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.