Visitation Order —The nuns of the Visitation of Mary, called also Filles de Sainte-Marie, Visitandines, and Salesian Sisters, were founded in 1610 at Annecy in the Duchy of Savoy by St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, and by St. Jane de Chantal. Their aim was to secure the benefit of the religious life for persons who had neither the physical strength nor the attraction for the corporal austerities at that time general in religious orders. St. Francis wished especially to apply in souls of good will and in a permanent institution the spiritual method dear to him: to reach God chiefly through interior mortification and to endeavor to do in every action only the Divine Will with the greatest possible love. The Visitation is therefore the principal work of St. Francis de Sales, the perpetuation of his doctrine and spirit, the living commentary on the “Introduction I la vie devote” and the “Traite de l’amour de Dieu”.
At first the founder had not a religious order in mind; he wished to form a congregation without external vows, where the cloister should be observed only during the year of novitiate, after which the sisters should be free to go out by turns to visit the sick poor. This was why he called his institute the Visitation. This project was quite different from the idea realized later by St. Vincent de Paul in the Sisters of Charity, for what the bishop desired above all was the contemplative life; to this he added visitation of the sick, but merely by way of devotion. The undertaking was begun on Trinity Sunday, June 6, 1610. The Baronne de Chantal, a widow, native of Burgundy, was destined to be the first superioress. Marie Jacqueline Favre, daughter of the Savoyard jurisconsult Antoine Favre, and Mlle Charlotte de Brechard, a Burgundian, accompanied the foundress as did also a servant, Anne-Jacqueline Coste, destined to be the first outdoor sister of the Visitation. After having received the bishop’s blessing they assembled in the house of “la Galerie”, still standing, in a suburb of Annecy. Trials, especially those arising from ridicule, were not wanting to the young congregation. People did not readily understand the mild and simple rule of the new institute. Superficial observers did not take into account that the bishop was in his conduct and direction really the most mortified of all the saints. Nevertheless the novices arrived, and the names of two, Peronne-Marie de Chatel and Marie-Amee de Blonay, have remained noted in the history of the Visitation.
When the establishment was an accomplished fact (1615) Archbishop de Marquemont of Lyons undertook to persuade the founder to follow the common practice and erect his congregation into a religious order under the Rule of St. Augustine, with the cloister imposed by the Council of Trent. At first the saint resisted. It cost him much to abandon the sick poor and leave to his daughters only the apostolate of prayer and sacrifice, but he eventually yielded. He then (1616) undertook the compilation of the “Constitutions pour les religieuses de la Visitation Sainte-Marie”. The Church has thus characterized this work: “He had added to the Rule of St. Augustine constitutions which are admirable for wisdom, discretion, and sweetness” (Brev. Rom., January 29, sixth lesson). At once the founder opened the door of the monastery to all of good will. No severity, however great, could prevent the weak and infirm from coming “there to seek the perfection of Divine love”. He expressly ordered the reception at the Visitation not only of virgins but also of widows, on condition that they were legitimately freed from the care of their children; the aged, provided they were of right mind; the crippled, provided they were sound in mind and heart; even the sick, except those who had contagious diseases.
Austerities of the cloister, like rising at night, sleeping on hard surfaces, were suppressed. Instead of chanting the canonical office in the middle of the night the sisters recited the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin at half-past eight in the evening. There was no perpetual abstinence nor prolonged fast. Besides the ordinary fast days of the Church, he retained only that on every Friday and certain vigils. Corporal mortifications properly so called were limited to the use of the discipline every Friday. But the wise legislator was careful to give to interior mortification what he withdrew from exterior mortification. His first concern was for poverty, which is nowhere so strict as in the Visitation, where every-thing is absolutely in common. No sister may “have as property anything however little, or under any pretext whatever”. Not only the rooms and the beds, but medals, crosses, rosary beads, even pictures, are changed every year in order that the sisters may never come to consider them as their own. Next comes obedience. Whether general or particular it extends to every moment of the day, and the superior is to be obeyed as a mother, “carefully, faithfully, promptly, simply, frankly, and cordially”. The most trying mortification is perhaps that of the common life as understood by St. Francis de Sales. The day of the Visitandine is divided from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. into a multitude of short exercises which keep her occupied every instant in duties determined by her rule. An hour of mental prayer in the morning and a half-hour in the evening, Mass, Office, spiritual readings, and examens of conscience succeed one another, and keep the religious in perpetual contemplation. Silence, recollection, modesty of demeanor prepare for and facilitate prayer. Two recreations of an hour each relax without dissipating the mind; the sisters should talk with cordiality and simplicity only of agreeable and piously cheerful topics.
A little book based on St. Francis de Sales and which St. Jane de Chantal added from the first to the Constitutions of the order, namely, the “Directoire spirituel pour les actions journalieres”, gives the practical means of fulfilling the Constitutions in the spirit of the holy founder, the method of performing each of the daily actions under the eye of God, in dependence on Him, and in union with the Divine Model, Jesus Christ. It may be said that the “Directoire” is the mould of the Visitandines. The sisters wear a black habit. The gown is made d sac, rather full, and is confined by a girdle. On the head they wear a veil of black taminy. A black bandeau encircles the brow; a guimpe or barbette of white linen covers the neck, from which is suspended a silver cross; a large chaplet hangs at the belt. There are three grades among the sisters: the choir sisters who sing the Office; the associate sisters dispensed from the Office because of their health, but in other respects the same as the first grade; and finally the lay sisters who wear a white veil and are engaged in domestic tasks; they have no voice in the chapter but they make the same vows and are as much religious as the others. The communities are cloistered. The out-door sisters who make publicly only the vow of obedience are charged with the external service of the house. Each convent is governed by a superior whom all the sisters elect by secret ballot. She is chosen for three years at the end of which time she is eligible for election for three more years. When this time is ended she is ineligible for the subsequent term. A council of four other sisters assists her in the government of the house. An assistant replaces her when it is necessary. All the houses of the order are independent of one another. Circulars sent from time to time keep all acquainted with the events of each convent. There is no superior general, no visitor general, nor general chapter. In doubts regarding observance, recourse is had to the house of Annecy, the sainte source, which actually exercises no authority, but whose right to advise is recognized as that of an elder sister. The first superior of each convent is the bishop of the diocese and it is under his direct and immediate care. Two priests are charged by the bishop with the care of the convent, one with the title of superior, the other with that of confessor.
Such are the chief rules of the Visitation, their most striking characteristic being moderation and common sense. Made for generous souls, there is nothing about them which could weaken the body, while they overlook nothing which could mortify the spirit. For three centuries the Visitation has never stood in need of reform and each century has brought to the Church and the world its contingent of holy souls. The Order of the Visitation of Mary was canonically erected in 1618 by Paul V who granted it all the privileges enjoyed by the other orders. A Bull of Urban VIII solemnly approved it in 1626. At the first centenary of the institute in 1710 came renewed praise for its Constitutions “admirable for wisdom, discernment, and mildness, and which open up a certain easy and united path” to religious perfection. The Visitation developed rapidly. As early as the third year the house of “la Galerie” was too small; it was necessary to purchase an estate and build not far from the lake the convent which kept the name of the first convent of Annecy. The church still exists; the remainder of the building was destroyed during the French Revolution. Lyons (1615) wag the first foundation with Mother Favre as superior; Moulines (1616) was the second with Mother de Brechard. Grenoble (1618), Bourges (1618), and Paris (1619) followed in close succession. When St. Francis de Sales died (1622) there were already 13 convents established.
At the death of St. Jane de Chantal (1641) there were 86. The Bull of Clement XI at the first centenary of the foundation mentions 147. In the seventeenth century the order was confined to France and especially to Savoy; in the eighteenth century it extended to Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Poland, and the Low Countries. There were 167 houses in 1792 when the French Revolution dispersed and closed all the convents it reached. The foreign houses retained the tradition of the founders. The storm passed and as early as 1800 the convents of the Visitation began gradually to be restored in all parts of France. That of Annecy was not restored until 1824.
The convent of Georgetown was the first house of the Visitation founded in the United States (see sub-article below). The Visitation of Georgetown founded that of Mobile 1833 and in the same year that of Kaskaskia, which was transferred to St. Louis in 1844. In 1837 it founded the Visitation of Baltimore, that of Frederick in 1846, and Philadelphia in 1848. These various convents founded others, and at present there are in the United States 21 houses of the Visitation in relation with Annecy. England has two convents, Westbury, now transferred to Harrow, London, and that of Roseland, Walmer, Kent which is the ancient convent of Vilna, Poland. The last Visitation convent founded in an English-speaking country is that of Ottawa, Canada, founded by sisters from Annecy in 1910. At the third centenary of the order, June 6, 1910, the Visitation numbered 170 convents: 56 in France and 12 other French houses which the religious persecution compelled to go into exile; 30 in Italy; 2 in Switzerland; 7 in Austria; 1 in Russian Poland; 4 in Belgium; 1 in Holland; 2 in England; 17 in Spain; 3 in Portugal (these convents were driven into exile by the Revolution in 1910); 21 in the United States; 1 in Canada; 11 in Latin America; and 2 in Syria.
The first Visitandines, emulating their foundress, had nearly all received extraordinary gifts of prayer. The process of beatification of Mother de Brechard was even begun but was abandoned to make way for that of Mother de Chantal. It was Margaret Mary Alacoque (q.v.), a Visitandine of Paray-le-Monial in Burgundy, to whom the Sacred Heart of Jesus was manifested, in order that the devotion to the Sacred Heart might be communicated to the Church. Another Visitandine, Venerable Anne-Madeleine Remusat of the second convent of Marseilles, was the propagator of devotion to the Sacred Heart at the time of the plague of Marseilles in 1722; her cause was introduced in 1891. The cause of Venerable Marie de Sales Chappuis, superioress of the Visitation convent of Troyes (d. in 1875), was introduced in 1879 and the process of her beatification is proceeding rapidly. A religious of exalted virtue, she encouraged a number of souls both within and without the cloister in that path of confidence, generosity, obedience to the Divine Will, of fidelity to the duty of the present moment, which was inculcated by St. Francis de Sales. In the course of the process of beatification her authentic writings have been carefully examined and approved by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (Decree of September 21, 1892). The Visitandines are contemplatives, and in order that they might not be turned aside from the chief aim the founder often recurs in his letters to the necessity of not imposing external duties which would divert them from their first vocation. Nevertheless, even in the time of St. Francis de Sales the Visitation several times accepted temporarily the mission of reforming foreign communi-ties or even houses of penitent women, and God has blessed their devotion. It was likewise the need of the times which at a certain period led many convents to open within their cloisters boarding-schools for young girls. These boarding-schools which still exist in certain communities have done great good to youth. The instruction given at the Visitation is generally solid and on a par with that of the most serious schools. But what especially characterizes the schools of the Visitation and the pupils themselves is the strong education of will and character. In a constantly serene and maternal atmosphere the child learns at an early age self-denial, a sense of duty, and of responsibility to God for every action. The mistress methods of going to God become to a certain extent those of the children.