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.

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