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Adventures from the Archives: The Discovery of a Sampler

Last month the school's general email inbox received an extraordinary message. It told of the discovery of an artifact: an embroidered work that seemed to have originated from Georgetown Visitation, dated to 1809, ten years after the school was established. The sender of the e-mail, Mr. James O'Hagan, had stumbled upon a sampler from "The Young Ladies Academy Georgetown" stitched by Mary Aloisia Purcell. The school's name has changed over the years, but his research brought him to our website, which prompted him to contact us.

Purcell Sampler.jpg
Mary Aloisia, Embroidered Sampler, 1809, silk on linen, 17 x 21 in. Gift of James O'Hagan. Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. Inscribed: Mary Aloisia Pur / cell's Work / done 1809 / at the Young Ladi[e]s / Academy George / TOWN

Greatly intrigued, I quickly responded to Mr. O'Hagan's inquiry, and as luck would have it, he lives not only in the metro area, but also near my own house. That evening I went with my husband to look at the work, and I was delighted to discover that indeed it was an early example of embroidered works made by some of the first students to attend Visitation! An avid collector of vinyl records himself, Mr. O'Hagan has a unique commitment to the preservation of history as he had conveyed in his initial message, stating that "I don't like to see old things forsook." Together we speculated on the path that this work had taken in the 200 years since its creation. Anthropologists who study the phenomenon of collecting call this the object's itinerary, its social life as it travels through time and space.

Jackson Sampler (2).jpg
Emily Mary Jackson, Embroidered Sampler, 1808, silk on linen, Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School.

This work closely resembles other embroidered samplers connected to Visitation, illustrating the fact that the girls were taught this skill of sewing by following patterns. One beautifully restored example in our Monastery Archives worked by Emily Mary Jackson dates to 1808. Another survives in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, worked by Elenor Durkee in 1810. To view this sampler, click here.

True to traditional format, these other samplers are vertically arranged into 3 registers. The top has a centrally placed religious symbol flanked by pious phrases. The middle register contains letters of the alphabet (upper and lower case) and numbers. The lower section is used for a central motif flanked by spade-shaped, evergreen trees, along with the girl's and school's names, and the date.

Like these other examples, the Purcell sampler features a cross surmounting a stepped pedestal, which symbolizes the Cross of Calvary, a motif often found on French samplers. This is surrounded by a decorative nimbus and flanked by words that are almost exact to Jackson's and Durkee's samplers:

My God, all things may serve / a constant soul: / This very Cross, my wand / [e]ring thoughts controu[sic]l. And that our Minds may stead- / fast on the[e] dwell. This love[l]y / Mark shall †still our h[e]arts compel. / Angel of God, f[sic]ent from above / (O charming instance of his love) / To lead my steps, direct my way / And protect me night and day / O may I never forget my due / Respect and love to him and you

This text was published many years later in an 1895 book, The Glories of the Catholic Church in a section called, "An Easy and Effectual Method of Thinking Often of God in the Day." Here it is suggested that some visible mark should be placed on one's sleeve, such as a silk cross or two straight pins arranged in a cross, as a reminder of God and Christ. Metaphorically, this parallels the actual process these girls undertook to sew these words onto cloth at the Academy.


These stitched prayers also speak to the spiritual lineage of our Visitation Salesian charism. These words echo the philosophy of St. Francis de Sales' Direction of Intention and the motto of the Sisters of the Visitation, the belief that to Live Jesus is to have his name engraved in one's heart.


Imagery in the lower register reinforces this notion. It contains another cross with the letters IHS, the first three letters of "Ihsus," the Greek form of the name of Jesus. Below this, two hearts symbolizing the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are stitched, while on either side, interspersed within the trees, is the text: Jesus Mary and Joseph give me your blessing.

Purcell's work differs from these other two examples in that the second register contains a central leaf-shaped element flanked by more text, which is stitched in a more light-sensitive thread, now quite faded and difficult to decipher. More effort using digital photographic enhancement may help decipher these words.

Not only do these samplers indicate aspects of Visitation's early curriculum, they also provide names of early students, evidence of which is scant. Given the typical ages of the girls who made these works, Mary Purcell's birth date must be about 1800. It is hoped that ongoing research in our archives and governmental documents such as Census records will connect this work with more precise information about the girl who stitched her name more than 200 years ago on Visitation's campus. This work now has its home back on Thirty-fifth Street, a cherished artifact of our rich history, many thanks to our generous donor, Mr. O'Hagan.

For more information on early embroidery, see:

Gloria Seaman Allen. Columbia's Daughters: Girlhood Embroidery from the District of Columbia. Baltimore: Chesapeake Book Company, 2012.

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