Visitation Monastery in Mendota Heights to close

| Christina Capecchi | December 5, 2018 | 0 Comments
In this archive photo, Visitation Sister Mary Paula McCarthy talks to a ninth-grade religion class at Visitation School in Mendota Heights about the history of her order. She is holding a picture of one of the co-founders, St. Jane Frances de Chantal.

In this archive photo, Visitation Sister Mary Paula McCarthy talks to a ninth-grade religion class at Visitation School in Mendota Heights about the history of her order. She is holding a picture of one of the co-founders, St. Jane Frances de Chantal. PHOTO COURTESY VISITATION SCHOOL

Sisters’ influence to remain central to mission of Visitation School

Just when Sister Mary Paula McCarthy thinks she’s making headway on packing, she discovers another full cupboard or closet.

“It’s going more slowly than one would imagine,” she said.

She has condensed 50 years’ worth of liturgical files down to three boxes. She’s designated seasonal decorations for Goodwill, donations for the poor, contributions to a parish fundraiser, materials to archive, resources for the school, offerings for the Minnesota History Center and personal belongings to hand down to family members.

After six years of active committee planning, the Visitation sisters are closing their Mendota Heights monastery, the 40,570-square-foot building attached to Visitation School that has housed their community since 1966. Upon move-in, the sisters numbered 45, a count that has steadily dwindled to three remaining occupants: Sister Mary Paula McCarthy, 88; Sister Mary Denise Villaume, 80; and Sister Brigid Marie Keefe, 76.

They will move out by mid-January, remaining affiliated with Visitation at a local health care facility or other Visitation monastery. But thanks to meticulous planning, their influence will endure, guiding a school that is as strong as ever, according to Rene Gavic, Visitation’s head of school.

The monastery has a remarkable history, beginning in 1873 when six intrepid Visitation Sisters journeyed up the Mississippi River from St. Louis to settle in St. Paul. The school was run entirely by the sisters, who taught virtually every course. What began as a finishing school for girls evolved into a rigorous academic program, and the sisters pioneered courses such as an ahead-of-its-time physics course taught by Sister Mary Christine Martens in the 1960s. She had been part of Harvard’s physics program and received grants from the university to enhance her curriculum.

The remaining sisters of the Visitation Monastery in Mendota Heights: From left, Sisters Mary Denise Villaume, Brigid Marie Keefe and Mary Paula McCarthy. PHOTO COURTESY VISITATION SCHOOL

With an all-girls enrollment from grades six to 12, Visitation is the only all-girls Catholic secondary school in Minnesota, although it also has a co-educational elementary school. James J. Hill’s daughters attended Visitation School, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mother. The histories of the sisters and of St. Paul were deeply intertwined. In 1966, the monastery and school relocated from
St. Paul to a wooded 80-acre property in nearby Mendota Heights, where they continued to flourish. Over the decades St. Teresa of Kolkata stayed at the monastery four times.

“Of course there’s a sadness in leaving,” said Sister Mary Paula, who frequently lectures in classrooms and is fondly known for making popcorn for the Lower School students twice a week. “But we have spent years preparing for this, and the school is thriving. The band plays on.”

That sentiment is echoed by the community’s administrative superior, Sister Mary Frances Reis, who lives with six other Visitation sisters at their north Minneapolis monastery, where they will continue to serve the northside community. “The sisters are peaceful about leaving because they are secure in the belief that the school is in great hands, both human and divine,” Sister Mary Frances said.

Sister Péronne Marie Thibert gives etiquette tips to Marie Villaume, left, and Jeanne Mullaney, both 1965 graduates, in the student refectory. PHOTO COURTESY VISITATION SCHOOL

For their part, school administrators say they are grateful for the thoughtful planning the sisters poured into this transition — and for their vote of confidence.

“We know that they believe in us, which makes us believe as well,” Gavic said.

The sisters’ Salesian spirituality, named after the order’s co-founder, St. Francis de Sales, will continue to permeate the school, Gavic said. “We are all committed to carrying forward the mission of excellent Catholic education in the Salesian tradition. None of us will let them down.”

That charge is not a burden or a barrier to progress, she added. “Our Catholic Salesian legacy is our sail, not our anchor. It propels us to continue to move forward, just as the sisters have done for 145 years.”

When confronted with big decisions, Gavic said she tries to draw on the wisdom the sisters shared as her mentors over the past 30 years, starting as a middle-school math teacher and including a post as dean of students. “That really does guide us. And it has stopped us: ‘Wait, is this the right decision?’ Sometimes I think they tap us on the shoulder: ‘Have you thought about this?’”

Empowering lay people to run the school and sustain the sisters’ charism has been a gradual process. In 2004, the school established a Salesian Center to weave the spirituality into every dimension. To do so now, without the sisters around the corner, is a charge they take seriously, said the center’s director, Anne Williams, an alumna and a member of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul. It takes myriad forms, including integration across curriculum and special training for members of student government.

Sister Brigid Marie Keefe mows the lawn outside the cloister porch at Fairmount Avenue in St. Paul in 1962. PHOTO COURTESY VISITATION SCHOOL

Each school year is dedicated to a Salesian virtue, which becomes a touch point for the students. School-wide prayer services and sacramental life draw heavily from the spirituality, and throughout the school, artwork depicts its founders, who are remembered in fun ways on their feast days.

Meanwhile, school leaders meet once a month to discuss Salesian spirituality, and every year they read and review a book on the topic. Key Salesian tenets are integrated into professional development for all faculty and staff, and new hires receive special mentoring in them.

The school also collaborates with a national Salesian network, which is led by Williams.

“I feel deep gratitude for the ways Salesian spirituality has been a guide post in both my personal and professional life over the years,” she said.

At the heart of this transition, Sister Mary Paula pointed out, is the joyful mystery that inspired her order: when Mary visits Elizabeth, both are pregnant, and Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb.

“The very mystery of the Visitation is the mystery of the Incarnation, the meeting, and the mystery of relationships,” she said. “That is the central concept that has built our school and will continue to make it a place of love, fostering beauty, truth and goodness.”

Tags: , ,

Category: Featured, Local News