02 September 2011

Back to the archives: Susan Mary Margaret Wightt

Last academic year we began a series focusing on the lives of Visitation sisters from the past, beginning with the first sisters who arrived in the late 1700s. That series continues now, at the pace of approximately one installment per week. Each biography is typed from the handwritten account in the monastery archives that was generally written after the sister's death by one who knew her well. Language is modernized and entries are edited to delete repetitions, but some of the flavor of the original remains in the music of the English language from two centuries ago...


Mary Margaret was born in Prince George’s County, Maryland, on February 13, 1801. When she was one year old her father died. Her mother was pious, and also attentive to her children’s educations, so when Mary Margaret was five she and her elder sister Ann (who also became a religious among us) were enrolled in our Visitation academy, where they were received with much love and kindness. It was evident that Mary Margaret was a chosen soul, for her understanding far surpassed her age. She was lively, and she advanced quickly in her studies, but also proportionately in the paths of virtue. She applied herself seriously to observe all of the school’s rules. However, the enemy (who is ever watchful and seeks to draw souls into his nets) tempted “this innocent dove” when she became very close friends with one of the boarding students. This student was “full of the world” and instilled frivolous thoughts into her mind. Instead of studying, the friends spent their time in conversation, but Mary Margaret was so quick that she still managed to know her lessons well enough that at first no one caught on. Their tutor knew what a good student Mary Margaret could be, however, and she soon discerned the difference. The tutor reported this change to Leonard Neale, and he spoke to Mary Margaret about it. This was in vain, however, for no sooner had she left him than she recounted the conversation to her friend, who said “Oh Mary Margaret, don’t mind the old man, he only wishes to make you a nun. For my part, I wouldn’t mind him were he to talk to me.” Although Mary Margaret felt deeply attached to her companion, she also wanted to follow the advice of Bishop Neale, of whom she was remarkably fond. This left her undecided about what step to take.

About this time her sister Ann obtained leave from Bishop Neale, although not without much difficulty, for both of them to visit their friends in the country; he considered them innocent lambs going out to be devoured by wolves. They went during August vacation, and when it was time to return Mary Margaret didn’t want to leave her friends, “and her heart cleaved still more closely to the world than ever.”

On December 1, 1811, Bishop Neale received one of the boarding students to the habit. This student was a close friend of one of the girls whom Mary Margaret had visited in the country. When the country girl saw her friend in religious habit, she promised never to return to the world, and she kept that promise. Just as before she had done all in her power to draw our dear sister Mary Margaret into vanity, now she made as great if not greater an exertion to help her find her way back to the place from where she had been led. She became a religious just one year after, and became the 12th sister in this new establishment. Our dear sister Mary Margaret now strived to imitate the examples of her friends, and she advanced daily in virtue and became once more an example of piety and regularity to her friends. She was also a comfort and support to her teachers, who rejoiced at this happy change, and with Bishop Neale’s permission they made her responsible for the care of the little chapel. In this task, so necessary because duties were numerous and there were not enough sisters to do it all. Mary Margaret’s piety and zeal became even more evident through her diligence and fervor. She so advanced in virtue that at age fifteen she prevailed on Leonard Neale to admit her to the habit of religion. He did this without difficulty, however, for he had always known her real merit.

(To be continued in a second part next week)

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