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The Visitation Convent (Georgetown)

The Visitation Convent, Georgetown

Located in the District of Columbia, United States of America. This convent was founded by Miss Alice Lalor, native of Kilkenny County, Ireland, who sailed for this country in 1794 with her sister, Mrs. Doran, the wife of an American merchant. On the voyage she formed an intimacy with Mrs. Sharpe and Mrs. McDermott and, united in their vocation, they bought a small house in Philadelphia and began their community life under the direction of the Rev. Leonard Neale, who had succeeded Rev. Lawrence Graessel and Rev. Francis Fleming, victims of the yellow fever eidemic of 1793. The return of the fever in 1797-8 broke up their house, and Father Neale having been made president of Georgetown College invited them to settle in that place. Miss Lalor bought a small cottage near that of three French noblewomen of the Order of Poor Clares, who had escaped the Terror and hoped to found a house in the land of their asylum. Father Neale put the Congregation of the Pious Ladies, as they were called, under the Rule of St. Francis de Sales, continued his directorship and encouraged and helped them in every way. His inspiration was to advance Catholic education and especially to secure it for the daughters of Catholic families in Maryland, where the proscriptive laws and penalties established by those who had seized the Government from the Lords Proprietary had reduced Catholic education to a low ebb (see Acts of Assembly, 1654; 1704; 1715; 1718; 1755).

The school was opened, 24 June, 1799. The first pupil was Anna Smith, the first novice Sister Aloysia Neale. Their ranks were immediately recruited, their pupils multiplied, and in 1802 the school was developed into an academy. In 1804 the Poor Clares returned to France; Bishop Neale and his brother Father Francis bought their property, furniture, and books, and it was among the last that the Rules of the Visitation were discovered in 1812, after being vainly sought for years by the bishop, for Annecy had been swept away in the Terror. No enclosure was observed at first and the ladies were called Mistress or Madam until 1816 when Archbishop Neale obtained from Pius VII the Brief dated 14 July, which raised the community to the rank of a monastery. Solemn vows were taken, 28 Dec., 1816, by 30 choir sisters, 4 lay sisters, and 1 out sister. Father Beschter, formerly of the papal choir, instructed them in the chants of the office and the Visitandines of Chaillot sent them a model of the habit and silver crosses.

Six months later Archbishop Neale died, but he had appointed Father Cloriviere director of the community. He arrived, 13 Jan., 1818, and devoted his life to his new charge. He sold his estate in Bretagne and gave the proceeds as well as his French pension to building the chapel for the sisters. He asked and obtained from his friend Charles X an altar-piece, and by every means in his power helped the sisters in their poor school---the first free school in the District of Columbia. Mother Catharine Rigden broke ground for the chapel, the symbolic window of which was given by a lady in South Carolina. This was the first chapel of the Sacred Heart in the United States. In 1819 the first prospectus was issued over the signatures of Mrs. Henrietta Brent, Mrs. Jerusha Barber, and Father Cloriviere; in 1823 a new academy was built, and in 1829 three European sisters arrived. On 9 Sept., 1846, Mother Teresa Lalor died, having seen her daughters established at Kaskaskia, Mobile, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Brooklyn. In 1872-3 the present academy building was erected, and in 1899-1900, after a fire, this was enlarged. Where the cottage stood there is now a square of many-storied buildings and the small lot has grown to thirty-eight acres in extent. Archbishop Neale, Father Cloriviere, Mother Teresa, Sister Joanna, the daughter of the Mexican Emperor Iturbide, and the thirty original sisters are laid in the crypt of the chapel and buried in the walls of its foundations, while many distinguished names carried on the rolls of the academy make it one of the historic spots of the country. At Gen. Winfield Scott's request the academy was exempted from seizure for hospital purposes during the Civil War. His daughter Virginia (Sister May Emmanuel) who was a Visitation nun is buried in the cemetery.


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