Georgetown Visitation dedicates new facilities enhancing arts and science education
Dec 18, 2019
For more than six decades, Visitation Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan has played a leading role at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., and earlier this fall, a building named in her honor was dedicated on the campus, ensuring that her legacy will continue to touch the lives of young women there for generations to come.
Speaking at the end of a Mass preceding the Oct. 5 dedication ceremony for Georgetown Visitation’s new Berchmans Hall and the Saints Connector, Dan Kerns – now the Head of School emeritus there – said, “As we dedicate a building in her honor, we celebrate what Sister Mary Berchmans has done for Visitation and what she means to each of us.”
Kerns noted that she graduated from the school in 1948 and its former junior college in 1950, later entering the Visitation order and serving as a teacher and Head of School there, and as its president and as the monastery’s superior and a national leader in the Visitation order. She also oversaw the reconstruction efforts of the school’s main academic building after it was destroyed by a fire in 1993.
“Sister Berchmans has done it all… And above all, she has been a mentor and a friend,” Kerns said, praising her for designing innovative academic and faith formation programs there and building a successful school that meets the needs of young women, while honoring the traditions of the 220-year-old school – founded in 1799 as the first Catholic girls’ school in the original 13 states.
“Everything Sister Berchmans has done has been directed to honor God, the Master Craftsman,” Kerns said, praising her as a visionary leader and a woman of faith. “This has been her craft, and all her accomplishments have been earned with humility, grace and courage.”
Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, making his first visit to Georgetown Visitation, celebrated a Mass before the dedication ceremony. During his prayer of blessing for the new facilities, the archbishop asked God to “make it a center where students and teachers, imbued with the words of truth, will search for the wisdom that guides the Christian life and strive wholeheartedly to stand by Christ as their teacher…”
After sprinkling Berchmans Hall and the Saints Connector with holy water, Archbishop Gregory joined Sister Berchmans as a bronze sculpture of her was unveiled in the hall, done by artist Brendan O’Neill.
Berchmans Hall, a two-story wing added to Visitation’s St. Joseph’s Hall, includes an art studio and classrooms for math and science and laboratories featuring state-of-the-art technology including interactive boards that can project what’s on a computer screen or iPad, enabling the school to expand its STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programming.
The Saints Connector is an addition connecting the school’s St. Bernard’s Library and St. Joseph’s Hall. The connector offers a communal space for students and teachers to meet outside the classroom and also houses the Sister Mary de Sales McNabb Innovation Lab named in honor of a longtime math and science teacher there. In that lab, students can work with computers, machine tools, a 3-D printer and other equipment to design and create a range of things, including robots and stage sets.
Concluding his remarks, Kerns mentioned several Visitation Sisters by name who had impacted students at the campus over the years, noting that, “As we dedicate the Saints Connector and Berchmans Hall, we celebrate not only Sister Berchmans but also the selfless service of the Sisters of the Visitation for over two centuries… I know that Sister Berchmans feels strongly that this is their day, as well as her own.”
Those additions were made possible by Georgetown Visitation’s recent capital campaign, the most successful in its history, that raised more than $25 million. The campaign also provided a future endowment for the school and funded the opening of its St. Jane de Chantal Salesian Center that fosters the Visitation Sisters’ Salesian spirituality among the students, faculty and alumnae. That drive also provided funds for the school’s McNabb Field, also named for Sister Mary de Sales McNabb, which features a turf field and new scoreboard, and the new Sheehy Dining Hall there named for alumna Helen McKenna Sheehy.
In a later interview, Sister Berchmans, who is 88, said it’s exciting to see the technology in the new classrooms and labs there and know the possibilities for the future now being offered to young women there.
She noted that the school has a “rich history,” as it has educated many generations of young women, through several wars and the Depression.
In his prayer at the dedication ceremony, Archbishop Gregory noted that they gathered in gratitude for the architects and artisans who designed and built the buildings, for the donors who made the work possible, for the Sisters of the Visitation who founded and led the school, and for “those who were enslaved here years ago, whose lives, labors and sacrifices were also the foundation for this community.”
In 2018, Georgetown Visitation issued an extensive report on the history of enslaved people at the school in the years before emancipation in the District of Columbia, noting that the project’s goal was to honestly evaluate the past and encourage critical thinking, reflection and prayer and action in the monastery and school community.
“That’s a painful period of our history,” Sister Berchmans said.
Reflecting on her vocation, Sister Berchmans noted that she entered the Visitation order 69 years ago, making her temporary vows in 1952 and then her permanent vows in 1955. She became Head of School there in 1969, and 20 years later became its president, serving in that role until 2007, when she became its president emerita.
“It’s my life,” she said, describing Georgetown Visitation as “a grace-filled place. I learned so much from the sisters who were here.”
Sister Berchmans added, “We are trying to prepare our girls to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing and morally complex world, and we hope they will graduate as women of faith, vision and purpose.”
Reflecting on the school’s new additions, Leonor Ponzio, a 1997 Visitation graduate who serves as the director of educational technology there, said the advanced features being offered in those classrooms and labs will foster “creative collaboration and problem solving” among students.
“We have the facility. Now the sky’s the limit,” she said.
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