The bell on the front door tings, signaling my mid-afternoon arrival. I step shyly inside, joining a handful of people perusing the Visitation Shop, thoughtfully admiring artwork, christening gowns and home decor. A silver and pearl ring on display in the entryway catches my eye, momentarily distracting me of my original goal. I’ve come in search of a trifecta. Of candy, that is, specifically the milk chocolate, marshmallow and pecan treat known as Heavenly Hash.
I make a mental note to return to the ring, and I press on in search of Colleen Blackwell, the store manager. She meets me in the hall and affirms they have what I’ve come for. But as it turns out, I’ll be leaving with far more than just confection.
“A lot of people think they aren’t allowed to come back here,” Blackwell says of the store’s location, which is down a short gravel drive off Springhill Avenue, the entrance flanked by a gate and brick wall. “Or they think they have to be Catholic to come in,” says Joanie Zoghby, busy thumbing through old photographs. She looks up and smiles when I admit I had worried the same. Indeed, all denominations are welcome, and I settle in to listen to what the two women — who, combined, have 40 years’ experience at the shop — have to share about the monastery.
“There are a lot of hidden treasures over there,” Zoghby says, nodding her head to the right, as Blackwell leads me out into the spring air toward Sacred Heart Chapel, adjacent the store. Inside the silent sanctuary painted by sunlit stained glass, Blackwell points out a crucifix on the wall, whispering it’s the one Dr. Samuel Mordecai was able to save during the 1854 fire that destroyed the original chapel. From our side of the delicate mesh screen separating the cloistered nuns’ domain from the outside world, we see Sister Christiana enter the chapel, clothed in the traditional black habit. Unaware of us, she begins praying the Stations of the Cross.
Originally founded in 1833 as the Visitation Convent and Academy, the Visitation Monastery is home to about 20 Sisters, all devoted to a simple, contemplative life of prayer. Their daily schedule includes times for reflection, corporate and individual prayer, and work, such as laundry, gardening, caring for the infirm and cooking. Questions roll through my mind, such as, “Where is the candy made?” Instead, I ask how the monastery is financially sustained. Simply put, support is trifold: community donations, year-round retreats and gift shop proceeds.
Not unlike the rest of the world, the Visitation struggled in 2020, not only with the pandemic canceling retreats and closing the shop temporarily, but also with back-to-back hurricanes wiping out electricity. “I had to bring in generators to keep the Sisters’ refrigerated food from spoiling,” Blackwell says, now leading me into the retreat quarters.
In the peaceful solemnity of the parlor, my eyes lilt from one thing to another, finally landing on portraits of the McGill brothers, Felix and Arthur, two early benefactors.
On our stroll back to the shop, I ask about one nun in particular. Sister Theodosia, I’ve read, is the Polish octogenarian in charge of making Heavenly Hash, the candy many Mobilians call “addictive.” The Sister, along with the help of others, churns out about 3,000 pounds of the handmade delicacy per year. It’s grueling work involving industrial-sized mixers, heavy mixtures and lots of cutting and weighing.
“Sister Theodosia weighs every box that leaves the kitchen,” Blackwell says of the half-pound and pound boxes they sell. “She’s confined to a wheelchair now, but she’s still very much involved in the three-day process.”
Around 1957, the Sisters began selling Heavenly Hash on a much smaller scale, but it wasn’t long before their chocolaty public relations entity exploded. Over 60 years later, and with mentions in Southern Living, Taste of the South and a Garden & Gun readers’ poll, demand is higher than ever.
“The nuns are aware of the candy’s popularity,” Blackwell explains, “but their focus is on prayer, not on production.” She goes on to say that making and giving candy is one way in which the Sisters say “thank you” to the community.
At this point, I begin to wonder if the “hidden treasures” Zoghby alluded to earlier are the religious relics found at every twist and turn or the nuns themselves.
Back in my car, I slip the new ring onto my finger before tearing into the plastic-wrapped white box encasing a half-pound of chocolate hash. “It is addictive,” I say to myself, reaching for a second piece, this time reflecting on the afternoon.
I think about the Sisters’ devotion to their calling. I think about the volunteers and staff I met — from office workers to groundskeepers — who keep the monastery running. And I think about Sister Theodosia, wheeling into the candy kitchen, meticulously packaging and metering box after box.
“I do it with a sense of love,” she once said of candy making during a Press-Register interview. And gratitude, of course. And for that, we are the thankful ones.