28 March 2011

Post # 600

Hard to believe, but it's true: this is our 600th blog post ... and our second in our recent mini-series:

Rigden had been engaged. When she told Leonard Neale, however, he said this was not God’s call for her, so she told her fiancé she would never marry him. He was so distressed that he threatened and possibly even attempted suicide, and he begged her not to marry anyone else. He disappeared shortly after this, and her family worried that he had succeeded in killing himself.

She asked to enter the monastery shortly after refusing to marry, but Leonard Neale wanted her to remain with her family a while longer in the hope of converting them. He also anticipated that her family would oppose her entrance and cut off her inheritance. They even threatened to set fire to the convent. After a few years Neale finally agreed to admit her on the feast of the Guardian Angels, October 2, 1806. Just before she entered, she asked for her mother’s consent. Her mother refused. By this time she was 23 years old and there were two other sisters in the family, so she bid them “an eternal adieu.” They wept and accused her of abandoning them, and she wept in return, entreating them to abandon her to God. She did not see them again for 13 years, until after she had become Superior, even though they sometimes came to the parlor, and she only did that much out of obedience to her spiritual father, who was then Fr. Clorivière.

When Rigden joined, the monastery was only a few years old, and it only had five or six sisters in it. There was much poverty and hard work, but this excited rather than discouraged the new postulant, and they received her with great joy.

24 March 2011

Monastic Mini-Series

Due to the lengthy nature of this sister's entry in the handwritten book which contains the lives of some of our early sisters here at Georgetown Visitation, we are making this biographical sketch a mini-series!


Sister Ann Catherine Rigden, the first American to be a mother superior at this monastery, was born in Georgetown to a Protestant family in 1782. When she was about fourteen she began accompanying a friend to catechism classes, and she studied the lessons because she didn’t want to be the only one who couldn’t raise her hand. Later she asked the priest for more lessons, which he provided. The night after her baptism she dreamed “that she was clad in white, and was sewing at the altar, having little red wings, with which she flew about, sometimes even higher than the priest’s head.” The sister who wrote her life noted that they would not have chosen to mention this dream in her posthumous biography, were it not for prophetic dreams to come later in her life.

Rigden embraced the Catholic faith, but she met great opposition from her family. Her father ordered her tutor not to allow religious books unless they were Protestant. Both parents prevented her from observing the rules of the church, even trying to trick her into eating meat on days of abstinence by disguising it in her food. They also invited Protestant ministers as guests, but she paid no attention to them. When her parents forced her to attend parties, she responded by dressing plainly and refusing to mix the other young people, to the point that “it was evident that her heart was not where her body was.” Her exasperated parents finally sent her to live with a wealthy aunt across the river in Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles away from Georgetown. The aunt had two elegant daughters, and Rigden’s parents hoped the girls would prevail upon her to begin to dress more fashionably. She continued in her plain style, however, to the point that one day her frustrated aunt tore a garment off of her, and “our Sr. Ann Catherine, without proffering a murmur, procured another.” The aunt was so incensed that she did it again, but this only made Rigden more resolute. Despite this conflict, she was sociable and gentle; she said her rosary and other prayers in private.

The first Catholic priest to guide her was the Rev. Francis Neale, founder of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, but in his absence she appealed to his brother, the Rev. Leonard Neale, who had founded our Visitation monastery two blocks away. They were immediately taken with one another, and Leonard Neale became her spiritual director, guiding her in “the paths of perfection.” She was obedient to his instruction, and thereafter would only visit her aunt in Alexandria with his consent. In a notorious incident that probably happened on a feast day, she was staying in Alexandria with his permission, but he had encouraged her to go to church in Georgetown. The aunt refused to grant permission for a carriage; echoing a remark made by St. Jane de Chantal when she, too, was refused the use of horses for a long journey, Sr. Ann Catherine said she would walk, for “Obedience has very good legs.” The aunt finally gave in and called for a carriage. Stay tuned.

20 March 2011

Boxing Lessons

No, we haven't taken up a new sport ... but some of us did have a lesson in building boxes this weekend. As part of a homeless awareness event, a group of our students, sisters and parents slept outside on our campus in cardboard boxes, heard testimony from formerly homeless people and reflected on ways in which we can be more attentive to those in our society who experience homelessness.

After a night in a cardboard box, students attended Mass with the sisters and shared some of their experiences with them in the parlor after Mass. After cleaning up "box city" the homeless-for-a-day had time to journal and reflect on their experiences. To see more pictures from this powerful event, check out the photo album on our Facebook page.

"And therefore the same charity which produces the acts of the love of God, produces at the same time those of the love of our neighbor. And even as Jacob saw that one same ladder touched heaven and earth, serving the angels both for descending and ascending, so we know that one same charity extends itself to both the love of God and our neighbor, raising us to the union of our spirit with God, and bringing us back again to a loving society with our neighbors; always, however, on the understanding that we love our neighbor as being after the image and likeness of God, created to have communication with the divine goodness, to participate in his grace, and to enjoy his glory."
St. Francis de Sales

15 March 2011

Daylight Dividends!

The advent of daylight savings means a LOSS (usually of sleep) for most of us. For some, however, it is a gain. With an extra hour of daylight, it means that we can recreate outside when the weather permits. Last night found a few sisters taking advantage of the extended daylight and the warm(er) air for a game of bocce.

Even harder than aiming at the pallino was the task of teaching our dogs, Nicholas and Gabriel, that we really don't want them chasing these balls. They are normally quite obedient, but the sight of four bipeds tossing around nine balls is enough to confuse them as to why we really don't want them chasing the balls (at least not until the round is scored!)

The green team narrowly stole a victory from the red team with a sneaky point-busting ball tossed by Sister Rose which kissed the pallino and broke up a big 3-point score for the red team. The setting sun ended the game with a 10-7 score. One could hardly tell from the laughing and (gentle) shouting which duo won and which did not ... it seems the only "losers" were the crestfallen canines.

"Walking, harmless games, music, instrumental or vocal, field sports, etc., are such entirely lawful recreations that they need no rules beyond those of ordinary discretion, which keep every thing within due limits of time, place, and degree. So again games of skill, which exercise and strengthen body or mind, such as tennis, rackets, running at the ring, chess, and the like, are in themselves both lawful and good."
St. Francis de Sales

11 March 2011

From the Archives

Those of you who have visited our campus, will note that Founders' Hall is named after the three founding sisters of our community. The classrooms on the second floor all begin with "McDermott" after the honored memory of our dear Sister Mary Francis McDermott.

Sister Mary Frances McDermott, nee Maria Corballis, was born in Dublin, Ireland ca1750. Her father was a learned man who made certain this youngest daughter received a good education. She had a vivacious disposition, but she was also studious, pious, and known for her compassion to the poor. Her oldest sister was a nun in the order of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin in Dublin; there were also two brothers with similarly sparkling personalities who died young.

Sister's parents both died in 1774 when she was 24 years old. Two years later she married Martin McDermott, who encouraged her work with the poor. They were a pious couple who responded to need and distress so freely that friends warned them they would ruin themselves through giving. They lived by the maxims of the gospel, however, and gave freely of the abundance with which the Lord had blessed them while considering themselves only stewards of those gifts.

Two years after their marriage, Roman Catholics were so persecuted in Ireland that they sailed for America, settling in Philadelphia where they soon became known for piety and charity. Martin McDermott died in 1793 of the yellow fever that was ravaging Philadelphia. They had no children, and soon McDermott declared her intention to enter religious life. Her spiritual director was the most Reverend Leonard Neale, who was in the process of establishing a nunnery under the rule of the Visitation. She resolved to join the other two ladies who were beginning this with him, but because of the many obstacles they encountered, she had to remain in the world longer than she had hoped. Finally, in June of 1799 the two ladies were sent to Georgetown, Rev. Neale followed soon after, and McDermott was invited to come a few months later. On her arrival in Georgetown she was able to relieve their many needs considerably. Her dowry of $3,000 paid for their first house, and she also donated many necessary items such as furniture and silver plate.

These three ladies comprised the community for a long time; no one yet had had the courage to enter with them because of their poverty. Also, because of the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars, religious life had been banned in Europe and the monasteries dispersed, so there was no possibility of sending for anyone. Gradually they took on pupils and built Visitation into a well-respected school. Sister's good education, thanks to her father, was vital to this endeavor. When the community was officially accepted as a Visitation monastery, Sister made her solemn profession. Her lively faith manifested itself in a tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin and to St. Joseph, whom she frequently called upon along with other favorites saints Teresa of Avila, Peter of Alcantara, John of the Cross, and Francis Borgia. One of her favorite occupations during her last years was making small, tastefully adorned boxes to hold relics.

The nun who wrote McDermott's biography said she contributed to the education of "many of us," yet sometimes her zeal meant she became over-anxious for the girls' welfare. She had a good heart, though, and quickly acknowledged it humbly whenever she let this intensity get the better of her. Naturally of a robust constitution, she remained healthy until her final two years, during which she suffered brief, frequent bouts of illness. In early June 1820 she developed dropsy, an inflammation of the limbs now known as edema, and it caused her much suffering. Several times she tearfully asked pardon either for the trouble caused by her sickness or for her previous tendency to excitability, and she styled herself a great sinner when she spoke movingly of God's goodness toward sinners. She received the last sacraments from Fr. Clorivière in the presence of the whole community, after which she survived only three days, speaking often of eternity and God. She died in tranquility on October 26, 1820, at the age of 70.

07 March 2011

Corporal Works of Mercy Revisited

Today's first reading from Tobit puts before us the corporal work of mercy known as burying the dead. Christians seeking to perform corporal works of mercy may, at times, feel limited by their circumstances if they are unable to go out to visit the sick or imprisoned, etc. Without diminishing the value of performing one of these noble tasks, perhaps there are ways in which we, daily, may perform these acts in a spiritual way. And in doing so, we can keep the fire of devotion -- and desire -- burning in our hearts until we have an opportunity to perform these acts physically.

We may not have direct access to help feed and to give drink to those who need it. We can, however, be attentive to those who are starving for attention and who are parched -- whose spirits are dried up -- in need of a kind word or a loving touch to restore hope to their hearts. We can feed those who are hungry for the things of God with the promise of prayer; we can feed those who are hungry for loving attention with a moment or two of our time as we listen to their troubles or inquire about their day.

Perhaps we are aware of a colleague at work or a classmate at school who is especially vulnerable. Perhaps he does not seem to fit in and appears to be painfully aware of it. We may clothe the nakedness of his vulnerability by going out of our way to include him in conversations or casual gatherings at work. Maybe someone in our parish is naked because rumors -- be they true or false -- have begun to circulate about her personal life. We can clothe her in her nakedness by reaching out and demonstrating by our actions that we are unaffected by the unkind words which have fallen from the nasty bird of gossip.

Few of us are able to open our doors to the homeless and provide the shelter that they need. Many of us may be able to help support agencies which provide these services, but all of us can provide protection from the "bad weather" which comes upon our friends and family members from time to time. Perhaps one of our students is experiencing a painful situation at home; we can listen and offer a loving space in which she can feel safe to talk about it. Maybe a coworker has just been let go; instead of allowing the awkwardness of the situation to keep us apart, we can protect him from the cold night of shame or humiliation by reaching out and offering to help him make contacts and update his resume.

Visiting the sick and imprisoned can be done in person or by a thoughtful greeting sent in the mail, over email or by other means. A spiritual bouquet is a beautiful way to give a gift to someone who is sick or imprisoned. We can also visit those whose prisons are not Lovelace's stone walls and iron bars. Perhaps we have a classmate who is in an abusive relationship or who suffers from addiction. These situations can be as confining and painful as a physical experience of incarceration. We can "visit" those among us who are imprisoned by their circumstances by offering our company, our friendship and our moral support.

It is usually a sad day when we have the opportunity to participate in the corporal work of mercy described in today's first reading. Burying the dead, however, is a gesture of respect for the earthly body that housed an eternal soul. We can show respect to the souls of the deceased by how we speak of them. If someone is bringing to light the shortcomings of a deceased friend or family member, we might find a gentle way to balance the remark or to overshadow it by recalling the virtues of the deceased. In doing so, we protect the reputation of one who is unable to defend himself.

This is not intended to suggest that we may dispense ourselves from seeking opportunities to perform corporal works of mercy. Rather, it is merely an invitation to seek new ways of performing these acts of charity. In addition, we can always unite ourselves to those who are directly engaged in these works by praying for them and those whom they serve. We will never know how many good works go undone or unfinished because there was no one to pray for their success; we can never underestimate the importance of praying for those who perform these corporal works of mercy.

"It is always a work of love to join with others and take part in their good works. And although it may be possible that you can use equally profitable devotions by yourself as in common with others . . . nevertheless God is more glorified when we unite with our brethren and neighbors and join our offering to theirs."
St. Francis de Sales

03 March 2011

Another Archive Article!

Catharine Clare Agnes Lancaster was born into a wealthy English family ca1785, and she had six brothers and one sister; she was the youngest daughter and the third child. She was considered thoughtful and unworldly. Her sister often reproached her, calling her foolish and even stupid, and due to her natural meekness she generally received this in silence. If she did answer it would only be to say "I cannot help it."

That older sister desired to marry an equally wealthy man, but her parents refused because he was Protestant, although otherwise he would have been a fine match. Independently, and in opposition to them, she "bound herself to this man for life," a monastery euphemism for a Protestant marriage not recognized by Catholics. She continued to practice her Catholic faith until her death just a little over a year later in 1808. This tragedy inspired the younger, surviving sister to wish to "bid adieu to this deceiving world" by entering our monastery, although her grieving parents asked her to remain at home. They were worried because she was used to a certain level of domestic comfort, and religious life demanded certain austerities, so she stayed at home.

About three years later her mother died, and she remained with her afflicted father who suffered from what was known as apoplexy, probably some sort of stroke. For three years she "shared in both his confinement and in his sufferings." Although she continued to long for consecrated life, she was not free of family obligations for the next eight years, even after he died in 1810. When not busy with her father she performed acts of charity including visiting the sick, ornamenting churches, reading spiritual books (especially the lives of the saints to whom she was so devoted), and various other "pious exercises." After her father's death she had control of her own time, and she liberally shared her inheritance with the sick and needy, traveling with her servant to bring whatever was needed. She was also known for excellent taste and for sewing skills, and so was able to richly serve her church, where she was a voluntary sacristan.

She still aspired to religious life, and came to this monastery on June 1, 1818. She was so weak at that time that she spent a great portion of her probation in the infirmary, and it was not until her reception to the habit on July 2 (then the great festival of our order, although the date has been changed to May 31 on the new Roman calendar) that she began to recover her health and spirits. She began her novitiate joyfully, and even though her novice mistress was several years younger than she was, she was strictly submissive, never resisting obedience and sharing her interior thoughts with candor and simplicity as is recommended by our holy rules. She was honest without reservation about her many temptations and trials, and at the same time she expressed her gratitude to God for having called her to a religious life.

"She was a person of few words, and never related anything that would cause disunion or trouble. Her actions clearly proved that she considered her sisters as her superiors, for no sooner was she requested to do this or that, than she complied without any will or apparent thought but that of obedience." During her novitiate she was made assistant to the sacristan, and she held this office for most of the last two years of her life. She also helped care for boarding students, and even as her health faltered she continued this work until ten days before her death. When it was clear she had to leave the school, she agreed with her usual sweetness and a smile, but everyone knew she might not return.

On the tenth day of her confinement her pain became so excruciating that she was given a painkiller. This deranged her in a manner from which she did not recover, and it prevented her from receiving the Viaticum, though she had received holy communion four days before the festival of the Assumption of Our Lady. She always had a particular devotion to the holy Virgin Mother of God and St. Joseph, and she always placed herself under their singular protection; when she had been in the world she said daily the Little Office of the Blessed Mother. Due to her delirium it was only possible to administer the holy extreme unction. A few hours later she quietly passed "from the rank of choir sister to the peace of the children of God." This was August 19, 1820, and she was 35 years old, having been professed for 13 months and 17 days.