History of Georgetown Visitation
IN 1799, Father Leonard Neale (later Bishop and Archbishop), President of Georgetown College (later University), invited "three pious ladies" to found a school for young women. With little more than faith and determination, they accepted his challenge and opened a school in a simple one-room house. One of the oldest Catholic girls’ schools in the nation, it has grown and flourished for over 200 years.
How Visitation’s founders gathered in the thriving port of the Town of George and began building a Convent for nuns and an academy for girls.
How early school leadership developed a rigorous curriculum, expanded the campus, and taught young women, who went on to distinguish themselves and their country.
How individuals whom the Convent enslaved supported this institution’s mission.
How highly educated nuns nurtured young intellects in the late nineteenth century in the nation’s capital.
How students found their voice in writing, their talents in athletics, and their taste for school traditions in the early twentieth century.
How the Sisters contributed to the war effort and responded to the ever-increasing demands for higher levels of education for women in this country.
How the Sisters, lay faculty, and staff rebuilt after tragedy and formed a twenty-first century school on the same plat of land on which girls have been taught since 1799.
Georgetown Visitation was founded in 1799. Today it is a thriving college preparatory school, home to a religious community, and a site with 14 buildings on the historic registry, nine of them built before the Civil War. It has laid claim to be the oldest Catholic school for girls in the original 13 colonies, but this is not precisely true since it was founded in the District of Columbia.
The land on which it stands had been Maryland, but the school was founded in Washington, D.C., the federal district established in 1790. It would be a decade before President John Adams re-located the government from Philadelphia to the District in 1800. The Sisters settled one year before President Adams arrived. The school’s beginnings parallel the nation’s, in that its founders also moved from Philadelphia.
The school opened near Georgetown College (now University) because its fourth President, Father Leonard Neale, S.J., (later Bishop and Archbishop) co-founded the Academy and Convent. He invited Alice Lalor, whom he had known in Philadelphia, and soon after, Maria McDermott and Maria Sharpe followed. These founders would come to be called “The Three Pious Ladies.”
When Father Neale completed his tenure as President in 1806, he moved to a house on the Convent grounds. He and the "Three Pious Ladies” discerned that the Visitation Order fit their needs. Founded in 1610 in Annecy, France by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, this cloistered order valued contemplative life, but required no severe asceticism.
These painted copies from originals at the first Visitation house in Annecy, France portray St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. Father Michael Wheeler brought them back to Georgetown after a visit to Annecy in 1829. Collection of Georgetown Visitation.
The founding Sisters were drawn to the work of these saints for its liberty of spirit, optimism, simplicity, and common-sense approach to life. Father Neale’s being raised to Archbishop of Baltimore in 1815 enabled communication directly with Rome. The following year the Pope granted permission to form the first Visitation house in the Americas.
Although enrollment records are scant, there seems to have been sixteen paying students in 1820. In 1826, it had increased to 48, and by this time leadership had changed. Father Joseph-Pierre Picot de Clorivière had become chaplain in 1819. A French royalist and nobleman, whose parents had been put to death during the French Revolution, he had volunteered to be the person to give the signal to detonate an explosive that fellow conspirators had attached to Napoleon’s carriage. This assassination plot failed, so he fled to the United States and was later ordained as a Jesuit. Upon arrival at Georgetown, he donated his family inheritance and built four buildings in eight years. His accomplishments from 1819 until his death in 1826 have earned him the unofficial title of being Georgetown Visitation’s second founder.
The first published prospectus of 1822 shows a modest school struggling to define women’s education in a largely undefined field in this country. With Jerusha Barber’s arrival, the academic program and teaching standards improved because she had run her own school in New England before she converted to Catholicism and professed as Sister Mary Austin.
In 1826, Father Clorivière designed and initiated construction of the Odeon, an elegant Neoclassical assembly hall for hosting the annual public examinations, which drew spectators from around the region. This building also had spaces for bathing, dressmaking, and scientific laboratories.
In 1828, the Sisters and Father Michael Wheeler, Father Clorivère’s replacement as chaplain, ordered from abroad scientific instruments costing $2,447, a sizable expense indicating an academically rigorous curriculum.
The 1827 prospectus signed by Father Wheeler confirms that students were examined in geography, history, mythology, astronomy, chemistry, French, Spanish, and vocal & instrumental music. This prospectus must have been co-written with the young and ambitious new directress of the academy appointed the previous year, Sister Ann Gertrude Wightt. It was she who established the annual public examinations in the Odeon, at which numerous U.S. presidents gave out the awards during the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1829, Sister Gertrude oversaw the new dormitory’s construction to accommodate increasing enrollment and expanded campus beyond the one-block radius with the acquisition of more lots along P Street.
Rome had recognized the Georgetown Visitation Order in 1816, but on May 24, 1828, the Sisters were incorporated by Congress, an act signed by President John Quincy Adams, who, a few months later, handed out awards at the commencement exercises. In 1838, increasing enrollment prompted the West Academy’s construction, which provided additional classrooms, a dining room, and the Playroom, which is still used today by juniors as their common space.
This new building, which was constructed adjacent to the 1829 dormitory, formed the head of a line of structures that ends with the 1819 Benevolent School, today called Gallerie, named for the first Visitation house in Annecy, France.
Prominent people began sending their daughters to the school. In 1830, the great granddaughter of Martha Washington, Britannia Wellington Peter (later Kennon), graduated. The niece and ward of James Buchanan, Harriet Lane (later Johnston), graduated in 1848. She became First Lady when her bachelor uncle was elected U.S. President in 1857.
The popular portrayal of enslaved persons in the U.S. depicts them as laboring in fields on plantations owned by an affluent master in the deep South. How slavery manifested itself at Georgetown Visitation contrasts this limited view. Here, religious women, who had taken vows of poverty, collectively owned slaves in an urban context in the nation’s capital. A self-study research report presents how Georgetown Visitation from 1800 to 1862 subsidized its mission by the forced labor and sale of enslaved people, 121 of whom have been identified, either by name or brief description.
The 1800 census lists one enslaved person living with “The Three Pious Ladies.” During Father Clorivière’s tenure the Convent employed a dealer in Southern Maryland, who sold enslaved people inherited by nuns or donated by benefactors to fund an ambitious building campaign.
Primary sources tell of manumissions, self-emancipations, and the freeing of all people whom Visitation enslaved with the District of Columbia Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862. This law freed over 3,100 individuals in the federal district by compensating enslavers for the people whom they were holding. Government records tell that Ignatius Tilghman, a man the Convent had enslaved, filed a counter petition, citing an 1856 agreement to buy his and his family’s freedom for $500. It is unclear whether Tilghman ever recouped his money, but the Convent was not allotted the exact amount that he had paid the Convent when the government eventually compensated them in 1864.
Susan and Ignatius Tilghman and their seven children lived in the District of Columbia for about 20 years until some of them moved to Philadelphia around 1900. Others formerly enslaved by the Convent took different paths. Benjamin Mahoney served in the Navy during the Civil War, eventually becoming ill, after which he was discharged, maybe dying shortly after. Thomas Weldon and Joseph Dixon both married and raised their families in Southern Maryland.
Visitation’s 1975 published history cited an oral tradition that the Sisters taught enslaved children. The truth of the tradition is difficult to ascertain, but federal census records indicating literacy provide hints. Of the 14 people freed between 1853 and 1862: data cannot be found for two; another two were too young to be taught; six were illiterate; and documentary evidence for the other four is inconclusive. No primary sources have been found supporting that enslaved people were educated at the Convent, suggesting that they had not been taught to read or write.
Antebellum structures, as well as the site near the Green Gate where people enslaved by Visitation were quartered, can prompt conversation of this institution’s slaveholding past. Documents from the late 1850s tell of building renovations, work likely conducted by enslaved men.
Another oral tradition referred to the oldest structure on campus as the “slave cabin,” a name given in the late 1930s. Its original purpose was not for quartering slaves, but, rather, as a dairy for processing milk, built in the late eighteenth century by the Threlkeld family. In the late 1940s, it was refurbished into a recreational field house, becoming the site for the Marshmallow Roast.
Despite being in Georgetown’s city limits, Visitation’s campus was largely undeveloped, save land cleared for planting crops and grazing cattle. The Sisters still ran a good-sized working farm with a small orchard that provided food for the nuns and students.
The school in the mid- to late nineteenth century graduated several prominent alumnae. Emily Warren (later Roebling), class of 1860, is well known for her role as site manager of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction. When Warren graduated, science and math instruction were emphasized. The 1861–1862 prospectus tells that the students studied astronomy, natural philosophy (physics, biology, etc.), chemistry, botany, mineralogy, geography, geometry, algebra, and even bookkeeping. They also focused on reading, writing, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, as well as Spanish, Italian, German, Latin, or French. The visual arts were also taught, such as needlework, tapestry, and lacework, as well as watercolor and oil painting.
Alumna Bertha Honoré (later Palmer), class of 1867, may have learned art appreciation at Visitation, going on to amass the largest collection of Impressionist art outside of France. After graduating, she also supported suffragist causes and labor unions. In 1893, as President of the Board of Lady Managers for the Chicago World Columbian Exposition, she created the Women’s Building, which was dedicated to displaying the accomplishments of women around the world and the problems they still had to overcome. The building itself was designed by a female architect, decorated with murals by female painters, and filled with music composed by women. She also commissioned from the chef at the Palmer House Hotel an easy-to-eat dessert for strolling through the exhibits; this would become the first brownie.
Another alumna, Harriet Monroe, class of 1879, wrote and delivered the dedicatory ode at the Columbian Exposition’s opening ceremonies. She had become a prominent writer and poet who established the literary magazine, Poetry, which she edited until her death in 1912. Still publishing today, this journal, under her editorial guidance, introduced the work of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost. Monroe had studied with Sister Paulina Finn, who was a published author of several books in prose, poetry, and drama under the pseudonym M.S. Pine.
In 1872, the Sisters commissioned from Philadelphian architect Norris G. Starkweather a late Victorian, Italianate, four-story building with mansard detailing on its top level. This building became an iconic component to the school’s reputation.
Professed women who taught in that building were arriving with advanced degrees. In 1882, Sister Regina Toomey entered with a degree from the State Normal and Teaching School of New York. A published historian, Sister Mary Baptista Linton, authored, in 1885, an award-winning educational system for teaching history, called the Linton Century Charts.
And on campus around this time, the cemetery in the southwest corner of the Convent garden had reached capacity, so the “New Cemetery” was platted in 1887. In 1891, the Sisters built a wash house, with a state-of-the-art industrial laundry machine. This is now the Senior Lodge. And, in 1895, the Convent added a large, two-story brick barn for keeping livestock and horses, which was renovated in the late 1950s into St. Bernard Library.
In 1913 the Monastery arranged for Georgetown University Jesuit professors to conduct instruction to nuns through the wooden parlor screen so as to observe the rules of enclosure of the cloister. By 1938, bachelor’s degrees had been earned by 18 nuns. Eight achieved master’s degrees, and four completed doctoral degrees from Georgetown.
In 1917, the school restructured to accommodate four grammar school classes and four at the high school level, along with two post-academic years being offered to graduates. These advanced classes eventually became the Junior College.
World War I brought changes to the student body. Latin American parents who usually sent their daughters to Europe for schooling could no longer do so during the war. As a result, the class of 1917–1918, for example, had two girls from Cuba, two from El Salvador, one from Chile, one from Puerto Rico, and two from Nicaragua. Two of these girls, Isabel and Margarita Cardenal, were the future aunts of Ernesto Cardenal, the prominent Nicaraguan priest, poet, and activist politician.
In 1918, the Benevolent School was absorbed by Holy Trinity Parish to create a co-educational elementary school. Founded in 1819, the Benevolent School had always been independent from the academy. Its charitable mission was to teach, feed, and clothe children with no living parents or girls from low-income families in the neighborhood. In 1929, younger students enrolled in the academy would no longer come to campus, when the lower school was closed for lack of enrollment, enabling more attention to be given to the older pupils.
Junior College students boarded in a building that, in 1921, J.H. Fennessy had funded originally to be an infirmary, although it was never used for that purpose. Designed by Sister Stanislas Nolen and Sister Benedicta Mullen, Fennessy Hall is a modified mail order kit home.
During the late 1920s and 1930s classes competed by staging theatrical performances, usually a Shakespeare play. And perhaps it is this regular contest that transformed into the tradition of Marshmallow Roast, which can be documented as early as 1913. Eventually students started writing original productions, and it later changed into a “roast,” with skits that good-naturedly tease faculty and staff. It is a fitting tradition at a Salesian school as eutrapela is a little virtue linked to helping others and ourselves remain humble through poking fun in order to help people be comfortable with their idiosyncrasies. Indeed, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales, says that, "By them we take an honest an friendly recreation from such frivolous occasions as human imperfections furnish us with."
In 1937, Visitation’s other beloved tradition, an athletic house-based competition called Gold-White, was developed by the Athletic Association, which had been founded in 1917. This was in part because the campus had a new gymnasium, which had been built during the Great Depression in 1935. After this time, athletics became increasingly important as part of extracurricular offerings.
After the war, with the farm animals gone, the 1895 barn was falling into disuse, so, in 1959, the Sisters had it renovated into St. Bernard Library. A covered walkway linked this re-designed space to the newly built St. Joseph’s Hall, which provided much-needed classrooms.
The Junior College had thrived at a time when women sought higher levels of education, and the Sisters had responded to that demand. But in the 1960s, women had more choices than ever. So, because of waning enrollment, rising costs of operating two schools, and a shortage of religious personnel, the Junior College was closed in 1964.
The next year, the first known black student, Anne Williams, arrived on campus. She was a transfer sophomore and graduated in 1968. Another student, Tanya Britton, matriculated as well and graduated the next year in 1969. They are the first known black graduates of Visitation.
By the mid-sixties, the school started seeing a decline in the number of resident students, so the boarding school was closed in 1975. This was a difficult decision made when Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan, VHM, '48 & '50 was Headmistress.
She came to Visitation as a 14‑year‑old to join the sophomore class, graduating in 1948, and later the Junior College in 1950. She entered the Monastery the next year, professing in 1952. She taught Latin and religion for many years. Then she became headmistress of the school in 1969, serving in that role for 20 years, and later as president for the next 17.
By 1979, the student body numbered 372. The faculty of 39 counted eight Sisters in its ranks, along with a curriculum director, a registrar, a guidance counselor, and a college counselor. One of many beloved and inspired teachers was Sister Mary de Sales McNabb. She developed innovative courses in science and computers and served as Mother Superior at the Monastery from 1984 to 1990, and again from 1996 to 2002.
Enrollment steadily increased, and in 1986 Daniel Kerns Jr. became assistant head of school and academic dean. Three years later he was appointed head of school, the first lay leader, and Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan took the newly formed position of president.
The Salesian Network was started in 1988, which was a way of naming and explaining Visitation charism, which the Sisters had always shared by example. In acknowledgement of the fact that lay faculty and staff were the school’s future, the next year began with a fundraising effort, the Century III Endowment Fund, for faculty enrichment and salaries, as well as student scholarships.
The following year while the academy was being rebuilt, the school’s Board of Advisors became a Board of Trustees. The Monastery Board of Directors handed over the school’s operation to the Board of Trustees, while reserving power to ensure its Catholic and Salesian mission. Like the historic walls holding up Founders Hall, the Sisters’ prayers and advice continue to support the school. Lay school administrators, many of whom worked alongside the Sisters, took the reins from an order of female religious who had taught on that campus for 195 years. Everyone celebrated the dedication of Founders Hall on May 5, 1995.
The fire had not spread to the Chapel, but smoke and water wrought considerable damage. In 1996, it was renovated for the second time in its 175 years; the first was in 1856–58, when men likely enslaved by the Convent raised the roof to add a third floor. The Chapel was re-consecrated on December 21, 1996, and with no time to rest, the late 1990s had an eye toward the bicentennial.
A campus redesign moved a parking lot from between the gym and Founders Hall to behind the Lodge. This re-claimed green quadrangle was bordered by the 1935 gym, renovated into The Catherine E. Nolan Performing Arts Center, along with the newly built Sarah and Charles T. Fisher Athletic Center. The two buildings were completed in October 1998 and dedicated at a kickoff celebration for the bicentennial, with many events during that academic year to acknowledge Visitation’s two hundredth anniversary.
The year of 1934 had brought the first lay woman to teach an academic subject. Now all faculty members are laypeople. Some have Ph.Ds. Many are alumnae, teaching in ways they learned from the Sisters. The model of laypeople leading continued with Mary Kate Blaine becoming school principal in 2013. A fundraising campaign, which began that fall, enriched the school’s endowment, funded a new turf surface for McNabb Field in 2014, renovated the Sheehy Dining Room in 2016, and, that same year, established the St. Jane de Chantal Salesian Center.
These donations also funded two new buildings in 2019. Berchmans Hall, named for Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan, VHM, ’48 & ’50, is a two-story addition to St. Joseph’s Hall with classrooms, science labs, and an art studio. The covered walkway between St. Bernard Library and St. Joseph’s Hall became the Saints Connector, with common areas and an innovation lab - the McNabb Lab, named for Sister Mary de Sales McNabb ‘48. These interconnected buildings that honor these long-serving Sisters span three centuries from 1895 to 2019.
After 30 years serving the school, Daniel Kerns Jr. retired from his position as head of school in the spring of 2019, having seen over 3,200 students graduate. Dr. Barbara McGraw Edmondson started in July 2019 as head of school. The women and men working today at Georgetown Visitation stand on the shoulders of the institution’s founders and the many Visitation Sisters, who have lived, prayed, and taught on this same piece of land under every U.S. president except George Washington.