Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Alice Lalor ~ Mother Teresa 1766 ~ 1846


The Founding of the Georgetown Convent, the Oldest School for Girls in America

The foundress of the Georgetown Convent, Georgetown, D. C, the first Visitation house in America, was Miss Alice Lalor, known later in religion as Mother Teresa. She was born in Queen's County, Ireland, but her parents removed to Kilkenny where her childhood and early youth were spent. Her tender piety and bright and charitable character won the affection and regard of everyone around her, and especially of her pastor. Father Carroll. When at the age of seventeen she received the sacrament of confirmation from Bishop Lanigan, he was attracted also by her modesty, and having, instituted with Father Carroll a confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament at Kilkenny, he named Alice Lalor as its first president or prefect. She soon resolved to consecrate herself to God, and was permitted to make the vow of virginity, although complete renunciation of the world could not be made because there was no convent in the neighborhood.

One of Alice Lalor's sisters married an American merchant, Mr. Doran, who was desirous that his wife should have the companionship of Alice in her new transatlantic home for a while. Alice, now thirty-one years of age, agreed to go with them, but promised Bishop Lanigan that she would return in two years to aid in forming the religious community so long contemplated. She sailed from Ireland with her sister in the winter of 1794. Among the passengers on the sailing vessel were Mrs. McDermott and Mrs. Sharpe, both widows. During the long voyage, they formed an intimate friendship with Alice and expressed the desire which they had long felt to enter the cloistered life and agreed that when they landed they would go to confession and communion and take the priest, whom so ever might be their confessor, as their spiritual director. They landed in Philadelphia, and the priest whom they found and accepted as their director was, happily, Father Neale. These three devout women brought so unexpectedly to his feet from beyond the sea were the women destined to co-operate with him in founding the community of his vision which he had never ceased to hope that he might realize.

Although Alice Lalor felt bound by her promise to return to Ireland, Father Neale saw the greater service she could render to religion in America and offered to release her from her promise to return to her native land. Miss Lalor, Mrs. McDermott and Mrs. Sharpe settled in Philadelphia, hired a house and lived in community. Mrs. Sharpe had her daughter with her, a child of eight years. Suddenly the yellow fever broke out and Father Neale narrowly escaped death. Alice Lalor and her companions remained persistently in the path of danger, ministering to the pest-stricken people. In the winter of 1798-99, Father Neale was ordered to Georgetown as president of the Jesuit College. He sent for the three devoted religious converts and domiciled them for a time with three Poor Clares, who being driven from France to this country by the Revolution of 1793 had set up a little convent not far from the college. The Poor Clares attempted to keep a school as a means of support, but their poverty was so extreme and their life so rigorous that not many scholars applied. These women, poor and barefooted according to their rules, came of noble blood and had been born and reared to luxury. Alice Lalor and her two friends boarded and taught in this convent, but it soon became apparent that the austere rule of St Clare differed widely from that they wished to adopt, and was uncongenial to the times and needs of the locality. Father Neale, therefore, bought a house and land nearby and installed them in it. Thus was begun by these three ladies an establishment and school which has become famous in America and from which many of her most noted women have graduated. In 1800 Father Neale was consecrated Coadjutor to Archbishop Carroll and continued as president of the Georgetown College. It is not known when Bishop Neale decided to place these devoted women under visitation rules.

This little group increased to five members all of whom were known round about as "The Pious Ladies' their only appellation for many years. Mrs. Sharpe who was known as Sister Ignatia, their principal teacher, after a sudden illness died. In 1804 the Poor Clares returned to France, and Mother Teresa (Alice Lalor) was able to buy the house and land which the Poor Clares had occupied. In 1808, Bishop Neale's term as president of the college ended and he took a dwelling close to the convent, which made it possible for him to supervise closely these new daughters of a still unformed community, whom he was endeavoring to train for a monastic life. It is said that in 1812 their buildings were in a state of total disrepair, the monastery a forlorn-looking house containing six rooms, and in 1811, it is said, Sister Margaret Marshall "succeeded by her energy and the toil of her own hands in lathing and plastering the assembly room." There remains scarcely a vestige of these primitive structures today. For a while this was the only Catholic institution of the kind in the United States where the daughters of Catholics might become well-grounded in the principles of their religion. The first nine years only four members joined "The Pious Ladies," these were: Sister Aloysia Neale, Sister Stanislaus Fenwick, and Sister Magdalene Neale, and a lay sister, Mary. In 1808 Miss Catherine Ann Ridgen joined the order and was chosen as Mother Teresa's successor. The mother house at Annecy had been suppressed during the French Revolution, and was not restored until 1822. The other houses in Europe were unwilling to send a copy of the constitutions to Georgetown, because this community had not been founded in the usual way by professed members of the order. The whole undertaking, in short, was looked upon as irregular, and it was believed that Rome would never approve of Bishop Neale's little community. Although schools were opened by Mrs. Seton in Baltimore and one at Emmitsburg Bishop Neale would not consent to abandon his scheme. A rich lady living in Baltimore, who had been educated with the Ursuline nuns in Ireland, heard of the embarrassments at Georgetown, and offered her means and influence to the Archbishop for the benefit of "The Pious Ladies," if they would consent to transform their house into an Ursuline convent. These plans were laid before Bishop Neale, who politely and respectfully thanked this generous and excellent lady for her liberality, but stated he would never consent to the proposed change. The Archbishop, seeing how invincible was Bishop Neale's purpose to continue on the lines he had already laid down, told the good Bishop that he would give him power to do what he could, but he must expect no help from him. One day in examining the books which they found in the little library purchased from the Poor Clares, they found on the title page of one of the books the name of St. Francis de Sales and the word "Visitation." This volume, on examination, proved to contain the rules of the Visitation Order, which they had sought so long and so ardently prayed for. This is believed to have been in about 1809 or 1810, or perhaps a little later. And now, having the rules of the Order, they had but to decide upon their dress. Bishop Neale decided to let them wear the Teresian costume, and wrote to his brother Charles, at Port Tobacco to send him a model of it from the convent there, a large doll, fully dressed in the habit of the Order, was forwarded to the Bishop.

This convent at Port Tobacco was a Carmelite house, so while the costume adopted provisionally at this time was Carmelite, it was changed by the Bishop; the white bandeau of the Teresian Carmelites was replaced with the black, and in this respect, at least, the Georgetown sisters were able to conform to Visitation requirements. Having gained this much, the Bishop, undismayed by those doubts and tremors which beset even some of his loyal co-workers, resolved to admit the sisters to simple vows. This was done on the feast of St. Francis de Sales, January 29, 1814. The secluded life of this community, with its constant, patient, obscure struggles and peaceful joys, was threatened with destruction by the war of 1812 and in 1814, when a formidable movement was begun against the Capital city by Cockburn and General Ross, and the battle of Bladensburg was fought.

The sisters were greatly alarmed by the rapid advance of the enemy and the burning of the Capitol, which they witnessed from the upper windows of their monastery. They, however, were spared. In 1815 Archbishop Carrol died at the age of eighty years, and Bishop Neale succeeded him in his high office, becoming the Archbishop of Baltimore. The Archbishop received authority for the admission of his beloved sisters to solemn vows, and the date he fixed upon was the Feast of Holy Innocents, December 28, which was the one hundred and ninety-fourth anniversary of the death of St. Francis de Sales. The three who were chosen for admission first were the oldest members, Alice Lalor, Mrs. McDermott, and Henrietta Brent, who were known, the first as Sister Teresa, Sister Frances, and Sister Agnes, Sister Teresa (Alice Lalor) was appointed Superior; Sister Frances (Mrs. McDermott), the second assistant, and Sister Agnes (Henrietta Brent) Mistress of Novices.

Bishop Neale said in establishing the school that it was founded "to teach the female youth of America," and truly did he prophecy and plan, for hither came the best of the "female youth of America" for many years, and to-day some of our most distinguished women claim the Georgetown Convent of Visitation as their Alma Mater.

In the period just before the war-days, there came to the academy the two daughters of Senator Ewing, of Ohio (the first secretary of the Department of the Interior). One of them, Ellen Ewing, afterwards married General William Tecumseh Sherman. Here also was educated Harriet Lane Johnston, niece of President Buchanan, who gained social distinction at the Court of St. James while her uncle was United States Minister there, and afterwards gracefully conducted for him the social functions of the executive mansion, as one of the most charming in all the line of "ladies of the White House." Another graduate, famous for her exceptional beauty, as well as for her social leadership in Washington, was Adelaide Cutts, who married Stephen A. Douglas, the brilliant rival of Abraham Lincoln for presidential honors. Mrs. Douglas long after her first husband's death, became the wife of General Robert Williams, United States Army.

General Joseph E. Johnston, eminent afterwards among Confederate military chieftains, found his wife in a Visitation graduate. Miss McLain, a daughter of Secretary McLain. Another pupil, Teresa Doyle, married Senator Casserly; and Miss Deslonde, of Louisiana, who studied here, became Mrs. General Beauregard. The following account of the students of the institution is compiled from "A Story of Courage; Annals of the Georgetown Convent of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.'

"Among others who graduated before the war were Marion Ramsay, who became Mrs. Cutting, of New York; the daughters of Judge Gaston, of North Carolina; the daughters of Commodore Rogers; Eliza and Isabella Walsh, the daughters of the United States Minister to Spain; Minnie Meade, a sister of General Meade, who became the wife of General Hartman Bache, United States Army; Albina Montholon, daughter of the French Minister and granddaughter of General Gratiot, United States Army; Kate Duncan, of Alabama, who married Dr. Emmet, of New York; the daughters of Commodore Cassin; the Bronaugh sisters, one of whom married Admiral Taylor; the Carroll sisters, one of whom became the Baroness Esterhazy, of Austria; the daughters of Senator Stephen Mallory, of Florida; the daughter of Senator Nicholson, of Tennessee, afterwards Mrs. Martin, who became principal of a leading seminary in the South; Katie Irving, a grandniece of Washington Irving; the daughters of Major Turnbull; Mary Maguire, who became the wife of General Eugene Carr. Of the daughters of Mrs. Bass, of Mississippi, afterwards wife of the Italian Minister, Bertinatti, one married a foreign noble-man. Madeleine Vinton became the wife of Admiral Dahlgren; Emily Warren became Mrs. Roebling, the wife of the builder of the Brooklyn bridge, who herself completed the great work when her husband had been stricken with illness. Nancy Lucas, who married Doctor Johnson, of St. Louis, sent five daughters to the convent, as did also Major Turner. General Frost sent five representatives, one of whom married Philip Beresford Hope, son of the distinguished member of Parliament. Adele Sarpy, who became Mrs. Don Morrison, a pupil herself, later on sent her three daughters. Ellen Sherman Thackara and Rachel Sherman Thorndyke, daughters of General Sherman, followed in their mother's footsteps at Georgetown. Myra Knox became Mrs. Thomas J. Semmes, of New Orleans. Ada Semmes, who married Richard Clarke, the historian, with her sisters, one of whom was Mrs. Ives were also pupils here.

Among other leading Southern families represented at the school at this time were the Floyds of Virginia and the Stephenses of Georgia.

"Of those who have graduated since the war are: Bertha and Ida Honore; the former Mrs. Potter Palmer, who was brought prominently before the country as the president of the Board of Lady Managers of the World's Columbian Exposition. Her sister became the wife of General Frederick D. Grant, formerly United States Minister to Austria, now a general in the United States Army. Blanche Butler, the daughter of General Benjamin F. Butler, became the wife of Governor Ames, of Mississippi, and Mary Goodell married Governor Grant, of Colorado. Harriet Monroe, of Chicago, who wrote the ode for the Columbian World's Fair, graduated in 1879, having for her classmates Adele Morrison, of St. Louis, now Mrs. Albert T. Kelly of New York; Ella Whitthorne, of Tennessee, now Mrs. Alexander Harvey, of Baltimore, and Miss Newcomer, of Baltimore who, as Mrs. H. B. Gilpin, annually presents a medal for music to the school. Mary Saunders, the daughter of ex-Senator Saunders, of Nebraska, as the wife of Russell Harrison, the ex-President's son, graced the White House by her presence during Benjamin Harrison's administration. Mary Logan Tucker, the daughter of the soldier and states-man. General John A. Logan, now wields as a journalist a pen as trenchant as was her father's sword.

"The portraits of Emma Etheridge, of Tennessee, the daughter of Honorable Emerson Etheridge, and Josephine Dickson, of Missouri, which adorn the walls of the convent parlor, are those of two young ladies noted for their beauty. The former is now Mrs. John V. Moran, of Detroit, and the latter Mrs. Julius Walsh, of St. Louis; Estelle Dickson studied art in Paris.

"Among other pupils were Pearl Tyler, daughter of President Tyler; Gertrude and Jessie Alcorn, the daughters of Senator Alcorn, of Mississippi; Romaine Goddard, daughter of Mrs. Dahlgren, who became the Countess von Overbeck; Irene Rucker, who become the wife of General Philip H. Sheridan; Constance Edgar, now the Countess Moltke Huitfeldt, daughter of Madam Bonaparte and granddaughter of Daniel Webster; Mary Wilcox, granddaughter by adoption of General Andrew Jackson. Ethel Ingalls, daughter of ex-Senator Ingalls, has reflected credit on the academy by her literary work; her younger sister, Constance, followed her at the school together with Anna Randall Lancaster, and her sister Susie, daughters of the late Samuel J. Randall; the five daughters of the late A. S. Abell, of Baltimore, and Jennie Walters, daughter of W. T. Walters of the same city.

"Miss Early and Miss Ould were two gifted Southern ladies who are remembered at the school. Miss E. M. Dorsey, also, a bright and winning story-writer, whose "Midshipman Bob" is well and favorably known to young readers, is one of the later graduates.''

Even this partial list of some among those who have received their training at Georgetown Convent in knowledge, morals, manners and the conduct of life, is at first rather surprising by reason of the high rank and average of the women educated here. Yet on second and deeper thought it will appear to be only a reasonable result of so much patient labor, lofty endeavor, unselfish effort, and devout studiousness, offered day by day for a century, with no other thought than that of contributing to the glory of God and the blessing of the human race, in whole and in particular.

The annals of this illustrious institution, which celebrated its Centennial in 1899, must, we think, place one fact very clearly before the minds of all thoughtful and observant readers, and that is, the marked degree of individuality characterizing the members of such a body as the Georgetown Convent of the Visitation.

This we trust has been demonstrated by such definite examples as the steadfast endurance and guiding hope of Mother Teresa Lalor; the virgin self-reliance and bravery of Sister Margaret Marshall; the firm executive quality of Mother Agnes Brent and other Superiors; the gentle, tactful rule of Mother Juliana Matthews; the vivacious and exquisitely trustful, spiritualized personality of "Sister Stanny" (Sister Stanislaus) who was the daughter of Commodore Jacob Jones, United States Navy, who captured the British war-sloop "Frolic" for which act he received the thanks of Congress, a reward of $25,000.00 and a gold medal; the enthusiasm for astronomical study of Sister Genevieve White, who was a sister of the late Judge White, of New York, and niece of Gerald Griffin, the famous Irish poet, and her sister, dear Sister Teresa, in the midst of bodily suffering; the grand, sturdy serviceableness of Sister Joseph Keating, who was of noble French descent; the delicate, skillful housekeeping and responsive charity of Mother Angela Harrison, or the perfect meekness of Sister Mary Emmanuel Scott, daughter of General Winfield Scott; Sister Bernard Graham, daughter of Honorable George Graham, who was a very remarkable business woman; Sister Eulalia Pearce; Sister Mary Austin, who was a wife and the mother of five children when she presented herself for her vows in the Order. She was received and became a nun, her husband a Jesuit priest, and two of her children were brought up by the mother of Father Fenwick and three by the Sisters of the Convent in which she was a nun. Among those of later date who are affectionately remembered by the present generation of graduates and scholars are: Sister Mary Loretto King, long the able directress of the school and a woman of wonderful executive ability, strength of character and mental qualities possessed by few of her sex; Sister Paulina Willard; Sister Loyola Leocadia, a gifted woman and to whom we are indebted for the collecting and preparation of the Annals of the Convent, now in book form. Sister, now Mother Fidelis, is the last of that type of women noted for their great executive and mental strength which have put their stamp on the women they sent out into the world to become forces in the progress of their sex, going on in America today; Sister Benedicto, with her gentle spirit and marked artistic talents, has developed the talents of those of the students who came within her care, among whom many are to-day well known in the world of art and owe to her their first creditable work. It might be mentioned that Madame Yturbide found a refuge in this Convent after the tragic death of her husband, the self-proclaimed president of Mexico, who was shot on his return from exile. She wore the garb of a nun and her daughter became a novice and is buried with the sisters here. These are but a few, among the larger few, whom we have sketched in this book, and all, taken together, are only instances of the traits and capacities of numberless other sisters. They show that not only may there be pronounced individuality among the members of a religious order, but also a wide variety of development, under the uniform garb and the equal sub-mission to a common rule and discipline.

The alumnae of the Georgetown Convent of Visitation was organized by Mary Logan Tucker, daughter of General John A. Logan, a graduate of the Georgetown Convent of Visitation, who was elected its first president, March 3, 1893.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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