400 years and countless Visitations

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The Visitation Sisters of Holy Mary celebrate their 400th anniversary.

By Guest Blogger Christina Capecchi 

We're in a season of celebrations--weddings and anniversaries, birthdays and graduations--and we are following along, cutting cake, blowing balloons, sealing cards.

But I'm thinking of a different celebration, a spiritual landmark of broad proportions and muted fanfare. This Sunday, June 6, the Visitation Sisters of Holy Mary celebrate their 400th anniversary. If this sounds like just another Order and just another jubilee, don't be mistaken: It's not.

This is an order named after and dedicated to a beautiful exchange in Luke's Gospel, when Mary, who has just learned she is carrying the son of God, travels to the country to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant, having long been considered barren. At the sound of Mary's greeting, the infant in Elizabeth's womb leaps and Elizabeth exclaims, "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb."

Mary responds, "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior."

And there we have the Hail Mary and the Magnificat, two of the most poetic pieces of praise the Bible gives us. What a lovely basis for a religious order, whose members and friends have humbly replicated that holy exchange time and time again, across the globe and across the centuries.

St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal founded the Visitation Order on June 6, 1610, in the mountain village of Annecy, France. They took a radical stance by inviting widows to join their order, quashing the conventional 17th-century monastic practices that precluded frail older women: sleeping on boards, keeping late vigils, extensive fasting, and perpetual abstinence from meat. Instead, they emphasized interior discipline, which "must make up for all that," St. Francis wrote. The Visitation Sisters practiced the "little virtues" of kindness, cheerfulness, humility, and gentle strength, encouraging everyone they encountered to "be who you are and be that perfectly well."

That's a line my Visitation classmates and I could recite on cue, and what an apt one for teenage girls. Every day we observed little virtues in the sisters on campus. Their soft smiles and daily prayers blanketed the sharp edges of adolescence.

Today, the seeds St. Francis and St. Jane planted 400 years ago have blossomed around the world, with 11 monasteries and four schools in the U.S., including my alma mater in Mendota Heights, Minn. The Visitation Sisters have waged a celebration that, characteristically, is equal parts cheer and humility. One of their undertakings was a keepsake book, The Visitation: A monastic way of life in the Church (available by emailing visitationbooks@yahoo.com or on Amazon). It crystallizes the order's four-century growth with historical details and vibrant pictures.

"It was one of those wonderful community enterprises," says Sister Mada-Anne Gell, who worked with Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan on the portion highlighting the Georgetown monastery. "We were all checking back and forth. It's a beautiful book."

In addition to the book, the Sisters tapped into modern media to celebrate their anniversary, launching a blog and producing a podcast that shares their beloved spirituality.

On Sunday, members of the international Visitation community will mark 400 years with special Masses, municipal gatherings, television coverage and community celebrations. The 77-member senior class at my alma mater will graduate, and the tradition will continue.

The Visitation is the second joyful mystery of the rosary, which sums up this milestone quite well. To be part of something so deep and full of grace is both a mystery and a joy.  


Guest blogger Christina Capecchi is a regular contributor to U.S. Catholic. She writes a syndicated column, Twenty Something, which can be read on her website ReadChristina.com.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.