By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published July 22, 2004
Fifty years ago the heartfelt desire of a cloistered nun was realized when she founded a monastery of her order in her home state of Georgia.
Mother Francis de Sales Cassidy, a Visitation nun from a Macon Catholic family, brought nine nuns from a Toledo, Ohio, monastery and the spirituality of this contemplative order to the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 1954. With the help of one of her brothers, James Cassidy, and other benefactors, the order acquired a mansion on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta and within its walls created a monastery. The monastery was relocated to Ridgedale Drive in Snellville in the 1970s.
On the 50th anniversary of the Visitation sisters’ monastery in Georgia, Sister Mary Immaculata Collin, VHM, spoke of the spirituality that emanates from the prayer life within the monastery and its attractiveness to people who visit and pray there.
“There is a desire in every human heart to find God and to find peace. They seem to sense there is something here that seems to assist them in their quest. It is the antithesis of superficiality,” said Sister Immaculata, who is the only sister still living among those who made the foundation in 1954.
Entering the doorway of their chapel on Ridgedale Drive, you leave behind the everyday world. Habited nuns warmly smile at visitors while silence engulfs the last sounds that might creep in from the neighborhood outside. Daily altar tasks are done with careful reverence while the sconces gleam and the altar cloth made by the nuns is perfectly pressed. Delicate voices chanting the office are hardly more than a ripple of sound across an otherwise still pond. The nuns in the monastery number 14, yet their spiritual influence is immeasurable.
Every seat on the chapel side that opens to the public was taken on the occasion of their golden jubilee Mass on June 27, and special guests were seated on the cloister side, along with the Sisters of the Visitation.
The monastery has lay benefactors and a group of people who come to Mass there on a regular basis. Members of the Cassidy family have continued their steadfast friendship with the monastery. Other women Religious, including Missionaries of Charity and Hawthorne Dominicans, attended.
Archbishop John F. Donoghue recalled the words of St. Francis de Sales, who said he founded the Visitation order “to give the Church daughters of prayer.”
The archbishop said that the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s gratitude on this occasion “is deep and sincere” both for the prayer offered daily by the nuns for the archdiocese and its people and for the example they give of following the Lord without reservation.
In living this life of poverty, chastity and obedience, setting aside completely the attractions of this world, the nuns help others, the archbishop said.
“Prayer is wonderful, and our life cannot be sustained without it. But example is more wonderful still—for example touches human hearts directly,” he said. “The example of choosing the Lord, of choosing to follow Him is first among all the lessons that we can teach one another, and that we can present for the world’s perusal. Example is the beginning point of all evangelization, of all missionary work.”
While Jesus called those who would follow him to sacrifice even their attachments to parents and loved ones, “not all can accept these words to the fullest degree,” the archbishop said.
“But all can look to the example of those who do, and be filled with encouragement, with hope, and with certainty that those who do accept the fullness of the Lord’s call, do so in part, to make up for the weakness of those who cannot. If our Lord’s commands seem brutal and hard, it is to test the degree of our strength—not to leave us out if we lack the strength—but so that those who have it, may use their strength for the sake of their brethren,” he said. “This is the economy of our Lord’s love—this is the economy of Divine love, as given to us by the Father through the Son. And the Son passed the measure of love at its most demanding, when He died on the Cross for us all. To whatever degree we receive His love in turn, especially through the mystical and real elements of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, then we must pass on that grace, that love, in the way we serve one another.”
The call of the Lord is a call to serve one another through love, the archbishop said, and that call “comes as a shot to our hearts, a bolt of His might upon our consciences, a joyful pain, that radiates from the Cross, eternally forward from the moment our Lord gave Himself to redeem us: and that is the gift of vocation, of hearing and accepting the call—not the path, but the call—the call of the Lord, to serve.”
“On this beautiful occasion . . . we thank God for sending these beautiful nuns to us to pray for this archdiocese and to pray for all of us,” the archbishop concluded.
The order, established in 1610 by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, offers a life of prayer and work within the monastery in order to grow in virtue and holiness. At the moment the Snellville monastery, called Maryfield, has two women in formation, one a novice and one a postulant.
Mother Jozefa Kowalewski, VHM, the superior, said in the modern world it might be easier, rather than harder, to hear the call from Christ to this life.
“Things are so unstable outside. Here you have stability,” Mother Jozefa said. “People probably think our life is very boring. It is not. We pray. We make our work prayer.”
The nuns make their own habits and all the liturgical cloths needed to decorate the altar and required for the celebration of Mass and other liturgical events. They do their own cooking and cleaning throughout the monastery. The primary industry of the nuns is the baking of thousands of hosts used for the celebration of the Eucharist at parishes of the archdiocese.
“We supply many, many parishes,” Mother Jozefa said, and the number of hosts the nuns prepare is constantly increasing. It is a work that easily blends with the prayer of the community as they reflect on the divine transformation that will occur at the consecration of Mass as these hosts become the body of Jesus.
“You don’t just work on prayer only,” within the monastery, Sister Immaculata added. Prayer is the contemplative dimension of their lives, while growing in virtue is the active component, she said. “The active life is the practice of virtue, doing God’s will, practicing patience.”
According to St. Francis de Sales, virtue is found in moderation, “neither excess nor too little,” she said. “Virtue is always in the middle between two extremes . . . (yet) it doesn’t mean mediocrity.”
For example, when it is time to recreate and laugh, “you may not be in the mood. You do it in a good spirit. That is virtue.”
Only loving God cannot be done to excess, she added, “although you can go to excess in expressing it a certain way.”
Progress on this path of holiness is a very human journey. “We say commonly we have a good day and a bad day. We are human beings. It is not a constant ascent.”
At a certain point, she said, human effort gives way to trust in God’s providence and mercy. “You have to trust in God. You are that child God will pick up and carry the rest of the way.”
A doctor of the church and renowned spiritual teacher and writer, St. Francis de Sales always believed that the Visitation order should let laywomen come inside the enclosure for periods of time to share and benefit from their prayer life, Sister Immaculata said.
After Vatican II his vision was brought into practice. At this monastery, several rooms are available for women to come and spend time in retreat, while praying with and even dining with the nuns.
“People can come in and see firsthand exactly what we are talking about. You can come in and see for yourself,” Sister Immaculata said.
At the jubilee Mass, about 60 people filled the chapel to capacity and, following Mass, were served a bountiful brunch to celebrate the occasion.
Alan Cassidy and his wife, Sally; Carin Cassidy Collins and her husband, Steve, and their 11-year-old daughter, Lucy; Carmel Kelly, a great niece of Mother Francis de Sales Cassidy, and her husband, Frank; and Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, a niece of the monastery foundress, were special guests.
Alan Cassidy has carried on the tradition of his father, James, of helping the monastery and advising the superior. The altar in the chapel was donated by the family and is dedicated in their honor. Alan now assists Mother Jozefa in any way needed but finds her “very capable.”
“She is a very outgoing person, very pleasant person,” he said and “she knows how to get things done.”
To Alan and Sister Valentina, the monastery’s foundress was “Aunt Maggie,” the oldest child among 10 Cassidy children, who was born in 1892 and made her profession as a Visitandine when she was 22 years old at their monastery in Washington, D.C.
“She just wanted to give her whole life to prayer. She was a very holy person,” Sister Valentina said. “When we were young, we used to get letters from her, and my brother would read them aloud and say ‘the Gospel according to Aunt Maggie.’ . . . This was a living saint to us. Her letters were just absolutely beautiful.”
Alan Cassidy recalled her lifelong desire to found a monastery in Georgia, which she realized when she was in her 60s, after helping to found a monastery in Toledo, Ohio, and serving as its mistress of novices and superior.
“Aunt Maggie wanted to start a Visitation convent in Georgia. That was her lifelong dream. (The state) was not a hotbed of Catholicism. It was like a mission,” he recalled. “She called upon my father and he responded and helped her to get the first property and then buy this property.”
After serving for eight years as superior of Maryfield, she died in 1965 at the age of 73. She is buried in the cemetery on the grounds of Maryfield along with other Visitation nuns, including six who made the foundation with her.
Sister Immaculata, who was 24 years old when she came with Mother Francis de Sales to Atlanta, recalled her as gentle and a model of religious obedience and patience.
“I lived with her from the time I was 16. I never saw her impatient in all that time,” she recalled. “She was a very gentle person, very kind, very sweet. She was not insipidly sweet. Gentleness would describe it best. She never in all her religious life failed in obedience. She was absolutely exemplary.”