Visitation Hail To Thee

The impact and legacy of Mobile’s first Catholic girls’ school.

Above The buildings on the monastery grounds, part of which was used to grow food, in 1900. Courtesy Archdiocese of Mobile archives

Bells chime, marking the hour as they pierce the early-morning stillness and echo across Springhill Avenue. Congregants make their way across the driveway toward the chapel, their shoes clicking against the cobblestone drive. If you close your eyes, you can imagine what it was like on these grounds. Ringing laughter, scuffling feet and high-pitched voices sounding together in a singsong chant: “Visitation, Visitation / Visitation girls are we / We will be true / To the red and the blue / Through all eternity.”

“She talked about it very often,” says Marsha Williams. “Everybody my mother had the chance to tell heard that she had attended the Visitation Academy.” A 1947 yearbook photo shows her mother, Sharon (Werneth) Williams, as a bright-eyed fifth grader at the academy. The book contains indications of life at the school, picturing student-produced plays, proms and dances, honor society inductions and spreads of senior portraits, each graduate donning a string of pearls. “My mom was the oldest in her family, so she had two little sisters that only went a year or two, but she went kindergarten through eighth grade,” says Williams. “She was very proud that she went there and loved every minute.”

1944 Visitation Academy graduation Pin

A Visit to Mobile

Just three years after the diocese of Mobile was established in 1829 — and which, at the time, included all of Alabama and part of Florida — four Visitation Sisters arrived from their convent in Georgetown by request of Bishop Michael Portier, the first bishop of Mobile. Tired from their month-long boat journey to Mobile, they were nevertheless eager to take on their new task: educating the girls of Mobile.

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Construction of a permanent convent building and chapel occurred next to the small house where the nuns stayed the first months after their arrival. Architect Claude Beroujon oversaw the process. He was Bishop Portier’s nephew and would later go on to build Spring Hill College and the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Construction went rapidly; the nuns used the ground floor of the convent for education and Mass in May, and occupied the entire building by September. The convent was in its current spot on Springhill Avenue, an area known back then as Summerville. In those days, this stretch of land was technically a Mobile suburb, but considered geographically and socially distinct, separate from the city. Advertisements for the academy promoted the school as being “near Mobile, Alabama” and “three miles distant from the city.”

By May of 1833, the Visitation Academy saw 40 pupils enrolled, accepting both boarders and day students. Before this decade, education for girls was not widely available outside the home. Though it slowly became more commonplace in the United States during the 1830s, it was still in its infancy and was a rarity for most. Parents across the South eagerly sent their daughters to Mobile to attend. The school, while thoroughly Catholic in its teachings and practice, accepted students of varying creeds. An early 1900s Visitation catalog stated, “Difference of religion presents no obstacle to the admission of pupils, provided they conform to the discipline of the academy.” Classes included reading, writing, grammar, math, geography, history, rhetoric, chemistry, philosophy, astronomy, book-keeping, botany, music, art and needlework, with more developing over the years. Teaching students the French language was emphasized, as the order originated in France. Annual tuition ranged from $36 for lower-grade day students to $160 for full boarders.

Left Boarding students at the Visitation Academy would stay on the convent grounds in shared dormitories. Right Students in the Visitation Academy orchestra as pictured in the 1923 yearbook, “The Visitandine Echo.” Images courtesy Visitation Monastery archives.

A Joyful Place

The school was successful and soon in need of expansion. Of the 98 students enrolled in 1851, 86 were boarders. Life was not without its trials, however. Hurricanes and tornadoes caused significant damage periodically throughout the school’s history. The convent and the chapel both caught fire in 1854. It did not seem to dissuade student enrollment, and the convent was rebuilt the next year. And, despite the suffering that accompanied the Civil War, the academy was nearly bursting at the seams, as many parents considered it the safest place to house their daughters during the turmoil. 

School records of the decades immediately following the war are scarce. An 1883 newspaper article from The Daily Register paints a picture of a declining school, stating, “In former times 150 pupils was the average number; since the war 60 is the number.” Despite a waning enrollment period, the school continued its education mission. The girls’ journals from the early 1890s reflect happiness through their hard work. “Hurrah for Mother’s Feast!!!” reads one entry. “Grand doings today. Free girls! Do just as you please. The entertainment we had in the morning was quite a success.” Another entry, written around finals time, reads, “Examinations — Serious Affairs all week…” The serious affairs appeared to pay off as this was followed by an entry several days later, “Hurrah! for Arithmetic. It was a grand success. We never did better in all our lives. We sure did reach the pinnacle of greatness in Arithmetic for the first time and I suppose the last.”

Slowly and steadily, the academy began again to thrive as the 20th century approached. The Sacred Heart Chapel, the nuns’ years-long dream, was completed in April of 1895. Donors contributed to the beautification of the grounds and living spaces. Extracurriculars were varied as the girls participated in music, sports and art. The high school students at the academy founded two sororities, Sigma Alpha and Delta Tau Omega. Holidays called for extravagant celebrations. The day students spent the night at the school on Halloween, dancing until 10 p.m. All students put on an annual play and made stockings on Christmas. The Convent of the Visitation celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1933, giving way to an ornate Mass, a play by the students and a tea to follow.

Changes and Recollections

The arrival of World War II changed many things in Mobile, and the school was not untouched. Expenses skyrocketed everywhere, and the number of boarders at the school again declined. In response, the academy stopped accepting boarders altogether beginning in 1940. However, the jovial atmosphere — and reputation for academic excellence — lived on. Girls longed to attend the academy, including Katherine (Lavallet) Thorworth, who would go on to be a 1944 graduate. “Mother went to Bishop Toolen one or two years,” says daughter Gray Thorworth Zimlich, “but most of her friends were going to Visitation, so she transferred over there. The classes were small, and it was a very loving environment. She was very, very happy there. My grandmother was a widow with two girls and basically no income. The expense of going there would’ve been astronomical, but she figured out a way to do it.” While tuition was expensive, Mobilians sometimes bartered with the nuns, offering services to allow their daughters to attend the school. “My mom went to kindergarten through eighth grade, and she often said that she was the only ‘unrich’ person that went there,” says Williams. “And she always said that no one ever treated her any differently. Her father worked at a paper mill at International Paper. But in grade school, he was friends with some girls who later became nuns at the Visitation. They needed a maintenance man to do some things around the property, and they had known him his whole life. So, they bartered for him to do minor plumbing and electrical work and let her go to school.” Her mother began kindergarten at the academy in 1942. “When she started, there were only two girls who were in kindergarten, her and another girl named Madeline, I remember mom saying,” says Williams. “She said how absolutely gorgeous the grounds and their classrooms were. She just had everything good to say about the school and how much they talked to her about the arts, music and things that she felt she wouldn’t have gotten at other schools.”

She wasn’t the only one grateful for a liberal-arts education. Meri (Turrentine) Lauten, a graduate of 1943, came upon a love of the arts that would remain with her for the rest of her life. “My mom told me that they did oil painting and sculpture. At the time, that was not a part of the curriculum in the regular schools,” says daughter Mimi Fowlkes. “She felt like she was the best of the best because she got to go to this great school. I said to her one day, ‘Where do you think you got this love and interest for art?’ She said, ‘Oh, it’s definitely from the sisters at the Visitation.’ She said when they were in school, they did things in their art class that nobody else anywhere that she knew of was doing. They had a kiln, and they hand-painted bisque china. I still use some of the china that she painted.” This activity developed the girls’ artistic skills and created much-needed income for the convent. “The nuns were very enterprising and knew that people loved their china,” says Fowlkes, “so they would get their students to hand paint it and sign it on the back ‘Visitation Academy,’ and they sold it to Mobilians. People in Mobile have sets of this china that are 100 years old.” The nuns also encouraged their students to continue their education at college, which many did. “My mother said she felt very academically prepared to go to college,” says Fowlkes, something many young ladies at the time didn’t feel.

Despite the quality of education, more changes were on the horizon. Income was scarce, and vocations at the convent were dwindling. After the graduation of the class of 1948, the Visitation Sisters closed the high school. Georgia (Witham) Johnson was a member of the school’s last graduating class. “My mother lived on Springhill Avenue and was within walking distance of returning home for lunch,” says daughter Carolyn Rakers. “The nuns at the convent were cloistered and never left the grounds. To enter the private area for classes, the students had to stand in a turnabout that was spun around from the public to the private side, allowing the girls to exit into the convent area for classes. Classes were dismissed at lunch that year, and the girls enjoyed Bay parties and free time in the afternoon.” Despite the shortened class times, the girls still participated in extracurriculars. “During my mother’s time at the Visitation Academy, she was the assistant editor and staff artist for the yearbook,” says Rakers.

Just four years after the high school closed, the grammar school followed suit. Annette Dukes remembers attending the grammar school in the last years of the Visitation Academy. “I seem to remember that I left the year it closed,” she says. “There were nine of us in my class, just nine girls.” While the nuns spent most of their day teaching formal lessons, the life lessons they taught along the way were just as valuable. “One day, one of the little girls in first grade had an accident and got her uniform wet,” says Dukes. “And, of course, being first graders, the rest of us were about to snicker and giggle. The nuns realized what happened, and one of them took her by the hand and gently took her to the other room. Another started chatting with us about something else. They took the little girl to the cloister and washed her uniform. We just had a little longer recess that day. And it was never mentioned. The lesson it taught me was you don’t laugh at people. You help them. To this day, I remember that.” The grammar school’s closing marked the end of an era at the Visitation, both for the nuns and for the students.

The Visitation Remodels

After the final closure, the school building became a retreat house. Men’s groups, women’s groups and Catholic schools in Mobile began to hold yearly retreats at the monastery. “I remember going to the Visitation for a senior retreat,” says Zimlich. “Ironically, when I went on the retreat, I got word that a nun there wanted to see me, and I thought, ‘Well, this is odd.’ So, I went, and they were behind the grate. You really couldn’t see them very well. And she says, ‘I just wanted to meet you. I dated your grandfather.’ And I just went, ‘Oh, really?’” she laughs. “It had been a long time ago at that point. She had seen my name and, one way or another, figured it out. It was really something. It was funny, and she was just delightful.”

Not long after the schools closed, the Visitation Sisters hit confectionary gold with their Heavenly Hash. They built a candy kitchen in 1957, and what started as a small means of income quickly caught on. The candy’s popularity spread throughout the country; nevertheless, the nuns refused to convert the sweets into the booming business they could have been, preferring to keep production at a level compatible with their vocation. The Historic Mobile Preservation Society gave the convent a marker in 1967 due to its historical role in Mobile. The Visitation Shop opened in 1981 in the old chaplain’s residence, selling books, religious items and, naturally, the nuns’ Heavenly Hash, which often sells out.

“I hated having to leave when the grammar school closed,” says Dukes. “It was absolutely wonderful. I don’t have one bad memory of it at all and I loved it. I go to the Visitation Shop and have happy memories even just driving through the yard.” Though the school was no more, several students stayed active at the Visitation. Mary (Johnson) Perez, a 1938 academy graduate, was lifelong friends with several classmates and remained close with the nuns. “As her daughter, I always remember her fond memories of the Visitation and her continuous dedication to them into her adult life,” says daughter Susu Stuardi. “After retreats, she would go up and help make beds. She would go there all the time and help the nuns do whatever they needed. Mom and Dad would bring them ham and potato salad on holidays — and, of course, the Heavenly Hash always made for great Christmas gifts!” Several former students brought their daughters to the Visitation to see the place they loved. “Before my mother passed, she took me to the Visitation Academy in the 90s,” says Rakers. “The large entrance gate to the grounds was beautiful and quite impressive. We were able to enter the convent area, and I loved the huge trees and gazebo.” Fara Ward, a former Visitation Academy student, now works at the Visitation Shop on Saturdays. “I went to the school for the first eight years of my education,” she says. “I would say probably around ‘43 or ‘44. They closed after we finished our eighth grade. It was good because you met a lot of people that you wouldn’t normally meet. And the nuns were always teaching us right and wrong, what to do and what not to do. As we got to the sixth through the eighth grade, there were only 18 of us in the school just before they closed.” Now, she enjoys sharing her memories of the school to customers who stop by and her coworkers at the shop. “I can tell a lot of stories and they don’t get tired of listening to me,” she laughs. “What’s even better is when someone who went to school here when you did comes into the shop. We love to share memories.”

The former Visitation Academy students have taken to heart the lessons instilled in them by the nuns and passed their stories, memories and treasures down through the generations. On a slip of paper in Sharon (Werneth) Williams’ 1947 yearbook, handwritten in neat cursive, is the Visitation’s Alma Mater: “Hail our alma mater / fairest of the fair / Loyalty our motto be / through eternity / Guiding hands to lead our way / through the dangers of the day / Visitation hail to thee for we love thee.”

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