On September 11, 1846 eleven Georgetown Visitation Sisters stood at the doorstep of 200 East Second Street -- the current site of the Visitation Academy. Led by Mother Anastasia Combs, they had travelled along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with a single goal in mind: to take the reigns of an all-girls school then known as St. John’s Benevolent Female Free School. Formerly run by the Sisters of Charity, the school had met the needs of young girls in the city since 1824. When the Sisters of Charity moved to Emmitsburg, MD to continue their mission, the Visitation Sisters graciously came to administer the school.
As the story is told, girls boarding at the school were not interested in embracing the new Visitation Sisters. Rather, the girls wanted everything to remain as it had been. Loyalty to the former Sisters acted as a catalyst for the girls to stage a hunger strike . When the Visitation Sisters arrived, the girls refused to welcome them after their long, tiring journey. Instead, they sulked and cried.
That evening, a delicious dinner arrived from their Second Street neighbors, and it was promptly served to the girls. As the girls ate their dinner, their mood began to change. A special dessert ended the meal and marked a turning point in the relationship between the students and Visitation Sisters. Apple Dumplings were served and won over the hearts of the girls and sweetened their disposition. That September day in 1846 became the cornerstone of the many traditions the Visitation Academy would begin. Known to all as “Apple Dumpling Day” -- the tradition is one the Academy continues to celebrate.
Now calling Second Street home, the Sisters purchased three acres of land adjacent to the original building to expand the school and construct an official monastery with cloistered gardens. As time went by, the Academy grew in size and popularity. To meet the needs of the flourishing school, a south wing was added in 1850 creating the much needed space for additional classrooms. In 1851, the Chapel and Monastery buildings were built followed by construction of the Auditorium in 1862.
The Chapel is an architectural jewel in the Corinthian style; balancing both simplicity and dignity. The main altar is crafted in marble and the oil painting above depicts the “The Presentation in the Temple”. Franz Mayer stained glass windows border the altar with images of the founders of the Visitation Order, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal.
St. Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church was born August 21, 1567 at the Castle of Sales near Annecy in Savoy, France. He founded the Order of the Sisters of the Visitation on June 6, 1610 with St. Jane de Chantal. Their vision was to gather in community women seeking a life of contemplative prayer while also caring for the sick and the poor. Their approach to guide the Sisters is still relevant today, with sound advice for dealing with human relationships and the challenges of life.
In Europe, the Visitation Sisters began educating young girls while still maintaining their monastic routine.
In 1799, the first school sponsored by the Visitation Sisters in the United States was established in Georgetown, Washington, DC. During the 19th century the Order grew and schools were built in ten states. Today, five schools remain and continue to guide students with the gentle hand of St. Francis de Sales and Salesian spirituality.
On September 21,1862, the first casualties of the Civil War from the Battle of Antietam, arrived at the Visitation Academy campus. The Academy survived Union Army occupation during the Civil War when it became a hospital for wounded soldiers. During this period, the Sisters of Charity returned from Emmitsburg to nurse the victims of war, while the sixty stranded student boarders found safety and shelter in the impenetrable enclosure of the monastery. There, classes for the girls went on as usual with the Sisters.
The Academy has since flourished as an educational institution, changing with the times. In June of 1950, the Visitation high school closed while the elementary school continued to grow. In the spring of 2005, at the bequest of Rome, the historic legacy of the beloved Visitation sisters came to a quiet close. The remaining sisters retired to a monastery in Rockville, Virginia, and the last class of boarding student graduated.
The names enrolled in the registers of the early days of the school are representative of many prominent pioneer Catholic families not only of Maryland and Virginia, but of almost every state in the Union.
“Friendships begun in this world will be taken up again, never to be broken off.”~ St. Francis de Sales