DR. SUSAN NALEZYTY Georgetown Visitation Academy has been educating young women since 1799 during the administrations of every president but George Washington. Dr. Susan Nalezyty is the archivist and historian of the school and a Georgetown University professor. In her interview with Carey Rivers, Susan traced the history of the school and Monastery founded by three nuns, Alice Laylor, Maria McDermottt and Maria Sharpe under the guidance of Bishop Leonard Neale of Georgetown College. The school has served several populations. In the early years it was an elementary school, later a junior college and now a high school. It also ran schools serving poor children in the neighborhood who were fed, clothed and educated. The Sisters could take courses at Georgetown University. The most fascinating part of her interview was to learn about the individual students and the curriculum offered. Many bright, talented girls were quite accomplished as writers, musicians, and in the arts. The school places a lot of emphasis on sciences and, in the beginning, had state of the art equipment that was often borrowed by Georgetown University. This school with the fascinating past continues to offer a rich academic opportunity for young women.
Carey: Today is Tuesday, May 7th, 2019. This is Carey Rivers, a volunteer with the Citizen’s Association of Georgetown oral history project. I am interviewing Dr. Susan Nalezyty.
Carey: Let’s spell that.
Susan: N as in Nancy, A‑L‑E, Z as in zebra, Y‑T‑Y.
Carey: OK, thank you.
Susan is the School Archivist and Historian at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. We are in Founders Hall. The school is located at 1524 35th Street Northwest, Washington, D.C.
Susan, thank you for being willing to take the time to share the story of Visitation. The school has been educating young women for two centuries. It has an amazing legacy and continues to be a major presence in the Georgetown community and citywide.
Susan, before we begin about the school, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role here?
Susan: I’m trained as a historian of art. I specialize in the Italian Renaissance. I also teach one course a semester at Georgetown University simultaneously with the job that I hold here at Georgetown Visitation. My title is School Archivist and Historian.
It’s a new position. There hasn’t really been anyone in this position exactly before—other than nuns. There’s a Monastery Archive, which is separate from the School Archive. Sister Mada-anne Gell is the Monastery Archivist. My job is to arrange, and preserve, and digitize all the materials in the School Archives. I also interpret this site by writing exhibit text and presenting to the school and monastery community. There are 14 buildings on historic registry.
Carey: I think the architectural history is as interesting as the education and culture.
Susan: It is, I agree. Many old buildings here.
Carey: That sounds great. Sounds like you’re quite an expert to talk to?
Susan: I guess so, yeah.
Carey: We should learn lots of good things. Why don’t we start at the beginning, the founding of the school?
Susan: The school was founded in 1799. It opened near Georgetown College, which of course is Georgetown University, because its fourth president, Father Leonard Neale, co‑founded the academy and convent. It’s the first of the Visitation Order in the “New World.” He invited a woman named Alice Lalor, whom he knew in Philadelphia, and then soon after another two women followed, Maria McDermott and Maria Sharpe.
Those four people are our founders. Initially, Lalor, Sharpe, and McDermott boarded with some nuns that were living here on the corner of 35th and P. They were from the order of the Poor Clares. They were refugees displaced from the French Revolution, and they’d opened an academy in 1798.
Carey: Was that a cloister?
Susan: It was, and it had a teaching mission as well. It opened as a cloister and then an academy.
Carey: One thing I was curious about in terms of the cloister, how does that work in terms of their being able to go and teach?
Susan: We still have a cloistered monastery here. People come in and they teach. Today, it’s a little more relaxed. They can leave for doctor’s appointments; they leave for funerals that sort of thing. Historically, the nuns couldn’t leave, especially in the early years before Vatican II, there was a hierarchy.
There were Choir Sisters who sang the Divine Office. There were people called Out Sisters who were at the bottom of the hierarchy; they did more housekeeping and they could go out, and go shopping, for instance. In some ways, the Out Sisters were the face of the monastery to the outside world.
Carey: The Poor Clares were here at Visitation?
Susan: Right. These three women moved in with the Poor Clares initially. Then in 1805, the Poor Clares’ Abbess died, so the remaining two nuns who were here, the French nuns, went back to France. It’s at this point that Lalor, McDermott, and Sharpe bought the Poor Clares’ property, and eventually another building, which would become the original academy building along with the original convent building.
When Bishop Neale’s term as college president expired in 1806, he moved next door to a house. He lived on the campus with our founding Sisters. He died in 1817, but the year before, he became Archbishop, so he could communicate directly with Rome. He finally got permission to start the Visitation Order in the “New World.” They took their solemn vows in 1816 right before Father Neale died.
When he died, he was initially buried on our grounds, but then when they built the chapel, they moved his remains into a tomb, which are still in the crypt today.
Then fast‑forwarding a little bit, in 1828, the Visitation Sisters were incorporated by an act of Congress. It was signed by President John Quincy Adams.
Carey: Why do you have to be incorporated by the Congress, because of the federal district?
Susan: Yes. It was official documentation so they could hold property in collective.
Carey: Probably not pay taxes.
Susan: Right. It’s part of that incorporation. It took a little while, but it was the official recognition with the federal government. They had been recognized in 1816 by Rome, the Pope.
Carey: Which is what matters. What was the relationship with Georgetown University?
Susan: Georgetown College and Georgetown Visitation were always separate institutions. Their early histories were somewhat intertwined when Archbishop Neale was college president Georgetown University has documents with Maria McDermott noted. She is one of these whom we call the Three Pious Ladies. They are: Alice Lalor, Maria McDermott, and Maria Sharpe.
Those documents, for example, have Marie McDermott buying things like books, slates and renting pews at Georgetown College. Our school and the College were interdependent a little bit in the early days. Father Neale’s replacement when he died was a Jesuit as well, though not affiliated necessarily with the college. His name was Pierre Joseph Picot de Clorivière.
He is the fellow who built the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, which still stands on 35th Street. There’s a long history of the University and Visitation being neighbors. Historically that chapel was the site of the first ordination of several Jesuits from the college.
It was also a place where Father James Curly took his first ordination. He was our spiritual director in 1852. There’s a long history. Georgetown is in a memoir of one of our nuns. The University borrowed our scientific equipment sometimes.
Carey: Yes, I know that.
Susan: We had good stuff that they used.
Carey: Did some of the funding come from Georgetown?
Susan: No. We’ve always been 100 percent separate. Absolutely separate institutions. The neighborhood was so undeveloped, but it was a little place of Catholic institutions, along with Holy Trinity. There was a lot of helping, but we were only ever neighbors.
Carey: It’s great though to have that resource.
Susan: Yes. Fast forwarding in time, some of the Sisters in the early 20th century earned degrees at Georgetown. Georgetown professors would come over because the nuns couldn’t break enclosure, that is leave the monastery.
Professors would give lessons through the grill, which is a screened wall that you can see through. The nuns would sit on one side, and the professors would give lessons on the other side. Sister Maria Ignatius Sublette was the first to receive a degree from Georgetown in 1921.
Carey: There was also a junior college here in the early years.
Susan: Yeah, there was a junior college. It began in the early 20th century. In 1918, they started having these courses that were called “Post Academic Studies.” That then turned into the Junior College. By the early 1920s, they started calling it the Junior College.
Then fast forwarding in time, they ran these courses until 1964, when the Junior College was closed.
Carey: Was that faculty Visitation or was it Georgetown?
Susan: No, it was actually Visitation nuns.
Carey: It was a program at Visitation?
Susan: Yeah. Absolutely separate from Georgetown University.
Carey: They actually had two options.
Susan: Right, yeah. It’s an interesting story related to the larger issue of women’s education, because there was more opportunity for women. Women could put off being married, get more of an education, and get a liberal arts degree, earning the first two years at Visitation.
It could be just liberal arts, or it could be with the idea of transferring those credits into a larger four‑year degree. Then there was a medical secretary degree that seemed quite popular for a while near the end of the 1950s. It became quite a thing that women could do.
Carey: Visitation always offered more than just the curriculum for the elementary and the high school?
Susan: Yeah. It changed over the years. In the early years, it was any age, elementary all the way through your high school age. It varied. In the 1920s, there were several students of grade school age, and then they ended up closing the lower school in 1929.
It’s changed. Women’s education is a little bit tricky, too. This is especially true with a boarding school. It could have been considered a finishing school, so you might only come for a few years. In the mid‑19th century, you would come for a year or two, and then be introduced to society. You have to back up when you’re thinking of, “She got a high school degree here.” It wasn’t the typical four years in high school for women until the turn of the century.
Carey: What was the guiding philosophy behind the school?
Susan: The guiding philosophy follows the Visitation Order. As I mentioned, it’s the first one in the “New World.” The Visitation Order was founded in 1610 in Annecy, France by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal.
The Pious Ladies chose an order different from the French Poor Clares, who were here first. The Poor Clares had a severe, acetic lifestyle. They wore no shoes even in winter and scratchy robes, and they didn’t eat meat. Whereas the Visitation Order sees that one should have an internal discipline of mind, not bodily suffering.
St. Francis de Sales writes that the acetic treatment of your body is not necessary, but control in your inner mind is more important. He and St. Jane de Chantal shared ideals in many of their writings; they exchanged many letters and it’s this holy friendship that tell us how they wanted the order to be formed.
Carey: How fortunate to have that.
Susan: They’re beautiful letters. Central are the little virtues. For example, some virtues are being gentle, having humility, kindness to others, etc. We still teach those today. These values work well for teaching.
Throughout the course of the school, the motto has always been “Be who you are and be it well.” It’s this very accepting charism, or spirituality. It follows these two saints. We still do it today.
Carey: You have the Salesian Center.
Susan: My job is the school archivist and historian. I am one of two people that make up the Salesian Center. My colleague, Olivia Kane, is the director, so she is part of the formation of the students and our community through teaching our charism.
My job is to carry on the history. She carries on the charism. We have fewer nuns, so we need to keep the Salesian tradition here. We want to keep teaching it.
Carey: It sounds like a wonderful thing, both from a teaching philosophy, as well as the religious.
Susan: I think that’s why the founding Sisters were drawn to the Visitation Order. If you come with humility to teach someone, it is the best way to get someone to open to new ideas.
Carey: As far as the early curriculum is concerned, I guess we have no way really of knowing whether it was typical, because they probably were not…
Susan: They were the first…
Carey: …to do it.
Susan: Yeah, right. What’s typical, what’s not is unknown. There were few schools for girls in the early years. An early curriculum can only be surmised. We know the first students were children around grade school age, so they were rather young as opposed to the older students that we have in the preparatory school today.
Schoolwork does survive. We have early needlepoint samplers where the girls learned complex embroidery. The earliest one is from a student named Catherine F. Queen. Hers is dated 1799. It’s a wonderful image, a landscape of the two original buildings and the stream that split the campus at the time.
Carey: Oh, terrific. I think they’re pretty well‑known and displayed in other art museums.
Susan: They are. The Daughters of the American Revolution has one of our samplers.
Carey: The Winterthur Museum does.
Susan: Yes. Philadelphia Museum of Art has one as well.
Carey: That would be something that would be great to have a picture of.
Susan: I agree. I think that would be a perfect example. It represents an early student, what the campus looked like, and our early school work.
Carey: Then it sounds like there was a lot of interest in teaching the sciences?
Susan: Yeah. Father Pierre Joseph Picot de Clorivière, he was a Frenchman. His story is interesting. He arrived in 1819. He emigrated to the United States from France because he was part of a failed plot to assassinate Napoleon.
He arrived as the new chaplain, and he really took the school in another direction. He and Mother Agnes Brent, who was the Mother Superior at the time. It’s at this moment in the 1820s that we see the curriculum really turning into something quite specific.
They published our first prospectus in 1822. It tells us what the students were being taught. It gives the mission, and a description of the campus.
It was clear that a student didn’t have to be Catholic. In fact, most students were not Catholic. There were moral teachings to the students certainly. Then you could actually have opted to pay extra money in 1822, to learn music or dancing, drawing, and French as well.
Carey: These were young girls that came and boarded, right?
Susan: They were, yeah. They came from all over. It was a boarding school. In 1822, they paid an additional fee. It was called “For Use of Apparatus,” which was to endow a fund. Eventually in 1828, a bunch of scientific equipment was ordered from France by Father Clorivière’s replacement, Father Michael Wheeler. That’s the stuff that the University borrowed from us, which I mentioned earlier.
Carey: That’s a great story.
Susan: They were learning physics. They were learning the properties of electricity and the solar system. Then fast‑forwarding a little bit in time in the mid‑19th century, they taught astronomy using magic lantern slides, movable slides of the solar system circulating.
Carey: Interesting. You have such great open spaces to observe.
Susan: Right. It was sort of like having an observatory without the actual observatory. Some of those slides survived. And then in 1830 we have a wonderful account of someone visiting during the public examinations. The public could come for the oral exams of the students, and they also performed scientific experiments for the audience. It was also the time at which awards were given out as well.
An account talks about how they were amazed that the students themselves were performing the experiments and not the teachers.
Susan: They were using potentially dangerous things like a blow pipe, which is a thing that shoots fire, a very intense fire. The prospectus also tells us that they were learning the following subjects: Geography, History, Mythology, Astronomy, Chemistry, French or Spanish and vocal and instrumental music.
Carey: What lucky young women to have that kind of exposure.
Susan: They were. Absolutely. It really was in the prospectus in 1830. There is a long essay as to why women should be educated. I mean, it’s this fantastic sort of diatribe!
Susan: That’s really fantastic.
Carey: What about the faculty because they have to have this knowledge themselves. Right?
Susan: Right. For most of the school’s history the faculty were always nuns. For instance, I have an 1899 accounting book that survives in the school archives today. If you look in the column for teacher salaries, it’s always blank. Except there’s one music teacher, who is someone who seemed to be teaching instrumental music…
Carey: Who was paid?
Susan: Yeah. Many teachers in the early years had been at the school as pupils themselves. A lot of girls who came as students, then joined later as professed nuns. They hadn’t really taught. Who knows how good the instruction was? They were teaching what they knew. With the arrival of one woman, her name is Jerusha Barber, the curriculum improved dramatically.
She has an interesting backstory as well. She had been married to an episcopal minister. Both her husband and she converted to Catholicism. Then her husband decided he wanted to join the Jesuits at Georgetown College.
He took his son, and they moved to the college. Then, Jerusha moved to Visitation with their four daughters. She eventually professed in the 1820s as Sister Mary Augustine.
Carey: Did the daughters also?
Susan: I think some of them professed, yeah. One of her daughters ended up in 1833, going and opening the house in St. Louis. First Kaskaskia, Illinois, then it moved to St. Louis.
Sister Mary Augustine was a brilliant teacher, apparently. She was New England educated. She specialized in English Literature and the Classics. She really seems to have been someone who raised the educational standards for studentsand also for teachers. I think she brought that experience.
There were a lot of quite accomplished women throughout the years. Sister Mary Paula Finn professed in 1869. She went on to publish several books in prose, poetry, and drama. She wrote under the pseudonym M. S. Pine. She wrote a pageant play called “The Alma Mater,” which celebrated the school and its centenary year, 1899.
Sister Jane Frances Ripley was a distant relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her family was part of the transcendentalists. She has an interesting history. She was a highly accomplished musician and studied in Germany for many years.
She was friends with Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, who was the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. She and her husband wrote our first published history in 1895.
Someone whom I’m studying right now is Sister Baptista Linton. She was a real powerhouse of a woman. In 1893, she published a book on the genealogy of English monarchs. This was part of a larger project called the Linton Century Charts, which was an educational system for teaching history.
These charts take the form of a grid. Each square represents a decade. It comes with these little pictures of significant events, the election of Lincoln, for example. You cut it out and put it in the chart. It was a way for students to organize time that way. It was a very involved pedagogical system. There were posters or little activities the students could do.
She won many awards. In 1893 she won an award for the Century Charts in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Then the next year, in 1894, she won an award in the California Exposition. She was also a gifted fund‑raiser. She seemed to have brought in a lot of donations. She went on to open two other houses separate from Georgetown.
Carey: Fascinating that all these very bright women were drawn to education at a time when the fates otherwise would have been very bleak.
Susan: Absolutely. Sister Jane Frances, in 1902, she was our first nun who came with a four‑year degree from Hunter College. She went on to get her PhD from Georgetown, and her dissertation was eventually published, titled “Anglo‑Saxon Education of Women from Hilda to Hildegard.”
Carey: That might be interesting to read.
Susan: It was brought out in a second edition. It was well‑read. There were many well‑educated women and then they went on to educate.
I had mentioned Sisters would get degrees from Georgetown amidst their teaching requirements and of the activities of just being a nun, singing the divine office five times a day and all that. Even though they were cloistered, they made things happen.
Carey: Probably more so than they would have.
Susan: I think so.
Carey: Since they were in a cloistered monastery, they didn’t do much outreach with the larger community except through education, I guess. Wasn’t there also a special school for…?
Susan: For students in the neighborhood as well, yeah. Because it’s cloistered, it’s been observed that it’s their little virtues that helped endear themselves to the community, at least initially, very unlike the Poor Clares who were austere and French‑speaking.
Carey: It didn’t sound like they had much fun.
Susan: Right. The Out Sisters were the face because they could leave enclosure. The Sisters did serve the local population with what they called the Benevolent School or the Charity School. That was opened as one of the first things Father Clorivière did.
They opened it in 1819. They constructed a building that still stands today to house that school. It was separate always from the boarding school, free of charge for kids in the neighborhood. They educated them, but the nuns sewed clothing for the kids too. They also fed them as well.
It was in that building for a while. Then they bought, in 1829, a lot that had another building, so it expanded. That building no longer survives. In 1844, they bought what is called Lalor House today. It was owned by a fellow by the name of Adam Rob. You can see it on 35th Street.
Carey: Is it across from P?
Susan: Let me think here how to describe it. 35th and Volta Place is where Founders Hall is today. Then walk up a little bit towards Dent Place. It’s right on the left‑hand side. It’s a one‑floor building on Thirty-fifth Street. In fact, the story of that building is sort of funny. They re‑graded the sidewalks in the middle of the 19th century, and it used to be a two‑story building…
Carey: They raised the sidewalk.
Susan: …and they raised it. In the back of the building, it’s a two‑story building. In the front, it’s a one‑story building.
That’s where they housed the Benevolent School after 1844. They called that school, eventually, St. Joseph’s School because he’s the patron saint of workers. That Benevolent School operated until 1918. Holy Trinity Parish had a boys’ school over there. They merged our school with their school to create a co‑educational school.
Carey: But that didn’t become all of Holy Trinity.
Susan: We closed the Benevolent School. All the kids that were enrolled here went to Holy Trinity. Our early histories are sort of intertwined that way.
The Sisters had experience with running a charity school, a free school, and it’s documented that there was a woman by the name of Anne Marie Becraft, a free woman of color who opened a school across the street on 35th Street. I wish I could figure out where, or if that building still exists. She opened a school for free black kids to be educated.
It’s documented that our Sisters helped her in the process of opening that school. I don’t think it stayed open very long.
Georgetown University just named a building after her, but there’s not much known of her. She eventually left the area and joined the order of Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore.
Carey: I think it’s fascinating. I certainly didn’t realize that there were so many educational options available coming out of Visitation.
Susan: Yeah, there were.
Carey: Throughout its history.
Susan: It’s true.
Carey: Even now, there’s something called the Saturday School.
Susan: Right. One of our clubs is running the Saturday School, which is a program where kids from the neighborhood come. They do projects together, and they do educational stuff. I think the girls are in 7th grade. It’s a way of pairing our girls with these girls.
Carey: Teaching life skills.
Susan: Yeah. Some of the girls are really dedicated to the Saturday School. They really enjoy it. They’ll probably go on to be teachers.
Carey: That’s just fascinating, about the educational opportunities.
Susan: Available to lots of different folks.
Carey: An amazing offer. Should we move on, back to the facilities and the architectural history?
Susan: Sure, absolutely.
Carey: How did the school originally acquire the facility?
Susan: At first, our Three Pious Ladies (Lalor, McDermott, and Sharpe) moved in with the Poor Clares. There’s a newspaper advertisement that describes the buildings. It’s fascinating. It’s dated from June 1799. I’ll read it because I think it coincides exactly with what the embroidered sampler looks like, which I mentioned earlier. I’m going to read it because it’s charming.
“Together or separate. Two handsome dwelling houses situated in Georgetown on the Potomac. Near the house, a beautiful garden ornamented with terraces, well grassed, a large fishpond supplied with a variety of fish, and a spring of water. 150 young fruit trees, some beginning to bear fruit.”
In 1800, the founders purchased one of those houses. It’s describing two on the site. One was the that of the Poor Clares, which they eventually bought. In 1800, they bought the other house. Both had been owned by John Threlkeld, who was the mayor of Georgetown at the time. Those were the two original buildings. We’ve always been on this piece of property at the corner of 35th and P Street.
We always like to point out that we’ve been teaching on this corner under every U.S. president except for George Washington…
Carey: That’s quite a record.
Susan: …and on the same piece of land. There might be other schools as old as us, but not in the same place. They probably moved.
Carey: You gradually grew north to…
Susan: For about the first 30 years, we were only on this block, Volta Place being the delineation, and then 35th and P. At that time, 36th Street was open. We were only really on that little piece of land. Then we started slowly expanding; the Sisters, really, they’re a perfect example of perseverance.
Carey: Which is what schools do.
Susan: …buying up a few lots. Then there’s a gap between lots. Eventually, that lot sells, and they get that. They bought spaces along P Street, and then up 35th Street all the way up to Reservoir Road along those platted lots. The interior of our campus was never platted into the Georgetown city grid.
Carey: How interesting.
Susan: That’s where John Threlkeld lived in a house, the foundation of which is said to be under our tennis courts today. This area has never been developed. It’s sort of astounding when you think about it.
Carey: How fortunate.
Susan: We have this green space. The records are a little bit spotty because the Sisters received exemption from taxation from Georgetown in 1845. The records are a little bit spotty after that.
I think that they acquired most of that internal land, the un-platted part, where the old Threlkeld land was after 1844 or 1845, from John Threlkeld’s daughter. Her name was Jane Threlkeld. She was a student here, as well.
Carey: So basically, the school had the property along the edges, and just moved in on the side and then backed up to 36th, too.
Susan: Yeah. The sister lobbied Congress and eventually had 36th street closed to traffic; I think in 1829. They had that street closed, much to the chagrin of John Threlkeld. He was not happy with that. I think his son owned some of that land. Where the hospital is today—the Sisters owned all that land, all the way up to Reservoir Road.
Carey: And then they gradually sold off.
Susan: Yeah. I’m trying to think of where and when, all of these lots were sold. Let me consult my notes. I think I wrote it down. It was in the 1950s, they sold to Georgetown the bit where the hospital is. In the mid‑1970s, they sold the land where the Cloisters Townhouses are. I think those were built in the 1980s.
Carey: Right. I remember when they were being built.
Susan: There was a big house over there, too. Not the one that Threlkeld owned but another where a groundskeeper lived. There was always someone who lived on campus who maintained the grounds. They had a working farm up until the 1950s.
Carey: In sort of the center of the property?
Susan: Yeah. You can still see in old 1950s photographs there was corn planted in that area.
Carey: I guess that’s how they supported the monastery.
Susan: Right. Throughout its history, you could see if you look in account books, they were selling fruit from the orchard, like pears and apples, or cows. They were selling those in market and then feeding the students as well.
Carey: That’s true because they were boarding.
Susan: Right and feeding the Benevolent School as well. Up until the ’50s, it was called “The Farm.” If you went out, it was to go to “The Farm.”
Carey: The school never expanded beyond 35th, P and 36th?
Susan: Right. I’m trying to remember the date of when they went above Dent Place. I want to say it was the 1830s? It was after John Threlkeld died. He died in 1830. Eventually that land, all the way up to Reservoir, but it never went beyond Reservoir.
Carey: Did he leave it to the Visitation?
Susan: I’m still working on the documentation of that. He did not leave it. I think it went to his daughter Jane and her husband, John Cox, who also became mayor. I think, eventually, he sold that land to the Sisters. There was a house that stood on the property where the high school is now, the DC public high school. Their house, which John Cox built, was called The Cedars. He lived there for a while.
Carey: Where Duke Ellington is?
Susan: Yeah, where Duke Ellington is, and then that building was eventually razed. He sold off some of that land eventually to the Sisters, likely after 1844.
Carey: There are some original buildings still on the property?
Susan: The oldest building on campus that predates the Sisters is related to that Threlkeld land. It dates from the late 18th century. It was wrongly called the Slave Cabin in the 20th century. I’ve done research on that building and found some very good primary documents about its early use from an inventory from 1782 and 1783 tax records for John Threlkeld.
That little building that still exists has been changed a lot. There’s almost next to nothing left other than the walls, but the walls have been pierced with doors and windows. There’s a new roof and no floor, but I think it was a dairy that was related to the workings of Threlkeld’s plantation. It’s very close to where the main plantation house stood, the foundation of which is under our tennis courts.
The tennis courts were installed in 1939. Certainly, Threlkeld’s enslaved people would have worked there. A dairy is kind of a refrigerator before electricity.
Carey: It would make sense to have a dairy. You have the farm. They probably had animals too.
Susan: That inventory and those tax records tell us that they had many cows. In fact, Henry Threlkeld sold a very rare English breed to George Washington, and John Threlkeld had a lot of sheep, Merino sheep, so there were a lot of dairy animals.
A dairy would be a place where you put the milk out in these shallow pans, and then you skim the cream off to make butter. Apparently, it was only to make butter. I guess we didn’t drink much milk back then.
Carey: No, I don’t think until the 20th century.
Susan: Right, until pasteurization or something. It would have been the place for processing milk. There was clearly a lot of livestock maintained by the Threlkelds on that land.
At that point, the land is described as thin and stony, that it wasn’t very good for planting. They probably had just a lot of animals. There was an area cleared as a meadow for the animals to graze as well.
Carey: There are several buildings on the campus that are part of the historic preservation.
Susan: Yes, we’ve got 14 of them in fact. The oldest building built by the convent dates to 1819. I had mentioned that. It’s kind of an Early Republic, Federal‑style brick building.
If you kept going on Volta Place, passing Founders Hall and then Gallery, which is a row of buildings, it’s the last building on the left, if you can picture it… where 36th Street used to be. That Benevolent School was built on what is now called Volta Place and 36th Street. Does that make sense?
Susan: That’s our oldest building built by the Sisters. As I mentioned, the oldest is the Threlkeld Outbuilding. Nine of them were built before the Civil War. The two brick buildings between where Founders Hall is today, and the 1819 Benevolent School, were built in 1829 and 1838. They’re all very early and still used today.
The 1829 building, which was next to the Benevolent School, was a dormitory where the girls lived. Because we just kept growing and growing, they needed another academy building. There were two. They’re the 1824 academy building, which stood where Founders Hall is today. That was razed to make way for the Starkweather Academy, which later burned. And behind that was the 1838 West Academy building
All of those are interconnected now. We have offices there. Students have classrooms there as well.
Carey: There’s been a lot of building in the last 20 or 30 years.
Susan: Yeah. I’ve heard our campus is described as tree rings. It keeps growing concentrically. The gym was built during the Depression. There are clear signs that they wanted to have a swimming pool. They had to scale it all back for lack of funds.
That was transformed into our Nolan Center in 1998, which is where we hold plays and assemblies and all that today. This is also when we built the Fisher Athletic Building, which is now our gym.
Further up, going north on our campus, in 1958, is St. Joseph’s Hall. A lot of the junior college classes were held there, but also high school classes. We had typing rooms and things for Home Economics and for sewing. One of the rooms still has all these mirrors in it because it’s where the sewing room was.
That building was built next to an 1895 brick barn. At that time, when they built St. Joseph’s Hall, they transformed the barn into the library, which we still use today.
Now, we’re building onto those two spaces. The old barn, which is the library today, and St. Joseph’s Hall is going to have a space that we call the Saints Connector, because it’s St. Bernard Library and St. Joseph’s Hall. Now, they’re connected. That’s going to have a makerspace with a big garage door where the girls can make robots or whatever.
Carey: I think they’re adding those in a lot of schools. It’s quite popular.
Susan: On the other end of St. Joseph’s Hall is a much bigger building. It’s named after Sister Mary Berchmans, a very important woman to our history, President Emerita and currently the Monastery’s Mother Superior. That will have an art studio and more science labs. That’s being built right now, lots of activity. I’m sure as a neighbor, you’re hearing it.
Carey: Is the cemetery still active? Are there still spaces on it?
Susan: Yeah, we have two cemeteries on campus. The cemetery that’s on the monastery side, which can be seen if you’re standing on the school campus quadrangle—the beautiful iron crosses. That was started in 1841. That filled up, so we don’t add any new people there. Then, what we call now the “new cemetery” was built in 1887.
That’s the one sort of further up. You can see that from Georgetown’s campus. That has a little over 150 graves, and this is where our Sisters are currently buried today.
Carey: We talked about how they’re being used today.
Susan: Right, the buildings. I’ve gotten to what’s happening today.
Carey: How they’re being used today, we talked a little bit about that.
Susan: Yeah, so Gallery, I mentioned to you that series of connected buildings. Then…
Carey: The Berchmans Hall.
Susan: …and Berchmans Hall. It needs to be mentioned why it’s called Berchmans Hall.
It’s named after Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan. She came here as a 14‑year‑old and joined the sophomore class. She graduated from the high school in 1948. Then she graduated from the junior college in 1950.
She entered the monastery the next year. She taught Latin here for many years. She taught religion. Then she was headmistress for 20 years with the academy. Then president for 17 years. She’s currently the Mother Superior at the monastery, so she’s still leading the community of nuns.
Carey: Not as active in the educational side?
Susan: No. She still hands out the diplomas. She’s very much a part of our world. We depend on her very much. It’s a great, and fitting honor that Berchmans Hall is being erected to honor her.
Carey: She was also very active within the private school community.
Susan: Yeah, she has won Presidential Awards.
Carey: Quite a big figure.
Susan: I’m the historian, but I have laughed at that title when I’m sitting next to Sister Mary Berchmans! I am learning from her and our Monastery Archivist, Sister Mada-anne, so I can carry on and teach this institution’s history to our community.
Sister Mary Berchmans’ memory is incredibly good. We’re lucky to have her contributing regularly to our school community. She’s still very actively involved in the school, but the school is now separate from the monastery.
Carey: Do you have a new headmaster now?
Susan: Yeah. Dan Kerns was our head of school for 30 years after Sister Mary Berchmans. They changed the structure of it. She became president, and he’s head of school. He’s retiring.
Carey: It’s a long time.
Susan: It is, it is. He was the first lay leader of the school as well.
Carey: And a man.
Susan: And a man, right. This is his last year, and we’re almost here at the end of this year. We have a new head of school coming in. Her name is Dr. Barbara Edmondson.
Carey: That’s exciting.
Carey: That’ll be nice. Let’s see, do you want to talk a little bit about the fire?
Susan: Sure. The spot where we’re sitting right now, it’s called Founders Hall. It stands at Volta Place on 35th Street. Since 1824 there has been an academy building in this spot. Father Clorivière built the “New Academy.” It was a plain building that fronted 35th Street. That was in use until 1872 when that was razed.
The Starkweather Academy was designed by Philadelphian architect N.G. Starkweather. It’s a late Victorian Italianate building. It was an iconic image of our school.
The groundbreaking was in 1872, and it served as the main academy for 120 years from 1873 until July 8, 1993, when a fire broke out under the eaves on the top floor. It was up in the attic level. They were doing some minor repairs. I think it was something to do with a paint gun that melts paint so you can scrape it. Something went wrong, and a fire caught up there. I don’t know the full story, or maybe we don’t know.
Susan: When it happened, if you can think of something lucky, it happened in the summer. It was in July. The building was largely empty, and no one was harmed.
Carey: Thank goodness.
Susan: The community turned out valiantly to help. There were two fires that happened. The first fire took off. They got it under control. It was very hot. Apparently, it was in the upper 90s that day. It was a very hot day—a DC hot day. It took a while to get the fire out.
At which point, Dan Kerns, our head of school, and some volunteers, went into the building and got many of the paintings out of the building.
Carey: Were you able to save most of the art and the records?
Susan: We were able to save a lot of things. They got out a lot. There were items up in the attic level. Some of our scientific equipment that we see in old pictures, that was up there. We lost that. We lost that top floor especially where there were a lot of harps and musical instruments. So much of that was lost. The monastery archives and a lot of those school archives were saved.
Carey: That’s a lot.
Susan: There were things up there, but you know, there’s a lot of documentation that still survives. Then after they got all that stuff out, because of the heat, and my guess, this can happen, the fire re-ignited.
There was a large room called the Odeon. It was a two‑story room in the middle of this building, which was not up to code by that point. The way it was designed is that it was suspended by metal tie rods. When those rods failed, all of that middle section fell.
Carey: Oh, my goodness. This tie rod you see in a lot of the houses in Georgetown.
Susan: It’s true.
Carey: You see those star-shaped metal plates affixed to the walls of many buildings.
Susan: Right, like a star kind of pattern. That’s how it was this two‑story room was built into the larger building. It’s where all the plays were held, public examinations, and all that. It was a very well used space.
What you see today, Founders Hall, is the outside walls of the Starkweather Academy up to the third floor. Luckily, one of the beautifully ornate Mansard treatments of the windows on the fourth floor did not burn.
Susan: They were able to make casts of that to then rebuild it to make it look like it did.
Carey: That’s great.
Susan: The building that we call Founders Hall is just this modern building behind those walls up to the third floor of the Starkweather Academy. It looks like the Starkweather Academy, but in some ways, not. Now, with a modern building, we have air conditioning and wiring for computers and all that, too.
Carey: It was the impetus for a big renovation and building plan?
Susan: Right. After the fire, that’s when we transformed because the Odeon was no longer available. You couldn’t build another one in Founders Hall because it’s against code to have a two‑story room like that.
Carey: Interesting. Then you built the…
Susan: Right, so we renovated our gym into being the Nolan Center and then dedicated it to kick off our year-long bicentennial year, which started in 1998. That same year, we also built the Fisher Athletic Center, which is the gym, and dedicated it at that same time. It frames a quad area, which used to be a parking lot.
Carey: It enhanced the facilities, I would think, in terms of programming.
Susan: Absolutely. They set up temporary trailers while they were rebuilding Founders Hall. Georgetown University, they were very kind. They let the Sisters stay over there until it was made sure that everything was safe so that they could come back.
The fire luckily didn’t go to the monastery.
Carey: The ceiling’s probably smoke and water damaged.
Susan: Smoke and all that. Right, lots of water damage. Our commencements were held over in Gaston Hall for many years until we had gotten everything sorted with the Nolan Center. That’s a good example of our being good neighbors to each other.
Carey: Working together.
Carey: Let’s see. Have we talked about the early students?
Susan: The records are scant in the early years. We wish we knew more. By 1820, we know there were 16 paying students. It was a very small affair for a while, but by 1826 this number had increased to 48.
Then census records help us with counts because of records we don’t have here. To give you an example, by 1830, there were 12 students who were grammar school age, 51 who were middle school age, and 37 that were high school age. You could incrementally see that it starts growing.
Carey: The population?
Susan: Yeah, right. It keeps growing, and there was a rather ambitious building campaign with Father Clorivière. He built four buildings in eight years, so it really put the school in the running to attract people.
Carey: I would think it would start attracting people from certainly other states but perhaps even other countries where they…
Susan: Yeah, absolutely. There were people from other countries, especially in the, let me think, 1918, World War I. They called it the “war class.”
There are a lot of indications they did a lot of fund‑raising that year. There was also an impetus because a lot of people from Latin America who sent their girls to boarding school in Europe didn’t want to do so because of the war. There’s indication that alumnae even went to places to attract Latin American families.
Around 1918 that year, we had…I’m trying to remember the number. Let’s see here. There were a couple from Cuba, a couple from Nicaragua. This is very new research, I should say.
Two of the girls that came from Nicaragua were the aunts of the poet, priest, and activist, Ernesto Cardenal. He is a very important poet.
Susan: Yeah, to Nicaragua. He was involved with the Sandinista Movement. I just learned that his aunts attended school here.
Many students came from the DMV. Actually, back in 1858, the Sisters started publishing what we call a catalog of pupils. Our documentation of students is much better after this year. These are the documents that I study a good deal. I do a lot of genealogy work for people.
Looking at that snapshot of 1858, there were 86 students that came from DC, Maryland, and Virginia. 31 came from the South. Six came from the Midwest. Five were from the Mid‑Atlantic region. Then there were two girls who came even as far as California. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of prominent women who passed through our doors as well.
Carey: I love this description you did of the individual students. That answered the question, what is the numbers?
Susan: Right. It’s the people who pop up in prominence. One of our earliest alumnae, who’s quite famous, was Martha Washington’s great‑granddaughter, Britannia Peter, later from Tudor Place. She attended from 1828 to 1830. Tudor Place has in its collection the awards she was given here. She won many awards for writing.
Carey: At the house?
Carey: I wonder if she did a sampler.
Susan: No, I don’t think they have a sampler, wish I could say, but they have a couple of these beautifully hand‑painted awards that the Sisters would give out. Britannia Peter was an extraordinary woman. For Georgetown, I guess I don’t need to even describe her to most people. She lived an extraordinarily long and independent life.
Fast forwarding in time, Eliza Maria Gillespie, she’s someone I want to highlight more. She was an amazing woman. She graduated in 1844 at Visitation. She was a widow. She partnered with another alumna, Ellen Ewing, who married General Sherman. They did some major fund‑raising to help people who were suffering in Ireland.
Then Eliza Maria Gillespie went on to join the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1853. She, during the Civil War, enlisted a corps of women, of Sisters who went out to the Midwest and fed the moving army and fed the poor and set up a hospital. She made things happen.
In 1847 and 1848 Harriet Lane attended our school. She was a niece and ward of James Buchanan. Then she became First Lady when he was elected president in 1857. She stayed involved as well. She endowed an award for a medal for intellectual history, which was given out for decades after that.
Carey: She endowed that?
Susan: Yeah, she’s famous in her own right too. She founded St. Alban’s School.
Carey: The boys’ school?
Susan: Yeah. Her art collection seeded the National Collection of Fine Arts, which became the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among the other many things that she’s known for.
The same years, she went to school with Adele Cutts. She was the great‑niece of Dolley Madison. She was Stephen Douglas’ second wife. He defeated Lincoln in the Senate race in Illinois. Then he ran against him in the 1861 presidential race and, of course, lost. We all know about that…She seems to have been very instrumental in his career, very involved.
One thing the students today always love to hear is in 1857, Bertha Honorè Palmer graduated. She became the president of the Board of Lady Managers for the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, which took place in Chicago. She commissioned the chef at Palmer House Hotel, which still stands today in Chicago, to make a dessert that you could walk around and look at exhibits, not like cake where you need a fork and plate…
Carey: That would be dropping crumbs.
Susan: Right, so they came up with the brownie. She is the “inventor” of the brownie! I run the Historical Society, a club with the students here. When we’re recruiting every year, we always bake brownies.
Carey: That’s a good idea. It’s a good thing to be famous for.
Susan: In 1860, Emily Warren Roebling graduated. She dealt with engineers and politicians and, certainly, gender discrimination, I would say. She helped oversee the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her father‑in‑law died when it was being constructed; then her husband took over, and he became quite seriously ill from going underground. He got decompression disease.
Carey: Even though it was air rather than water?
Susan: Yeah. They were driving the pilings to support the bridge. He would go down there, and he became quite sick. She took over. There’s a plaque dedicated to her on the Brooklyn Bridge. I just heard, though I haven’t confirmed, that they just named a street near the bridge after her.
There have been a lot of people. Harriet Monroe, she’s my favorite, I think. She graduated in 1879. She was a prominent writer and poet, and established a literary magazine “Poetry” which is still…
Carey: Still going.
Susan: …today. This journal, she was editor of that until her death in 1912. It introduced the work of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost. In her autobiography she dedicated a chapter to her experiences here as a student. It’s very honest, some of it is was harsh. It was difficult for her.
Carey: That’s a difficult time for any child.
Susan: For any child. That time in history, as I mentioned, some of the nuns that were teaching…they were literary people, publishing books themselves.
Susan: She just absorbed that strong female presence from the Sisters who taught her. Not all of it was easy while she attended, but she certainly credits them for her love of writing; she’s one of our prominent alumnae whom I always like to highlight as well.
Carey: I think we talked a little bit about the students. Did we talk about the day‑scholars?
Susan: Yeah, it was always a boarding school. They did have day‑scholars that would come in but go home after classes concluded. They also had what they call “parlor‑boarders,” which needs some definition. They were women or girls who would come and stay for a while. They might stay for a month. They might stay for a year. They were required to attend Mass, but they didn’t enroll in classes.
They could study courses. One prominent parlor‑boarder was someone by the name of Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren. She stayed here twice, and she wrote in her autobiography that she converted to Catholicism eventually. She says that it’s the nuns of Visitation who taught her to love that faith. She was the daughter of a congressman, and she went on to publish a highly popular etiquette book on entertaining in Washington.
Carey: Probably the first one.
Susan: Yeah. She was like Harriet Lane in that her mother had died when she was young. She kind of served as the wife of a congressman, so she learned this on‑the‑job, so to speak. She translated books from Spanish and French, and she wrote over a dozen fiction novels.
Carey: It’s interesting that so many of the girls did have writing as their career.
Susan: They did. They must have learned something when they were here, right?
Carey: Right. They said that the most important thing you can learn from education is to write well.
Susan: We still have that same approach.
Carey: Part of the core.
Susan: Yeah. It’s stressed in the curriculum. Basic writing skills are important.
Carey: We talked about how the population evolved.
Susan: Right. We’ve talked about the junior college, and how things evolved in education that fit how women’s demands for education changed over the years.
Carey: Yes, and it seems like Visitation managed to really change with the times and be very responsive to the community, even though they were cloistered. Their facilities, they certainly contributed enormously. It would be curious to know how they recruited students in the beginning. I guess we don’t have any idea?
Susan: We don’t have a lot of information about those early students. Sometimes the name we have really comes from those embroidered samplers. I find them for very early students. You mentioned the changes in the curriculum and all the building campaign, things seem to have taken off around the late 1820s, 1830s.
They were attracting more students. You can get a sense that most of it came through word of mouth. Fast‑forwarding in time, in the 1880‑1881 catalog of pupils, those publications I mentioned earlier, they give what the students studied and what awards people won, and the names of all the students that attended. They’re important documents.
There’s a kind of haughty statement in the 1880 introduction that says, “We do not deem it necessary that an old and distinguished institution like Georgetown Visitation needs to provide any references.”
I found recently an 1882 advertisement for the school in a newspaper, and it gives references. Some of the names in that ad are General Sherman, General Grant, W. T. Walters, which is the Baltimore Walters family of the Walters Gallery, and Jose Macias from Cuba, which added an international flavor as well to attract people.
Carey: There were some pretty impressive names, families that had students there.
Carey: They should have used references. They had such good ones.
Carey: Do you want to cover this next topic?
Susan: Yeah, we can. We’ve been looking at the history of enslaved people here the last few years since I arrived in 2016. Both of our published histories mention slavery, but now we have given it much more attention. Our first history, as I mentioned, was published in 1895 by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and her husband. Our other history was published in 1975. It was written by a long‑standing teacher, a history teacher here.
Susan: It’s an excellent book. It’s called “Georgetown Visitation Since 1799.” That came out in a new edition in 2004, updating it from the ’70s. We knew that people had been enslaved on campus by the Sisters—mentioned in both published histories—but it hadn’t been studied as much until now.
What we know about slavery here now rests on documentary evidence. We “published” a self-study research report last year on the school website.
We have this popular idea in this country of what slavery was in the U.S. That it’s an affluent person living in a big house with people laboring without freedom. That is true, but that is not what was the case here.
They were religious women who had taken vows of poverty, but they also collectively owned individuals. It’s what we call “institutional ownership.” Not one person owned the slaves. They owned everything communally, all property, including enslaved people.
Carey: And did some of the slaves…It’s like did people come with the women?
Susan: The assembled documents tell us of the presence of slavery at Georgetown Visitation from 1800 to when all slaves were emancipated by the federal government in 1862, which is April 16th, 1862. It’s a holiday in the District of Columbia.
Susan: Slaveholding persisted that entire period at Georgetown Visitation. A lot of the documents don’t tell us the places from which enslaved people came, but we do have a few that show that women brought them as part of their inheritance. Also, the Sisters would take donations of any kinds: money, property that they would sell, land elsewhere, or enslaved people.
In the 1820s, it’s well documented that several people had been given as donations and then sold outright. They’d never come to campus but were sold to fund the mission. What emerges from assembling all these documents together is a vital context to understand that institutional slave ownership happened here, to be sure. Documents assembled provide evidence of 107 people that had been enslaved by Georgetown Visitation Sisters.
Records could be just a brief description on the census or other kind of evidence. The stories are varied. Each one is as varied as the evidence.
Carey: It’s probably not a lot of evidence I would think.
Susan: Yeah, I mean it varies where you get it. We have a better, a more vital understanding of that history now. I was invited to submit an article to the U.S. Catholic Historian, which is an academic journal brought out by Catholic University. That will be published in spring of this year.
Carey: Great, congratulations.
Susan: More people can read it that way as well.
Carey: Are you doing anything in‑house or do you plan to do anything in‑house with the curriculum?
Susan: That’s the next stage.
Susan: I’ve presented this history of enslaved people to the students, and to many people within our community. All the documents that are related to slaveholding have been scanned and are on our website in a digital archive. Really, anyone can study it some more.
Carey: Right, and I did look at that. Good for you for addressing that though.
Susan: Thank you.
Carey: Let’s see, what else? Can you tell us a little bit about the monastery and how it relates to the school?
Susan: Right, so the Sisters of Visitation is a religious community. The Visitation was born out of that holy friendship between St. Jane de Chantal and St. Francis de Sales.
The Sisters still hold that charism. They follow these virtues. The most salient bits of advice St. Francis offers can be found with these little virtues, and so we celebrate them every month with our students today.
The Sisters give us that—concepts like gentleness, and humility, patience, kindness, thoughtful concern for others, moderation, simplicity, courtesy, graciousness, cheerful optimism.
The monastery and the school were always the same. They were founded simultaneously in 1799, and so the school and the monastery were the same for the most of the institution’s existence.
For many years it was called the Georgetown Visitation Convent. That was understood to be the school too. In the 1990s, the school and monastery were separated, so we now have a separate governing board that runs the school. The Sisters still reserve oversight. They still hold us accountable to teach the charism and Catholic values.
They’re still with us, but they’re not running the school anymore; they continue to create a kind of prayerful, loving community for us. They’re still very much a part of who we are.
Carey: That’s got to be a very special element of the school that you wouldn’t necessarily find in other schools.
Susan: It’s true, and you know, the girls, they understand that they’re at the Sisters’ house. This is not just their school. It’s not just a high school. You’re at the Sisters’ house. It’s still a very special place, I think, in that way.
Now they don’t teach, but they’re still very much a part of us, to be sure. The board of advisers became a board of trustees in 1994, and so there’s a different kind of leadership now.
In 2013 we added Mary Kate Blaine, who’s now the principal. Now we have a new head of school, which will be Dr. Barbara Edmondson, who will run the school. Our principal runs the daily lives of all the students. We also have the monastery superior, who is Sister Mary Berchmans right now. We still work very closely together.
Carey: It adds an interesting, important dimension to the school. Well, thank you so much Susan for doing this. It’s really fascinating.
Susan: You’re welcome. It was a treat.
Carey: Amazing community, and I think that it will make a really valuable addition to the oral history project. Thank you.