St. Edmund, Seaport at odds over covenant

Mystic — In separate interviews with The Day, the leaders of the organization that owns St. Edmund’s Retreat Center and Mystic Seaport Museum have detailed the failed negotiations that led to the society suing the museum last week.

The Rev. Thomas Hoar, the president of the retreat center, said Friday that the museum gave up its 1.25 percent ownership stake in the island in 1970. In addition he stressed St. Edmund of CT has no plans to sell the island but is not willing to pay the Seaport it’s share if it is sold, in part because it has no value. He explained this is because the cost of needed seawall and infrastructure improvements exceeds the value of the island.

But Seaport President Steven White said Sunday his museum has an obligation to past, present and future donors to protect what they have given to the organization and abide by their wishes.

The controversy arose last year when St. Edmund of CT sought permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair a deteriorating seawall on its property. In order to get a Corps permit and funding, St. Edmund has to show it has clear title to the island.

The problem was that when the late Alys Enders deeded the island to the Society of St. Edmund's, the predecessor of St. Edmund of CT, in 1954, she said the island had to be used solely as a novitiate for the Society of St. Edmund or a place of retreat for diocesan priests. If it failed to do so, ownership would revert to 36 beneficiaries including 30 private individuals and six organizations, including the Seaport.

In the past few decades St. Edmund’s has expanded the uses of the retreat center to include substance abuse and counseling programs, art workshops, retreats and fundraisers by various groups and daily Masses and a passive recreation area open to the public. Neighbors have complained that this has increased traffic on the narrow roads of Masons Island and have filed a lawsuit charging the uses violate Stonington zoning regulations and violate Alys Enders’ original wishes.

But Hoar said Friday Alys Enders' actual intent according to her lawyer was for the society to use the island for religious purposes that it saw fit and that St. Edmund has obtained a sworn affidavit from Enders' goddaughter attesting to that.

White said he was also surprised to learn that St. Edmund is now acknowledging that it had not been in compliance with Enders' wishes for many decades.

"We always took St. Edmund's at their word that they were in compliance with the covenant," White said.

St. Edmund has obtained quit claims from almost all of the beneficiaries, who own 94.375 percent of the island. The Seaport, a Waterford man and the Girl Scouts of Connecticut have not agreed to sign over their interests to St. Edmund. The suit asks a New London Superior Court judge to “quiet the title” or end the interest in the property, of not just the three entities but anyone else who may claim ownership interest, and declare that St. Edmund of CT is the sole owner of the island.

Hoar said the majority of the beneficiaries were happy to quit claim their interests over to St. Edmund because they agreed their rights expired in 1970 and their shares have no value. He said Yale New Haven Health did an extensive appraisal of the Lawrence + Memorial share that showed this.  

Hoar said that St. Edmund and the Seaport came to a written agreement on the issue in August that required St. Edmund to give the museum Board of Trustees  "some comfort." White said there were ongoing discussions but no agreement. 

Hoar said St. Edmund would agree not to take any legal action and would not publicize the issue but would not pay the museum for its interest. Hoar alleged that the Seaport board was falsely told St. Edmund was looking to sell the island, something Hoar stressed was untrue.

After the Seaport trustees met, Hoar said the museum wanted to be paid for its 1.25 percent share if the island were ever sold. Hoar said he then told the museum its rights had expired. White said the museum was willing to convey its interest to St Edmund's but wanted to preserve Alys Enders' wishes and its interest in case things changed in the future. 

"We've been here 64 years providing services to the local commuty and we've been good neighbors. We just want to get our seawall fixed," Hoar said.

Hoar said that since 1955, St. Edmund was doing what it was doing in the "open and notoriously." 

"Anyone who had an interest after 1955 until 1970 could have claimed the island but they didn't," he said, adding that the beneficiaries' rights under adverse possession law expired after 16 years. White said the issue of whether the beneficiaries relinquished their rights is a legal matter that will be decided. 

White said that the museum has “an obligation to preserve the value of gifts and honor the wishes of our donors.”

He added that doing so is important because it assures current and future donors that their gifts and intentions will be protected.

“We’re committed to doing the right thing by working with St. Edmund’s and protecting the interest of our donors,” he said.

White said he was both “surprised and disappointed” by the lawsuit because he felt the two sides were making progress, He added that St. Edmund never responded to the museum’s last offer.  Instead, he said the response came in the form of the lawsuit.


Editor's Note: This version corrects the intent of Alys Enders' instructions for use of the island.


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