit between the volunteers and staff contributed to the successful process.
“Serving here is a gift and a challenge,” he said. “When you drive into the driveway, you feel that it’s a place of peace and tranquility — a quiet place set apart for prayer and spiritual development.”
Sister Concetta Fabo, OSF, recently started to serve as program director at Stella Maris. While serving in Pittsburgh, Pa. two years ago, she came to Stella Maris for a retreat facilitated by Father Simeon Gallagher, OFM Cap. “I was very impressed by the whole experience,” said Sister Concetta. “The nature around the center makes it such an easy place to seek reflection and prayer. Also, the staff is very welcoming and hospitable. At the end of the week, I felt refreshed and nurtured in prayer.”
For more information about the center, visit www.stellamarisretreat.org or call (315) 685-6836.