Kevin RiordanThe Philadelphia Inquirer
MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — An unusual local church is creating a spiritual oasis on 18 lakeside acres in the township.
The nondenominational Church of St. Babs purchased the property in a secluded spot between Route 9 and the Garden State Parkway for $1.5 million in early May. It includes a private road, a forest of holly trees, two houses, a service building and frontage on the 15-acre body of water some locals call Lyndholm’s Lake.
Housing developers had been eyeing the parcel, which is zoned for single-family housing. But longtime owners Wayne and Diane Jorgensen became interested in church founder Will Keenan’s vision to use one of the largest remaining open spaces along Route 9 in the Rio Grande section of the township for the Lake Safe Haven at St. Babs Grande Retreat.
A private religious facility, the retreat is now open to daytime visitors for walking and birding and can accommodate overnight guests. But it does not operate a campground, Keenan said.
“We’re a church of all religions, where people of all religions and people of no religion are welcome, and at the retreat we will expand what we do at the church, like have meditation and prayer services on the beach,” Keenan said .
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An actor and independent film producer, he purchased and renamed a vacant Methodist house of worship on Delsea Drive for his late mother, a registered nurse named Barbara A. Sees-Keenan, in 2016.
Repainted in eye-popping colors, the landmark church in the Goshen section of the township has since become a hub for prayer, meditation, live music, art classes and community services, including emergency shelter and food assistance.
“We have guest pastors of many faiths,” Keenan said. “Serving people through action is our main activity.”
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Raising a down payment
In need of a down payment on the Rio Grande property, Keenan decided to use the $150,000 settlement of a sexual abuse claim he filed against the Catholic Church in New Jersey. His claim of him was settled through the Archdiocese of Newark in June 2020.
“What better way to … actually put [it] to good use than a new kind of church and its proposed retreat center?” he said.
Now 48 and married — he and his wife, Maura, are the parents of a 10-month-old daughter named Awen — Keenan had been running St. Babs for three years when New Jersey lifted the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases in 2019 .
“For decades, I thought that if my abuse were known, people would look differently at me,” he said.
“owning [the fact of] being a survivor of abuse is empowering,” Keenan said. “If my going public in any way helps others who have been reluctant to do so, it’s worth it. It’s a hard process, but it’s a healing one.”
Wayne Jorgensen, who grew up on the property in the 1940s and raised his own family there, said he and Diane like the fact that Keenan and the church intend to preserve, not transform, the site.
“There will still be plenty of room there for people to enjoy nature,” he said.
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Roman Osadchuk of RPO Realtors in Cape May Court House, who handled the sale, said that while there were “plenty of people” interested in the property, he and the sellers were impressed with Keenan and his vision for the site.
“Lenders kept asking for a lot of things because the buyer is a charitable organization. It took seven months to close the deal,” Osadchuk said. “We were very fortunate because the seller worked with Will. I’ve been in the business for 50 years, and I’ve never come across a transaction like this one.”
Said Keenan: “I had to raise $500,000 myself. It was my first time at the rodeo, and I did a lot of research, and set up an LLC [limited liability corporation] to attract financing.
“St. Babs Church of All Religions is the sole member of St. Babs Grande Retreat LLC, making the new property a church-owned/church-controlled estate,” he said.
Documentary filmmaker Jack Baxter was among the friends and fans of St. Babs whose donations made the purchase possible.
“I met Will in Hollywood, and I’ve known him for almost 20 years,” said Baxter, whose most recent documentary is “The Last Sermon,” for which Keenan served as executive producer.
“I believe in the guy, and I believe in his vision,” Baxter said. “What he’s doing with St. Babs and what he’s doing with the retreat really makes religion cool.”
MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — While a meeting with Township Committee didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped, Will Keenan, the owner of a local church, said he got his point across to committee members that he is willing to give the cemetery adjacent to the former Goshen Methodist Church to the township, or a group of citizens committed to preserving the property.
In a text message, London-based publisher Etan Ifield, another major retreat project donor, said he is “delighted” to support the effort.
Ifield, who owns Watkins Books — which describes itself as London’s oldest bookshop specializing in spirituality — also said his firm will curate a library for St. Babs.
On a weekday afternoon in May, Keenan and a dozen St. Babs supporters — including members of Cape May’s creative community — gathered to provide a tour of the retreat.
The tree-lined lake, which formed in a pit where sand and gravel were mined to build the Garden State Parkway in the 1950s, shimmered blue-gray in the sun. It’s a popular stop for birds on the Atlantic Flyway, so it’s prized by serious birders like Kevin T. Karlson.
“This place is a breath of fresh air,” said Karlson, a professional photographer and author of seven bird books.
Cape May artist Janet McShain, who has taught painting classes at St. Babs, said: “I am so delighted there is still a property like this that’s natural, and where you can hear the birds singing.”
On the east side of the lake, a 14-room main house built in 1977 has been renamed Metta Manor, after Keenan’s daughter, Awen Metta Keenan. “The Ark,” a 27-foot cabin cruiser donated to the church, is parked on the lawn, not far from a vintage RV with a 1970s interior, as well as a modest cabin the church also picked up for free and relocated to the property.
The Ark, the RV and the cabin offer accommodations to the public in exchange for a suggested donation, Keenan said. Several church members are living in the gate house near Route 9 and in the main house.
MIDDLE TOWNSHIP—Recover the church. Rehab the cemetery. Above all, respect the dead.
“Retreat stays are by suggested donations only, and those proceeds go to fund our programs helping people in need of food, clothing, shelter, emergency utility bill payments” and other necessities, Keenan said.
Neighbors have welcomed the new center.
“I’ve lived in Rio Grande all my life, and I was afraid a developer would tear all the trees down,” said Randy James, 62, whose property is adjacent to the retreat.
“It’s the last open space left in Rio Grande,” he said. “Everything else has been developed. I’m glad people will still be able to enjoy it.”