Nuns say goodbye to home after 100 years of solitude

September 11, 1993|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Staff Writer

WILMINGTON, Del. -- The constant bells are silent today at the venerable monastery founded here 100 years ago by one of '' Baltimore's wealthiest women.

After a century of prayer and life secluded behind ivy-clad Brandywine stone walls, the Sisters of the Visitation have closed their Bancroft Parkway home and chapel.

The keys to their square block of prime residential Wilmington real estate are to be turned over to a developer Monday as the sisters move to western Massachusetts for a new beginning of prayer and contemplation -- away from the city.

The monastery's benefactress was Mary Louise Abell, one of Baltimore's richest women when, in the early 1890s, she decided to join the Order of the Visitation, a Roman Catholic sisterhood founded in France in 1610.

The daughter of A. S. Abell, founder of The Baltimore Sun, she had lived in a palatial Charles Street home a few paces from the Washington Monument.

But she sought a different life.

She was given the name Sister Mary Joseph and ultimately disposed of her wealth to build other Visitation houses in Ottawa and Toledo, Ohio.

She died in 1922 and was buried behind the walls her fortune built in Wilmington. Her remains and those of the other deceased sisters were disinterred last month. All will be reburied in Massachusetts.

Yesterday, the last three of the community's 21 sisters were leaving the walls they held so sacred for the promise of 117 acres in the Berkshires.

On Oct. 9, the sisters will break ground for a new monastery on a wooded site at Tyringham, Mass.

In the meantime, they are living in interim quarters in Pittsfield, Mass.

"We loved our old house, but it is no longer adequate for our needs. We want something more secluded for the contemplative life," said Mother Margaret Mary, the order's superior.

Designed by Philadelphia architect Adrian Worthington Smith in a mixture of mission and Romanesque styles, the old monastery was built at a cost of $140,000 in 1893 dollars.

A terra-cotta tile roof tops a building of charcoal-gray Brandywine stone and lighter Avondale sandstone.

All of this is being demolished for new semidetached houses. Some of the massive Brandywine granite masonry chunks will be transported to the sisters' new Massachusetts home, along with many pieces of religious art.

Life behind the walls meant for each sister having a small cell, or bedroom, overlooking a lush garden dominated by huge, majestic beech trees.

The pace of monastery life was measured by bells that began ringing at 6 a.m. and continued periodically until 8:30 p.m., calling the sisters variously to chanting, prayer, meals, chores and recreation.

Every room was dedicated to a different virtue: silence, modesty, cordiality, humility, purity of heart, discretion, wisdom, sweetness, obedience, generosity.

Above the elevator, a 20th-century addition, was stenciled, "Charity is ascending."

"There was a peace here," said Catherine Meyer, a Wilmington resident who over the years came to the sisters' chapel for an annual Sacred Heart novena. "There was no other place like it. You felt you were privileged to walk through that door.

"The nuns do not have an easy life. I always knew you had to have the vocation, the call from God to live the life, but I never realized they had to learn to live a strict religious rule as well. When you walk through here, you can see the regulation and sense of purpose."

Hundreds of curious bidders lined up last week to inspect the 1,071 individual auction lots and a building that proved to be an immaculately preserved relic of the 1890s.

Many came for a final look. Some asked for permission to clip sprigs of ivy or to take a rosebush or peony from the garden. Others just looked and clutched handkerchiefs.

When a visitor remarked on the size and grace of an old, heavily timbered room the sisters called "Mother's Cabinet," Sister Joan Bernadette had a ready reply: "When you work for the Lord, sometimes you get amenities."

Auctioneer John J. McGrellis moved through items as diverse as flatirons, cabinets, picture frames and an old zither. The sale lasted 11 hours. Every doorpost and washbasin was sold.

"This was a very strong auction. I might never again experience one like it," Mr. McGrellis said after the auction. "A lot of people, both Catholic and Protestant, were curious to see what was behind those big stone walls."

He would describe the proceeds only as "substantial."

Many buyers came because they were curious, but others wanted a memento.

"I have to remind myself why I'm here. I'm not violating the nature of the community. The move represents positive change for the sisters," said Bill Shea, who spent $90 on a wooden box of old door and window hardware as a souvenir of the Visitation Nuns.

The families of some of the sisters also attended the sale.

Jim and Joe Hanley drove from their home in Phoenix, in Baltimore County. Their 99-year-old aunt, Sister Mary Stephanie, has resided at this monastery since 1977 after other Visitation nuns left a similar home in Baltimore's Roland Park neighborhood.

Helen Mazzuca drove to the auction with her mother, Mary Loretta Offutt of Barnesville in Montgomery County, Md., because their aunt is the community's oldest member, 101-year-old Sister Mary Sulpice.

"I bought a crucifix. I just needed something to remember this wonderful place," said Mrs. Mazzuca, who lives in Washington.

The crucifix had hung on one of the monastery's plaster walls so liberally stenciled with quotations from the writings of St. Francis de Sales, a Frenchman who helped found the order. Among them was this

"Lose not your interior peace for anything . . . for what are all things in this life compared to peace of the soul."

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