Back to School
Georgetown Visitation’s new leader looks forward to continuing school’s legacy of faith and learning
Sep 17, 2019
Reflecting on her first job in Catholic education -- teaching kindergarten at Holy Family School in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland, in 1992 – Dr. Barbara Edmondson said, “It really felt like home for me.”
Her career then wound through Catholic school leadership at the parish, diocesan and national level, and this July, she became the new Head of School at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, D.C.
And for her, assuming the helm at the historic school – founded in 1799 by the Sisters of the Visitation, the first Catholic girls school in what was then the new United States – involves continuing a very special educational legacy.
“I feel like Visitation is sacred ground… This is sacred ground in so many ways,” Edmondson said in an interview.
Three days earlier on Sept. 8, she had been installed as Visitation’s new leader during a Mass at the school’s Nolan Center, where the school’s sisters, board members, faculty and staff, alumnae, parents and students prayed for her and presented her with special gifts that now decorate her office.
In the interview, she also spoke of another gift that she has experienced there since her first day – the faith of the Visitation Sisters, who live in a monastery adjoining the school, and who pray for the students, teachers and staff there every day.
“It was such a joy knowing all the sisters were here,” she said.
She said the sisters’ Salesian charism, inspired by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal who founded the religious order in France in 1610 continues to shape students’ education and daily life at Georgetown Visitation. She said the Salesian “little virtues,” including patience, humility and gentleness, are tangible there.
“I hope I can carry the tradition on. Visitation educates women of faith, vision and purpose. I hope I can be a role model for that,” Edmondson said.
Most recently, she served as chief leadership and program officer at the National Catholic Educational Association, overseeing development of a vision for Catholic school education in the United States.
From 2010-17, Edmondson was the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, overseeing 68 schools, including 13 independent high schools. In 2017, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori honored her with the Doris Musil Award for Excellence in Catholic Education for her work in that archdiocese directing the development of a school governance model, revising curriculum, establishing a comprehensive teacher certification protocol and developing partnerships with three Catholic universities.
Earlier in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, she was the founding principal of the School of the Incarnation, a new interparish elementary school in Gambrills, Maryland, from 2000-2010. While Incarnation’s principal, the Archdiocese of Baltimore named her its Distinguished Principal in 2004.
Speaking of her work in founding the School of the Incarnation, Edmondson said, “I had the opportunity to start with 50 kids in the parish center. That school has 850 students now. Every day (there) was a first. Every day was a blessing.”
After beginning her career in Catholic education at Holy Family School in Hillcrest Heights, where she served as a kindergarten teacher for one year and worked as an assistant to the principal, she taught kindergarten at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Washington.
From 1995 to 2000, Edmondson served as the first lay principal of St. Ambrose School in Cheverly, continuing the legacy of the Benedictine sisters who had staffed the school.
“Cheverly is an incredible community. It was a great place for raising your young children,” said Edmondson, whose oldest daughter Casey started as a kindergarten and first grade student at St. Ambrose.
Edmondson noted that Catholic education has been central to her family’s life since then. She and her husband Joe – an attorney whom she met when he was studying in the law school at George Washington University and she was in graduate school there – have sent their four children to Catholic schools through the years. Their older daughters Casey and Bethany graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis. The Edmondsons’ daughter Bridget graduated from Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, Maryland, and is now a senior at The Catholic University of America. And their son Liam, after attending Calvert Hall in Towson, Maryland, is now a junior at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C.
“My ministry as a Catholic school teacher and administrator has really shaped my family,” Edmondson said, noting she appreciated how her children by attending Catholic schools received “an experience of community and knowing the Lord,” and enduring lessons about “what’s the good and right thing to do” in life, and that “they have a responsibility to take care of others.”
“They’ve gone to schools steeped in service. Giving back is part of their life,” she said.
Edmondson, a native of New Jersey, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in educational psychology from Montclair State University before earning her doctorate in human development at George Washington University. Her dissertation was on identity development in adolescents.
As the new Head of School at Georgetown Visitation, Edmondson succeeds Dan Kerns, who retired earlier this year after joining the school in 1986 and becoming its first lay leader in 1989. As the Head of School at Visitation over the past three decades, Kerns strengthened the school’s academic curriculum, enhanced its financial aid program and oversaw the development of the rebuilt Founders Hall after a fire devastated the main building there in 1993. During his leadership, the school also opened the Nolan Center for the Performing Arts and the Fisher Athletic Center.
Dr. Edmondson’s Installation Mass was celebrated by Father Jim Greenfield, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who serves as the president of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. They attended graduate school and taught courses together at George Washington University before earning their doctorate degrees there.
“You get the real deal by being in her presence,” he said of his longtime friend.
Visitation Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan, the school’s president emerita and monastery superior there, presided at the installation ceremony after Communion.
“Georgetown Visitation is a monastery and a school, but most of all, we are a community,” said Sister Mary Berchmans. “Today we come together as branches of a 400-year-old Salesian family tree to welcome Dr. Edmondson in her vocation as leader and steward of our school mission, our Salesian heritage and our Visitation charism.”
During the ceremony, Edmondson was presented with gifts, including framed images from the Visitation Sisters representing their coat of arms and the school’s legacy, a statue of the Visitation of St. Mary greeting her cousin St. Elizabeth as a sign of welcome from the school’s alumnae association, a handmade glass bowl from the parents association, a vase from the student body, a photograph of the school’s faculty and staff, and a lamp from the school’s board of directors.
In her acceptance speech, Edmondson praised the school’s 220-year Catholic educational legacy providing “an ever-evolving educational experience that readies our students to meet the challenges of a complex world, yet one that will always remain rooted in our charism of love and optimism, a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit on the Visitation Sisters, and which is the wellspring from which this community is nourished.”
Moments later, she said her relationships with women family and friends “and my lifelong commitment to leadership as a professional woman… have ushered me to this moment where I enthusiastically accept the duties of the Head of School and the responsibility to champion girls’ education in our beautiful Catholic tradition.”
Later that week during the interview, she showed a visitor her office, now decorated with the gifts from the school community, along with other keepsakes old and new.
Settling into her new work, Edmondson noted how Sister Mary Berchmans has spent time to visit with her during the transition. “I feel like I can learn so much from all the sisters… We’ve really become friends very quickly, and what a blessing that is.”
Edmondson also noted how she has enjoyed the students’ presence as the school year has begun at Georgetown Visitation. “The students are what makes Visitation come alive every day… Everywhere I go, there is a sisterhood.”
She added that she hopes to start having lunch with the seniors, and get to know the names of all 508 girls attending the school.
Just as she felt at home as she began teaching kindergarten nearly three decades ago at Holy Family School, Edmondson now feels at home as the new Head of School at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School.
“I felt the reason I was called to Visitation was because of my own personal and spiritual journey,” she said.
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