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 Patch.com)
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