By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published December 10, 2009
Following in the pattern created by St. Jane Frances de Chantal, nuns who belong to the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary are preparing to celebrate their 400th jubilee.
Founded by St. Jane, a widow who sought a life of charity and holiness, and St. Francis de Sales in Annecy, Haute-Savoie, France, in 1610, the order spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to North America. Some 3,000 sisters live in over 150 Visitation monasteries throughout the world, including Brooklyn, N.Y., Minneapolis, St. Louis, the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., where the first Visitation monastery in this country was founded, and Georgia.
Nestled away on 27 acres of land just east of Highway 124 in Snellville sits the Monastery of the Visitation, home to 12 nuns. Their simple, traditional way of life follows the path tested by 400 years of prayer and community. Yet even in this cloistered contemplative monastery, the entire world is displayed.
“Every race is represented,” said Mother M. Jane Frances, mother superior of the Snellville monastery, whom the sisters simply refer to as Mother. “Everyone is as different as night and day.”
The sisters come from Colombia and India as well as New York, California, Oklahoma and Michigan, and over the years in Georgia members have included women from Germany, Nicaragua and Italy as well. They are from all walks of life, many holding bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees.
“But we all have the same goal, that’s the main thing,” chimed in Sister Josefa Maria, the sister superior, who helps Mother Jane Frances with the leadership duties.
St. Francis also welcomed widows, on the condition that they were legitimately free from the care of their children.
Mother Jane Frances said she did not know anything about the Visitation nuns when she attended a retreat with the order in the early 1990s. After that initial visit, she returned to participate in a vocational retreat and began discerning a call to join the order.
“It fit my spiritual life. It fit me,” she said. “You have to have a vocation, especially in a cloister. Once you know you belong, you reconcile yourself to that kind of separation (from your family),” she said.
“We are a close family,” said Mother Jane Frances, adding that it was an adjustment for her children and other relatives when she made her first temporary vows in 1996. Three years later she professed her final solemn vows with the order.
She is currently in her first term as mother superior, elected by the community for three years, which can be renewed one time.
The Atlanta monastery was founded in 1954 under the guidance of Sister Francis de Sales Cassidy, a native of Macon who served as the first mother superior of the new monastery.
During the 1950s and ‘60s the monastery was located on Ponce de Leon Avenue in the Druid Hills neighborhood in a renovated mansion. In 1974, the new monastery was built in Snellville off what was then a dirt road near Highway 124. Mother Jane Frances said the population of Snellville was only 400 at the time. Today it has risen above 20,000.
The order allows for each monastery to be autonomous. Mother Jane Frances answers only to the pope himself. However, each monastery is assigned a religious assistant, who determines if the community is living as a true papal enclosure.
The sisters work after Mass until dinner at noon. Those in formation go to class, which is taught by Mother Jane Frances, while others do various chores around the monastery. After their meal, they gather for recreation and obedience, sharing announcements and prayer requests from the outside community. They return to the chapel for daytime prayer, which is followed by 30 minutes of rest, a part of the community’s rule.
Spiritual reading, work and individual prayer take up most of the afternoon before the sisters gather again for the Divine Office. Their community supper is at 6 p.m. followed by another time for recreation. They come together for night prayer at 8:30 p.m. and then it’s lights out at 10 p.m.
Inside the enclosure is a room with boxes packed full of thousands of unconsecrated hosts that will be unpacked, repacked and sent off to parishes to be used at Masses. The sisters receive the hosts from a company in Poland, ordering new batches monthly. They accommodate the parish orders in this industry, which helps to sustain the monastery.
Even though most visitors never enter the enclosure, the Snellville sisters have become a part of the local community. Many lay people arrive for daily Mass, which is held in the chapel, praying on the opposite side from the sisters, separated yet visible to one another. The Mass is usually celebrated by Father Joseph Mendes, a Missionary of St. Francis de Sales, who is chaplain to the monastery and also serves the St. Marguerite d’Youville parish community in Lawrenceville. The monastery also has several benefactors, who assist in everything from financial concerns to mowing the acreage around the property.
In honor of the 400-year anniversary, each monastery was encouraged to create a book about the order. The Snellville community’s book begins with the lives of its founders and tells the reader about the order through an historical lens.
“Visitation Sisters vow poverty to cut off the ‘powerful attraction of possessions to dissipate the soul,’” the book reads. “They vow chastity, ‘as a wonderful means of belonging completely to God—heart, body, spirit, and emotions.’ They vow obedience as a means of submitting to God’s will through the will of the superior.”
Jubilee Year Offers Special Graces
In honor of the worldwide Jubilee Year for the Visitation order, Pope Benedict XVI has granted a plenary indulgence to those who make a visit to and pray in a Visitation monastery in 2010. This time of prayer should include the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and prayers seeking the aid of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. In addition, as is customary, one should participate in the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist at the same time or within one week of the visit and also offer prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father.
The indulgence can be obtained on the feast of St. Francis de Sales (Jan. 24); the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (May 31); the anniversary of the monastery’s foundation (June 6); the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (June 19); the feast of St. Jane Frances de Chantal (Aug. 12); and on the day when the Jubilee is closed, the feast of St. Margaret Mary (Oct. 16).
It may also be obtained once only on a day chosen by individual members of the faithful or whenever they make a sacred pilgrimage to the monastery as a group.
A plenary indulgence brings the remission of all temporal punishment before God due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.
The Monastery of the Visitation is located at 2055 Ridgedale Drive, Snellville, and the chapel hours are from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“As ‘Daughters of the Church,’ Visitandines are called to ‘assist Holy Church and the salvation of their neighbor by prayer and good example.’ They find their first outreach in the hidden apostolate of prayer,” the book continues.
St. Francis encouraged members of the order to “ask for nothing and receive nothing,” a quote emblazoned on the wall just outside the dining area of the Snellville monastery. The call to live a simple life is depicted well in the backdrop of the sisters’ daily routine.
The simple yet elegant design of the monastery enclosure leads one to offices, dormitories, a chapter room, a library and other gathering places. Also scattered throughout the building are reliquaries housing numerous relics of saints. Surrounding the monastery are open fields, rolling hills and patches of trees and shrubbery. It is a quiet, peaceful oasis only a few miles from the bustling and continuing growth of Snellville.
It takes a minimum of five and a half years to become a fully professed sister of the order. After attending one of the monastery’s vocational retreats, which usually last two weeks to a month, a candidate may enter the community as a postulant. This stage typically lasts for six months, though it can be extended to one year if necessary. At the end of the postulancy, if the order decides the candidate is appropriate, the candidate becomes a novice and receives the order’s habit.
This phase of the vocation process lasts two years, one year as dictated by canon law and one year required by the order. Following this, the candidate takes temporary vows, which last three years. The sister can then take final vows to become a full member of the order.
The Snellville monastery currently has one pre-postulant, a novice and a sister who has taken her first solemn vows. The remaining nine sisters have all taken their final vows.
“It is a nice little family,” said Sister Josefa Maria.
“This is a very congenial group,” said Mother Jane Frances. “But everything here is geared around the Mass. Everything is geared around the Eucharist.”
Mother Jane Frances said the sisters do not own anything, even the habits they wear. Everything is provided by God’s providence through their various benefactors.
“You own nothing, but your sin,” she said.