From Sandy to 'Something Beautiful' For NJ's Oceanfront Nuns

'They should have a statue to me at Lowe's'

Daniel Nee/Patch.comSister 'Bruni' of Brick Township, N.J. became a construction coordinator in the wake of Sandy.
By Daniel Nee

Since she decided to become a nun at the age of 12, Sister Brunilda Ramos has ministered to many people and held many roles within her religious order, the Religious Teachers Filippini. Construction coordinator, however, was not one she expected.

Along with Sr. Dolores Bianchi, Ramos, known as Sr. Bruni, runs the St. Joseph's By the Sea retreat house, just north of Brick Beach III in Brick. And within the next two weeks – just over a year after Superstorm Sandy struck – the house will open its doors for quiet reflection and spiritual growth by the ocean once again.

It has been a year of tears, hard work and the building of loving relationships with other Brick residents that will last years to come for Ramos, 62, and Bianchi, 76, her best friend.

"Together, we have been able to do something beautiful for one another," said Ramos.

She held back tears the morning before the one-year anniversary of Sandy's landfall at the Jersey Shore. The storm caused a massive degree of damage to the oceanfront retreat house, which sleeps 20, and the smaller convent next door that she calls home. (See before and after photos on

When Ramos and Bianchi were able to return a few weeks after the storm struck, sand was everywhere, she said. The ocean overwashed the small dune in front of the three-story retreat house and burst through the dining room and kitchen, flowing toward the entrance. Appliances were ruined, walls were covered in mold, carpets were ripped up and the walls had holes in them.

"Things that were in the back of the house, we found in the front," she said.

They even found a few fish that the waves had washed into the kitchen.

Rebuilding With Help From God, Community

Having evacuated to another retreat house in Long Branch before Sandy struck, Ramos and Bianchi, like many other local residents, had to wait to be allowed back on the island to survey the damage for the first time and pick up a few belongings they had left behind.

The policy back then was to meet at Brick VFW Post 8867 on Adamston Road, then board a bus for the short ride over the Mantoloking Bridge.

"When I first saw them, they had that 'deer in the headlights' sort of look," said Terry Fearon, Sr. Vice Commander of the VFW Post. "It came to me in a flash. I told them they had a new vocation in life - demolition and construction. They said, 'Okay, what do we do?'"

From that day forward, Fearon and other VFW members would help the sisters find contractors, guide them through the rebuilding process and make sure they were keeping the faith.

"Their tenacity is remarkable," said Fearon. "They never wavered. Whenever I went to see them they were upbeat and were carrying the torch."

Ramos and Bianchi worked six days a week, eight hours a day, for four months, to gut the building themselves, as well as remove feet of sand and five feet of water from the cellar of the convent.

In a streak of inspirational irony, the pair tapped into their inner St. Joseph – a carpenter by trade – who is the retreat house's namesake.

"Every day I would come and work with the guys," said Ramos. "I made sure everything was perfect. I asked, 'Hey what kind of Sheetrock are we using? Is it fireproof?"

"They should have a statue to me at Lowe's," she joked. "The Sheetrock, the doors, everything, I went in and checked the prices, and we got it."

In March, they reached an important milestone: they were able to move home to the convent.

But the retreat house, which pays the bills for the order, was still in need of an immense amount of work. Between volunteers and Good Samaritans in the form of local contractors, however, the work got done, slowly but surely.

"They were very kind," she said of the contractors who came through. "We had someone come in and replace the deck outside, and when I asked him to give me the bill he said, 'What bill? Is there a guy named Bill here?'"

The sisters also got help from volunteers and church groups who cleaned up the outside of the building, and even replaced the flowers and evergreens that the force of the ocean had uprooted. The volunteers, said Ramos, were in many cases organized by Christie Winter of the Visitation Relief Center on Mantoloking Road on the Brick mainland.

The mood began to change from devastation to hope for a bright future. For inspiration, the nuns posted a sign on the front door of their convent. It remains there today: "Why Worry? God's in Control."

A Sandy Comeback, a Year in the Making

The morning of Oct. 28, 2013 was brisk and sunny. The ocean outside the retreat house had an aqua-green tint as the sun's rays warmed the open, great hall on the second floor.

Ramos stood outside on the deck, checking out the waves and breeze, and looking at a makeshift cross that had been erected at the top of the temporary dune that had been installed by Brick public works crews.

The third floor, a quiet reflection room, looks out over Route 35 and across Barnegat Bay. The decor is a mix of religious paintings and nautical items, from a photo of the Virgin Mary to some decorative fishing net material with sculpted seagulls perched on top.

Within a few days, the retreat house will receive its final inspection from Brick construction officials, and will likely host its first retreat group in over a year by mid-November.

"Every shovel of sand was a prayer for all of us," said Ramos, whose prayers now are with those still trying to rebuild their homes and their lives.

"We continue to pray for all those who are still struggling," she said. "Through all the struggles there are blessings. And we have gotten to meet a lot of beautiful people, and that's a blessing."

Daniel Nee is a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore.

Superstorm Sandy: The Tragedy That Never Ended

More coverage of Sandy: One Year Later

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John Jr.

Have a good day. God bless You

November 03 2013 at 8:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Say NO to libs!

I think it's wonderful for Sister Bruni and those who rely on her. My home is still not back, and so many others in my town haven't even begun to rebuild because FEMA and even private insurance companies are NOT forthcoming with their OBLIGATORY funds. I paid for flood insurance to innumerable Insurance Companies EVERY MONTH for 35 years without a single claim, and they (FEMA, my current Insurers) did EVERYTHING they could, through INDIA phone banks, (American government farming out America's jobs???) to delay payments by demanding more and more ridiculous repair records and proof of signatures, until we finally began to believe they had NO INTENTION of paying us for our losses and we threatened lawsuits.
We personally know people who speak little English who were totally victimized and so far have gotten little to NOTHING. Another BIG question. FUNDRAISERS EVERYWHERE! Show US, THE VICTIMS, the money!!!

November 03 2013 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Say NO to libs!'s comment

You should have lived closer to the beach where the state makes most of its tax dollars off of cause thats where the money went to all the businesses . And when did you ever see a insurance company ever want to pay out that much money real quick they do it slow cause they want to make as much interest off the money as possible and the money also is tied up in stock

November 03 2013 at 3:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"They should have a statue to me at Lowe's," she joked. There is underlying truth in jokes. That's what makes them funny. Great work, being human is awesome, screw the seven deadly sins. Nothing wrong with a little pride.

November 03 2013 at 11:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is very good, this is the America I know and love; the kind of people who made our country great. ' "Their tenacity is remarkable," said Fearon. "They never wavered. Whenever I went to see them they were upbeat and were carrying the torch."' Across America, and Americans around the world are doing great good things for all others. No need for FEMA or Homeland. We Americans are known around the world for our good hearts, for our giving of ourselves and our hard-earned dollars. Many are not even registered charities, or nonprofits; 501(C)(3). Americans give to them not because of the tax advantages, the write offs, but because their hearts tell them to. This is the giving made clear in The Sermon on The Mount; Matthew 6: 2-4. There are many who have my devout admiration. One that comes to mind among many is Focus Adolescent Services. They don't discriminate, they help children from all socio-economic levels.

November 03 2013 at 10:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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