By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 5, 2008
Mother Mary Jane Frances Williams is the new leader of the cloistered nuns at the Visitation Monastery, a religious community that spends hours a day in chapel.
She’s also a convert, a mother of nine children with more than two dozen grandchildren.
A mother as a nun doesn’t raise any eyebrows here. In fact, another widow with children started the religious community. St. Jane Frances de Chantal was a baroness in 17th century France and founded the order when she was widowed at 28 with four children.
St. Francis de Sales worked with St. Jane Frances to begin the religious community, formally known as the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.
Mother Jane Frances said as the superior she relies on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help her decision making.
“You can’t rely on yourself,” she said.
The Visitation sisters arrived in Atlanta in 1954, living in an old mansion in Atlanta’s Druid Hills. In the mid-1970s, the community moved to the suburban community of Snellville in Gwinnett County.
Today, 11 sisters live, work and pray at the convent.
“We’re kind of like the U.N.,” said Mother Jane Frances, who trained to be a nurse after her children were older. Sisters born in India, the Philippines and Canada are sprinkled in the community.
They no longer bake communion wafers to support themselves. Instead, they supply “several hundred thousand” hosts imported monthly from Poland to about 100 parishes in the Atlanta Archdiocese, along with churches in Florida, Illinois and Maryland.
Mother Jane Frances has deep roots in her native Oklahoma. Her mother was born there when it was still considered Indian Territory. She also knows her football.
At 16, she knew she wanted to join the Catholic Church from the Disciples of Christ Protestant tradition, where her father was a deacon. Two years later, she joined the church. Her late husband, a colonel in the Army National Guard and leader in the business community, was also a convert. The couple made a decision to enter the church before they were wed.
Mother Jane Frances was elected May 9 as the superior of the Monastery of the Visitation in Snellville. It is a three-year term. She has been novice mistress at the 27-acre Visitation Monastery for the last three years. She declined to give her age, paraphrasing Marlene Dietrich: “A woman who tells her age will tell anything.”
The nuns of the Visitation are a cloistered community, spending at least five hours a day in prayer in the chapel.
“A true contemplative isn’t so much what you do, but who you are,” she said.
The order’s charism is “gentleness toward our neighbor and humility toward our God,” said Mother Jane Frances.