Mass on 25th anniversary of Visitation fire celebrates how faith sparked school’s renewal after tragedy
July 30, 2018
Twenty-five years ago, a fire broke out at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School’s historic main building on 35th Street in Northwest Washington. It destroyed some of the almost 200-year-old school’s most treasured features; the wide wooden staircase that led students up and down to class, the fourth floor that saw many a student hide away on the windowsills that overlooked the city, the Odeon that planted a love of theater in so many Visitation thespians, and the chapel, that hosted nearly two centuries of prayer.
“There are certain days where everyone knows exactly where they were,” Head of School Dan Kerns wrote in a recent email to alumnae. “If you were part of the Visitation community 25 years ago, one of those days is July 8, 1993.”
From tragedy, strength
On July 8, 2018, the Visitation community gathered for Mass to commemorate and celebrate that devastating day that brought billows of dark smoke that could be seen in Arlington, and a stench of burnt wood that would take months to dissipate, but which also brought swells of strength, faith, and hope that showcased the unyielding community that Visitation always was.
“Everyone saw the strength in our community,” said Olivia Wills Kane, a 1985 graduate of the school ‘who worked as its admissions director at the time of the fire and is today the director of the St. Jane de Chantal Salesian Center at Visitation. “Our mission was visible to everyone because it was being lived out in that moment.”
Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan who was president of Visitation at the time coined the phrase that would define the school in the decades after the fire, “The Spirit Rebuilds the Place.” The main building which dated back to the 1800s was rebuilt with added modern commodities like air conditioning and computer wiring, and then using the need to rebuild the school after the fire as a springboard, Sister Berchmans was able to start a campaign to build a gym and redesign the old gym into a performing arts center.
“July 8, 1993 was a day which was fraught, but we knew God was there,” Sister Berchmans said after the anniversary Mass, in the same chapel that was once destroyed.
‘Day of thanksgiving’
Father Leo O'Donovan, the celebrant of the anniversary Mass, was president of neighboring Georgetown University in 1993 and was one of the first people to rush to Visitation to offer assistance, housing and dinner for the sisters while the fire raged.
“This is a day of thanksgiving and gratitude, of friendship and family in many senses,” he said in his homily. “It is a celebration of courage and hope, of remembered terror and all but miraculous triumph, of still almost palpable alarm followed by the admirable resolve of generous individuals and an historic community that rose to a challenge they had never imagined they might face. This is the day of vision remembered and vision reborn. It is the day of the great fire that could have ended our dreams but instead gave them new and vibrant life.”
Alumnae, parents, current and former teachers, administrators and Visitation sisters attended the Mass. Barbara Jones ‘58 chaired the Visitation Board in 1993 and worked alongside Sister Berchmans, Dan Kerns and others to chart a path forward after the fire.
“We had the kind of nourishment and structure to endure this kind of of catastrophic event,” she told the congregation after the Mass. And people came from all over to help during and after the fire, “because people love this school,” she said: An assembly line of fathers of Visitation students ushered out priceless works of art including an 1821 painting of Jesus, Mary and Martha in prayer which Charles X of France had donated to the sisters; a Jesuit priest, Father Paul Tipton saved the Blessed Sacrament; Sister Mada-anne Gell grabbed the sisters’ vow book which dates back to 1816 as well as a samplers from 1799 depicting the school.
“Thus we learned again, and more deeply, how close the Providence of God is – but also how the merciful and provident God is always beyond our imaginings and comprehension: an ever greater God,” Father O’Donovan said. “And that is perhaps the greatest lesson of all.”
Julie O’Malley Moeller, ‘93, who attended the Mass with her two children said, “The Mass was a beautiful reminder of the power of community and the unique spirit that has long blessed Visitation.”
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