Sisters of the Visitation - Dubuque, Iowa



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"Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow..." These words of the Visitation Sisters' founder, St Francis de Sales, have inspired and formed the Sisters during their one hundred and thirty-eight years in the city of Dubuque.

The Visitation order originated in France.  In 1816 some of the sisters came to America and founded a religious house in Georgetown, Washington D. C..  Later another house was founded in St. Louis and from there six sisters came to Dubuque in 1871 at the invitation of Bishop Hennessy, then Bishop of Dubuque. When the Sisters arrived on August 26th, 1871, the home that the Archbishop  promised them was not ready so they were provided  temporary housing by the pastor of St. Patrick’s parish. Then they moved to a duplex on Third St., not far from the present rectory of St Raphael Cathedral.  October 26, 1871, was the official opening of the first little Academy of the Visitation. Part of the duplex was used as a convent  and the rest for school for about fifty students.  In  June, 1883  the first commencement was held at which two were graduated.  This Third Street Academy building is still standing and is presently being used as an apartment house. 

During the next several years, the Third Street Academy continued to attract students, who, besides taking the regular academic courses, were also offered studies in the fine arts: art, poetry, drama, music lessons and speech.  Within two years, the entire building was needed  for school purposes and therefore a small eight room house on Bluff  Street was given to the Sisters as convent. 

Aware of the extremely crowded conditions, Archbishop Hennessy purchased the General Jones mansion at the corner of what is now University and Alta Vista for a new academy and convent.  On January 3, 1879, the Sisters transferred to their new home and the “Academy on the Hill” was opened.  In 1884, 1886 and 1889 other “wings” were added to the structure. In 1906, much to the regret of the Sisters, the historic Jones mansion had to be razed to make room for another large addition to the academy called the “South Wing”. and the sisters lived in the buildings which housed students .

When Nativity Grade school opened in 1924, the Sisters of the Visitation were asked to teach the children from kindergarten through eighth grade. Both schools continued to prosper

In 1931 a new convent  for the Sisters was built with funds donated by a non-Catholic gentleman of Chicago, with the stipulation that he would remain anonymous.  A plaque honoring this gift which was given through Mr. James E Gorman, was placed in the reception hall of the new convent.  This plaque along with the bell from the academy tower have been moved to the front of the convent the Sisters now occupy on Kaufmann Ave..

On the night of June 30, 1936, one of the most disastrous fires in the history of Dubuque broke out in one of the older sections of the Academy.  It was about ten o’clock at night when most of the Sisters had retired.  The fire, probably caused by defective wiring, raged through the buildings, burning a four- story wing completely to the ground and destroying the two upper stories of an adjacent wing which held the chapel and the school library. The fire burned all night.  The fire was extinguished as it reached the chapel’s water-soaked ceiling. 

As soon as possible the work of reclamation began with “all hands” assisting removing chemical stains from woodwork, walls and furniture.  However the school opened on September 8, right on schedule with very little lessening of registrants.  The former chapel was divided into four home rooms, and all other departments,occupying smaller areas, were continued.  Thousands of books, two baby grand pianos, and musical instruments were given to the school.  Friends and business men in the city collected funds for the renovation of the building. 

After 1960, it became evident to the Sisters that they must consider further expansion and modernization of their physical plant and educational facilities in order to cope with larger enrollments .A new academic building was built adjoining the existing academy on the north. The most modern equipment for the departments of science, art, business education, guidance, language laboratory, cafeteria and administrative facilities were installed. 

In the late 1960’s, due to the decline in the number of sisters, the increased costs, and establishment of a central Catholic high school, private high schools began to close. The last class to graduate from the Visitation Academy was  in  1970.   The sisters then went to teach in other Catholic schools or became involved in other church ministries.  The Sisters continued to live on Alta Vista Street and shared their convent with sisters of other communities until 1994 when the property was sold  to Loras College.  Land was purchased on Kaufmann Ave. from the Sisters of the Presentation and the new convent was built in which the Visitation Sisters now reside.

The Visitation Order was founded in 1610 in Annecy, France by St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, and St Jane de Chantal. The Order was introduced into this country at Georgetown, Washington, D. C. in 1799.  The St. Louis Visitation was founded from Georgetown and, as stated above, the Dubuque Visitation was established from the St. Louis Monastery.  The Dubuque Visitation was chartered on November 15, 1880.  In response to the plea of the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, for greater participation in the active apostolate, the Visitation Sisters of Dubuque elected to change the status of their community from that of an Order with solemn vows to a diocesan Congregation with simple vows.  After the necessary requirements had been fulfilled, the Sisters of the Visitation of Dubuque were established as a congregation by the Most Reverend Leo Binz, Archbishop of Dubuque, on June 8, 1952.  This action met the full approbation of the Sacred Congregation of Religious in Rome.  Their new title being the Sisters of the Visitation of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or simply as Sisters of the Visitation

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