Georgetown Visitation

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Founded in 1799, the monastery and schools of the Visitation Nuns at Georgetown, D.C., in 1895 became officially known as the Georgetown Visitation Convent.

Growth of the Academy. The founders of this community numbered only three: Miss Alice Lalor (see lalor, teresa, mother), and two widows, Mrs. McDermott and Mrs. M. Sharpe, all of them immigrants from Ireland who had come under the direction of Leonard neale, SJ, in Philadelphia. When, near the close of 1798, Bp. John carroll appointed Neale to the presidency of Georgetown College, the latter was deeply stirred by the total want of Catholic schools for "female youth." (see georgetown university.) He, therefore, invited his three spiritual daughters to Georgetown for the purpose of forming a religious society and of educating the young girls of Maryland. On their arrival he lodged them with a small community of Poor Clare Nuns, exiles from the French Terror. Finding the austerities and the spirit of the Poor Clares incompatible with his ideals of religious life for these women and unsuited to the task of teaching young Americans, he soon rented another dwelling nearby, where on June 24, 1799, he opened the first Catholic academy for girls in the original 13 states. The three women and their later companions, known as "The Pious Ladies," were directed by Neale according to a modified Jesuit rule. He persisted, however, in his determination that they should be Visitandines and thus fulfill a prophetic dream he had experienced during his missionary days in British Guiana, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts to obtain Visitation Nuns from Europe or documents of affiliation with the order. Finally, in 1815, on the death of Archbishop Carroll, whose coadjutor he had been for 15 years, he petitioned the Holy See for admission of the community into the Visitation Order. Pius VII readily acceded to the request, and on Dec. 28, 1816, Mother Josephine Teresa Lalor and two others pronounced solemn vows. Six months later, on June 18, 1817, the archbishop died. It was not until Jan. 19, 1819, that the sisters received a new spiritual director, Joseph Picot de Clorivière, who saw at once the plight of both community and school, whose enrollment had dwindled alarmingly.

Reorganization. Aided by an excellent teacher, recently admitted to the community, Mrs. Jerusha Barber, Clorivière set to work to train the sisters in both the matter and the methods of education. Soon a one-page prospectus of the school was issued, which listed French, music, and drawing in addition to subjects usually offered in a good grammar school: English grammar, arithmetic, geography, history, reading, and writing. To provide finer accommodations, he drew plans for a new academy, which was completed in 1823. He also carried out two of Neale's cherished dreams, the establishment of a "Benevolent School" and the erection of a chapel in honor of the Sacred Heart. The former, built in 1819 and known as St. Joseph's School, continued to give free education to an average of 130 girls a year until 1918, when the Sisters of Mercy assumed the direction of the new Holy Trinity parochial school. The chapel was blessed on Nov. 1, 1821, and became a center of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Clorivière died in 1826, two years before the legal incorporation of the community by act of the 20th Congress.

Almost immediately he was succeeded by Michael Wheeler, SS, who thoroughly understood the Visitandine religious life. Aware of the demands of education in the United States, on his journey to Europe in 1829 he obtained from pius viii indults permitting the sisters certain dispensations necessary for carrying out their work. As the community grew, it established foundations and schools in cities throughout the United States.

The 20th Century. In 1919 the sisters added a junior college that continued in existence until 1964. In 1975 the boarding school was closed and nonresident student enrollment increased. A fire in July 1993 destroyed the main academic building, 80 percent of the school's teaching area, but did not touch the monastery. Proud of its tradition of uninterrupted instruction, the school closed for only one day of summer school following the fire, and resumed classes as usual the following September. As Georgetown Visitation continued to flourish, its bicentennial in 1999 was marked by the restoration of Founders Hall and the dedication of several new buildings and programs.

Bibliography: g. p. and r. h. lathrop, A Study of Courage: Annals of the Georgetown Convent of the Visitation (Cambridge, Mass. 1895). Archives of the Georgetown Visitation Convent, especially MS histories of the foundation and of the lives of the first Sisters by m. j. barber and m. s. jones. These were compiled sometime after the Civil War and before 1879.

[m. l. whipple/

m.-a. gell]

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Georgetown Visitation

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Georgetown Visitation