History of Mercy by the Sea

According to the Madison Historical Society, the first inhabitants of the area in which Mercy by the Sea is located, were hunters who arrived around 10,500 B.C.  Fast forward to the period just prior to colonial settlement and you would find the Hammonasset tribe of indigenous peoples here fishing, hunting and also growing corn, beans and squash.

Land was purchased from the Hammonasetts and various other tribes in the area by a group of English colonists led by Rev. Henry Whitfield, and gradually Guilford and Madison were settled.

In the late 1880s, Mary A.F. Hotchkiss, wife of Henry O. Hotchkiss, the New Haven shipping magnate, purchased a parcel, about one-third of the current property.  She built a main house and out buildings and named her estate Stonycroft.  When Mrs. Hotchkiss died, her daughter, Miss Marie O. Hotchkiss, inherited the property.  In 1938, she donated the estate to the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, which sold the property to 10 men who intended to develop the property. 

Their development plan never materialized. Instead W.T. Grant, the founder of the Grant department stores, bought the land and razed most of the estate, except for the building known as Shalom.  Grant went on to build an 18-room mansion, designed by Edward Durell Stone, known for his post-modern designs.

Grant was known to have been enamored of trees, especially exotic species, and loved the water and his gardens.  He also created an art studio—currently named the Tower—where he painted. 

In 1948, Grant offered the estate to the Archdiocese of Hartford, and in 1949 the Sisters of Mercy took possession of the property, which at that time was comprised of 16 acres.  The Sisters later purchased additional land, and opened Our Lady of Mercy Novitiate and the Diocesan Sisters College where young women were educated and entered the Sisters of Mercy community.

In 1972, the Center was “rededicated” as a conference center for spiritual renewal, and it has hosted programs, retreats and events ever since.

In 1995, the Center received a most generous gift from Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue: a contemporary house which was moved from Westport, Connecticut.  Now named Seascape, it opened in 1996 as a retreat house with meeting and guest rooms, large contemporary kitchen, dining room, second-floor conversational area,  and a great room with huge windows that overlook Long Island Sound, the manicured lawn and untended brush and trees.