Visitation Sisters immersed in ‘profound humility toward God’
Just northwest of Richmond in Rockville, a group of nine religious sisters live a cloistered, contemplative life at the Monte Maria Monastery – praying, working and caring for one another – in a supportive, self-sustaining community where a deep love for God animates all that they do.
The monastery’s eight professed sisters and one novice are members of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, a worldwide monastic order of approximately 2,500, founded in 1610 in Annecy, France, by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. The order has been in the U.S. since 1799 and in the Richmond area since 1866 — first in Church Hill and in Rockville since 1987.
Life at Monte Maria reflects the order’s motto, “Live+Jesus,” where the sisters “let Jesus live in us and work through us,” according to Sister Marie Hélène.
She described the spirit of the Visitation as “profound humility toward God and great gentleness with our neighbor,” adding, “St. Francis de Sales modeled our order on our Lord’s words, ‘Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.’”
Desire for contemplative life
A strong desire for a closer union with God for silence and a more meaningful life inspired the sisters at Monte Maria to become contemplatives.
Sister Frances Marie and Sister Mary Emmanuel, for example, are former Sisters of Mercy who left teaching for the monastery.
As Visitandine contemplatives, the sisters are focused on an “inward life,” not on external mortifications as is the case in other cloistered orders. According to Sister Marie Hélène, “Our mortifications are mostly interior. Only God sees the sacrifices we make.”
Historically, the Visitations have accepted women who cannot follow strict routines, including older women and those with disabilities, so its way of life is less austere.
Sister Frances Marie described it as “an ordinary type of life without a lot of austerities,” but, she observed, “It is unlike convent life.” The prayer-centered community is markedly different from religious communities where sisters are outwardly engaged in professions such as teaching.
For Sister Mary Emmanuel, it’s the right fit.
“Having been called from the active life of a teaching sister to the contemplative life, I have found what my heart desired,” she said.
Centered on prayer, work
Because they are a cloistered, or “enclosed,” community living and working in the monastery, everyone has an assigned job. No matter what their age and stage in life, all sisters participate.
Prayer is their main ministry, and they consider their work prayerful.
“Work is a part of our life of prayer and sacrifice. Our main goal is to unite ourselves as closely as possible to our Lord so that our prayers will be more effective for others,” explained Sister Marie Hélène.
Their daily schedule of prayer and work forms the framework within which the sisters serve God and interact with one another as one unit, a family.
Mother Maria Theresa and Sisters Frances Marie, Mary Emmanuel, Mary Joseph, Marie Hélène, Miriam Corazon, Marianne du Sacre Coeur, Marie Augustine and Olivia spend their days praying; attending Mass; maintaining the facility, grounds and household; supporting one another with the tasks/business of daily living – including preparing and eating meals; baking and supplying altar breads to Catholic communities in the Richmond area and elsewhere; and enjoying each other’s company in recreation.
The linchpin of the sisters’ daily schedule is the Liturgy of the Hours which they pray five times a day. Their schedule also includes time for private prayer.
Mother Maria Theresa, the monastery’s superior, said, “I pray for the health and well-being of my sisters; for the priests of our diocese; for vocations, especially for our community; and for our benefactors.”
Mother Maria Theresa, who became mother superior in the late fall of 2019, said she never has a “normal” day at Monte Maria. She relies on the other sisters’ help to keep things running smoothly.
Though few in number, the sisters are able to meet the needs and challenges of community life with the experiences, talents and skills they share. This ranges from sewing habits to working in their infirmary, doing maintenance or baking altar breads.
For Sister Mary Joseph, who said “you must use the skills God has given you,” this means serving as sacristan, playing the organ, taking Mother Maria Theresa shopping, cleaning, proofreading and taking care of the sisters’ two dogs and two cats.
Sister Mary Emmanuel, at 89 the oldest of the sisters, works as Mother Maria Theresa’s secretary, serving as portress – the sister who greets visitors at the door and answers the phone and taking care of the sisters’ medicines.
The teamwork that is the hallmark of this community’s life is most evident in its altar bread baking apostolate. Some sisters are involved directly from taking orders to baking, cutting, sorting, packaging, shipping and managing billing and payments; others have a supportive role.
Most of their nearly 100 customers are in the Diocese of Richmond, but some are from northern Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Realistically, it would be difficult to take on more work because of the shortage in the number of sisters.
They produce both small hosts for communicants and 3- and 5-inch priest hosts. The income this activity generates supplements the financial support that comes mostly from benefactors and friends.
Typically, the actual bread baking, which is done two to three times a week, involves three sisters. The work is an all-day endeavor, since the sisters must also follow their daily schedule.
Sister Marie Hélène and Sister Marie Augustine bake, while Sister Olivia helps with making extra batter and cleaning up. They work silently praying, concentrating.
Six machines are used in the operation. Five of them are from the original monastery in Church Hill; one was purchased 10 years ago. The sisters hope to buy two more machines in November in anticipation of older machines breaking down.
More vocations needed
Bringing more women on board is the monastery’s deep desire. Like Pope Francis, who has stated, “The abandonment of consecrated life worries us,” the sisters are worried about the declining number of vocations.
Those entering religious life report that vocational programs and experiences, including retreats, figure prominently in the discernment process. Accordingly, Monte Maria offers individual discernment retreats, and it will have a Discernment Day on Saturday, June 20.
Attending a retreat was part of the discernment process for 24-year-old Sister Olivia, the youngest member of the community and the monastery’s second-year and only novice. Her next steps are making temporary vows and then, after five years of temporary profession, final vows.
She wanted to be a sister from the time she was a little girl in an orphanage in Poland where she and her brothers experienced the kindness of sisters. She wanted to be like them when she grew up. Mutual friends introduced her to the sisters at Monte Maria.
“I have been able to persevere so far with God’s help and with the help of the prayers of the priests I know,” she said.
The sisters are hopeful that a Jubilee Year currently underway for them in celebration of the 100th anniversary of St. Margaret Mary’s canonization will help them increase their novitiate, perhaps bringing them another young woman who will want to explore the cloistered life by making a discernment retreat.
Sister Marie Hélène, who is the formator for Monte Maria, stressed the importance of praying for those in new vocations as well.
“The formation period is long since it takes time to make the changes that are needed in order to become a good religious,” she said. “Prayers are definitely needed for new vocations that God will give them the grace of perseverance.”
Editor’s note: For information regarding the jubilee and/or Visitandine vocations, contact the Monte Maria Monastery. Phone 804-749-4885, or email [email protected]
Special days at Monte Maria
The Vatican has granted the Visitation Order a Jubilee Year in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the canonization of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Anyone who passes through the doors of the Monte Maria Monastery Chapel during the Jubilee Year on the following days will receive a plenary indulgence if he or she is in a state of grace, goes to confession and receives holy Communion within 20 days before or after the visit, and prays for the intentions of the Holy Father.
However, due to restrictions in place due to COVID-19, those wishing to visit the chapel on the following days should contact the monastery ahead of time at 804-749-4885.
Wednesday, May 13
100th anniversary of the canonization of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
Sunday, May 31
Pentecost and Solemnity of the Visitation
Friday, June 19
Solemnity of the Sacred Heart
Wednesday, Aug. 12
Solemnity of St. Jane de Chantal
Friday, Oct. 16
Feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
The First Friday of Each Month