Dimming the light of a 'spiritual beacon'


FREDERICK - The nuns at the Visitation Monastery here never gave up their full-length black habits. They still worship in a chapel separate from the rest of the congregation. And, they call daily prayers by ringing a bell by hand on the back porch.

Now, the porch bell is about to fall silent, and a deeply traditional part of religious life will disappear from this city known for its 18th-century churches and skyline of clustered spires.

After more than a century and a half, the Sisters of the Visitation are closing their monastery here, one of the last of its kind in Maryland.

"It's been like a spiritual beacon for the community," says Carole Deegan-McKinney, who attends Sunday services at the Visitation chapel. "People are disappointed. The nuns are going to be dearly missed."

Only three nuns still live here: Mother Superior Marguerite Therese Leary, 90; her younger sister, Sister Francis Therese, 78, and a middle-aged "newcomer," Sister Mary Joseph Sander, who joined them after college, decades ago.

Together, the nuns are packing up and preparing to part ways, moving July 1 to other monasteries in Virginia and Massachusetts.

Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler made the relatively rare move to recommend that the historic monastery be shut. He did so reluctantly, worried by the limited number of nuns and the frailty of the mother superior, according to Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Monasteries operate independently from the archdiocese. However, the sisters' religious order agreed, and the Vatican gave its blessing.

Cloistered for most of their lives, the nuns declined to be interviewed. Those who know them, though, say they're bidding a sad farewell to a sheltered place they thought they would never leave.

"It's difficult for them. They've been there so long and put so much of their lives into this," says Sister Rose Marie Kinsella of the First Federation of the United States, a national organization for monastic nuns. "Because they have been faithful to their religious life, they will accept this in obedience."

Despite their departure, the order will remain owners of the three-story brick monastery, which includes a Catholic girls' school in the heart of the historic district.

The public side of the monastery - the girls' academy and adjacent chapel - will remain open. An independent board is taking over operating the 170-pupil Visitation Academy, which includes preschool through eighth grade.

"Absolutely, the academy is going to continue," says Bernadette Emerson, the principal for the past 12 years. "We're remaining open," she adds, "with open arms."

Little will change, Emerson promises, except that the school will discontinue its boarding program, now limited to a small number of girls from Mexico. Most pupils are from Frederick. Come fall, the uniformed girls will return to daily prayer in the richly ornamented chapel, study sessions in the library and meetings in an auditorium that was used as a Civil War hospital. Several teachers will be nuns, just not from the cloister.

The building, distinguished by wide wings with balconies, has a long history. It spans the block of 200 E. Second St., an expensive piece of downtown real estate. The nuns, however, have no plans to sell, according to Kinsella.

Built in 1824, the monastery was initially occupied by the Sisters of Charity, who established one of the city's first schools for young girls. Since 1846, it has been run by cloistered women in the Order of the Visitation, a Roman Catholic sisterhood founded in France in 1610.

During the Civil War, 60 girls were stranded at the boarding school, unable to return home. The nuns sheltered them on one side of the monastery, while the Union Army commanded a school wing for a hospital. Wounded, dying soldiers filled the schoolrooms and nearby churches after the Battle of Antietam.

Reimbursed by the federal government after the war, the nuns quickly repaired the damage. Over the following decades, they also modernized the monastery and enlarged the school. Oil lamps gave way to electricity; coal stoves to central heat. Boarding students came from Washington diplomatic families.

Yet much remained the same. The monastery still boasts its original hardwood floors, needlepoint chairs - and several large lattice screens, draped only a few decades ago to shield the nuns from being seen.

As many as 40 nuns once lived here in prayer and solitude.

Similar convents flourished until the mid-20th century across the country. In Maryland alone, the Sisters of the Visitation had three monasteries: in Frederick, Roland Park and Catonsville. The other two closed in the 1970s.

Today, the Visitation sisters have only 11 monasteries left. Many are equally sparsely populated, reflecting the steep decline in nuns nationwide, from 179,954 in 1965 to 70,194 today.

Catholic women can now find other religious work in parishes and social agencies, says Helen Rose Ebaugh, a University of Houston sociologist who wrote Women in the Vanishing Cloister. Her research shows a surprising turn, however: The few women who become nuns nowadays often choose secluded, monastic orders.

"Young women want to go to orders where they still wear the habit," Ebaugh says. "They want to be recognized for the fact that they're doing something really unusual, making a sacrifice."

No new women, though, have taken their vows and remained at the Frederick monastery in 26 years. The last to do so was Sister Mary, who became the school's religion teacher and organist.

She is the nun who interacted the most with pupils and parents in the last few years, says Emerson, the principal. The other two nuns have stayed largely within the cloister.

Mother Marguerite told The Frederick News-Post recently that she fell in love with the monastery in 1927, on the day she arrived as an eager 13-year-old boarding pupil from Baltimore.

Earlier, as a young girl making her first Communion, she wanted to become a nun, she wrote in a school yearbook. Her school days strengthened her resolve. In 1934, she entered the convent with a sister, Mary Paula, who has since died. Their younger sister, Sister Francis Therese, joined them in 1972.

Despite their many years within the cloister's confines, the nuns have played an important role in Frederick, according to Emerson and others.

The mother superior worked to refurbish the school in 1967. She also joined with civil boosters to push the city to recognize the Second Street area as historic. Her younger sister kept the school records.

"I see the need," says Emerson, "but I'm going to be sad when they leave."

The Leary sisters are moving to one of the newest Visitation monasteries, built in 1993 on more than 100 wooded acres in Tyringham, Mass. Sisters who moved from and sold an ivy-covered stone monastery in Wilmington, Del., opened it. Sister Mary is heading to a different monastery in Virginia.

Deegan-McKinney, who worked as a school aide and continues to come to chapel services, is also wistful.

"This is not a parish," she says, "but for those of us who attended, we were like a Visitation family."

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