The Six Sisters of Visitation Monastery

It’s noon on a summer Monday—time for midday prayer. Sister Mary Frances, Sister Katherine, Sister Brenda, and Sister Suzanne take their seats in the small chapel of the new Visitation Monastery on the corner of Fremont Avenue and 17th Avenue on Minneapolis’s Northside. On the other side of the door, the tap-tap-tap of a cane nears. It’s Sister Mary Paula. She’s 92.

The nuns pray together four times a day and go to daily mass four blocks away at Church of the Ascension, and this particular daily pause, which is open to the public, is devoted to local and global peace. Today, the sisters start with a hymn called “Your Words Are Spirit and Life.” There is no organ, no guitar. Just five voices filling the chapel with sincerity and devotion.

Midway through the hymn, the door opens again. Sister Karen, 76, just finished her morning swim at the YMCA on West Broadway. Her hair is still damp.

Sister Katherine, who’s in her early 80s, offers a prayer for a neighbor who has a court date that afternoon. Then, they read a passage of scripture that asks God to help them use their talents to serve the common good.

“This we ask for the sake of all who are in bondage through our selfishness and that of our governments,” they say in unison.

After, Sister Mary Frances gathers the nuns. Last September, they moved from two nearby houses where they’d lived and worshipped for over 30 years. One of the houses had a door knocker that was a gift from Turning Point, a neighborhood nonprofit that provides culturally specific substance abuse treatment for the African American community. The knocker’s inscription reads “Sisters in the Hood: Come In As A Guest, Leave As A Friend.” Sister Mary Frances would like to hang it on the new monastery’s back door.

Visitation Monastery is run by consensus, which means that all six sisters need to agree not only to place the knocker on the back door but also how high to hang it. As they make their way to the back of the monastery, they stop in front of a butterfly cage that is set on a counter. Sister Brenda, 56 and the youngest sister, raises monarchs. One hatched during today’s morning prayer.

“It’s a girl,” Sister Brenda announces, after she’s had a chance to examine the wings to determine the gender. In a few days, she will help neighborhood children release the butterfly into the monastery’s pollinator garden.

The Visitation Order was founded in 1610 in Annecy, France, by two people who would later become Catholic saints: a Swiss bishop named Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal, a wife and mother of six who, after becoming widowed, helped de Sales create an institute of women who were not admitted to other religious orders because they were either too old or in poor health. Salesian spirituality is rooted in the concept of “being who you are and being that well.” Visitation nuns take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The order came to America in 1816. Over the years, it became associated with schools, including the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, where Sister Mary Paula, Sister Katherine, and Sister Mary Frances taught. Sister Karen taught at the Visitation Academy of St. Louis. Sister Mary Frances and Sister Karen joined the order when they were 19 years old. All of them graduated from college. Most have graduate degrees.

With the exception of Sister Brenda—who joined in 2018 after serving as a Baptist missionary for 15 years in China and Hong Kong—and Sister Suzanne, now in her mid-70s—who joined at the age of 46 after a career that included a stint as a news director for an NBC radio affiliate—the sisters began their monastic lives in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a boom time for women becoming nuns, and many went on to get advanced degrees and make an impact on American life by founding schools and hospitals.

The Visitation Monastery sisters’ thoughts about their mission evolved in the 1980s, when the American Catholic bishops drafted a letter on the United States’ economy, stating that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.

“They said that the church was moving away from the people Jesus liked to hang out with,” says Sister Mary Frances, who is 85 but has the sturdy energy of someone 20 years younger. Like the other nuns, she has graying hair and is dressed casually in a T-shirt, capri pants, and walking sandals; a large silver cross that’s based on the one worn by St. Francis de Sales hangs at her chest. “We had to ask ourselves how we were going to be a part of this response.”

The nuns are sitting together in the monastery’s sunny living room to talk about their new monastery and their lives’ work. On a shelf near the fireplace are framed photographs of Sister Mary Margaret and Sister Mary Virginia, two of the monastery’s founding mothers, both of whom died in the past two years. They pass cookies from Cookie Cart, the West Broadway bakery that teaches employment skills to teenagers. They are eager to share their stories and, in the way that people do when they’ve lived together for decades, sometimes finish each other’s sentences and talk over each other.

Until that bishops’ letter, Visitation sisters were in the business of educating girls from families of means. Afterward, each of them wondered how they could become agents of social change, more firmly rooted in issues of economic justice.

Being nuns, the St. Louis sisters decided to pray on that question at 9:30 every Sunday morning, sometimes discussing specific scriptures or stories they read in the news.

“Something was stirring in me,” remembers Sister Karen of the moment she and her fellow nuns realized that people living on the margins probably wouldn’t feel comfortable going to the suburbs to seek them out.

Ten years later, they came to an answer. The three St. Louis Visitation Academy sisters (Sister Karen, Sister Mary Virginia, and Sister Mary Margaret) and Sister Mary Frances, who learned about their plans and decided to join them, left their schools to start a monastery in north Minneapolis. They would live a life of prayer and community. Every time the doorbell rang, they would get their agenda. Their goal was to show peacefulness and gentleness to the community, if only for a moment.

That doorbell has been ringing for 33 years. In the earlier years, they hung a windsock out to let neighborhood children know they could come over and play, setting up activities that drew on their experiences as Montessori teachers. They have hosted a quinceañera, helped people fill out job applications, fundraised to send scores of neighborhood kids to sleepaway camp every summer, visited new mothers in the hospital, and helped kids get Halloween costumes. They have marched arm in arm with mothers who have lost children to gun violence.

Sometimes, neighbors come to pray, although accepting God or the Catholic Church is never a condition for their hospitality.

“The sisters are a model of our shared belief that when we invest in each other, we all flourish,” says AsaleSol Young, the executive director of Urban Homeworks, a nonprofit that turns vacant and condemned properties into affordable, high-quality housing. “They have shown up like elders and grandmothers to each of us. We are blessed by their presence and partnership in our Northside communities.”

Passionate learners, the sisters have grown and changed with the times, including taking a hard look at what it means to be a group of white women living in a racially diverse community.

Several years ago, a donor gave $17,000 worth of $50 gift cards for the sisters to distribute to their neighbors over Christmas. As Sister Mary Frances stood on the sidewalk and looked at the long line of people waiting for their cards, she saw the dynamic with a fresh set of eyes.

You are a plantation, she thought.

“It was very painful for me to receive that prophetic word,” she says, describing the sight of a close friend, who is an ex-gang member, standing at the end of the sidewalk. “He was just looking at me with a look that said, ‘Yeah, you are the big white mother.’”

After the event, Sister Mary Frances shared her concerns with the sisters and also asked her friend to come over so she could talk through what she’d experienced. He recommended that when it came to their charitable giveaway events, the sisters could ask their neighbors and friends to help hand out the gifts, to make the experience more mutual.

As Sister Mary Frances talks, Sister Karen nods.

“It’s humbling to know that this isn’t mine,” Sister Karen says, referencing all of the resources that are available to her. “I am part of the stewardship of it right now, but how can I share it in a way that others’ dignity is upheld? [Now,] we try to say, ‘These [gifts] are not from us. They are from people who have shared with us so that we can share with you.’”

One of those community volunteers is Bianca Franks, who started hanging out at the monastery when she was around 10 and moved to the neighborhood from Chicago. Today, she helps with celebrations, including the monastery’s neighborhood Christmas party and Easter basket giveaway.

“They are definitely honored and respected in the neighborhood, and they gave a lot of us core values,” she says.

“They do the work,” says Tony Smith, who is a bus driver with Metro Transit. Twenty years ago, after a career as a clothing buyer for a Kansas City department store, Smith was in the grips of a drug addiction that eventually landed him at Turning Point. He was 44 and alone in Minnesota. As he settled into sobriety, he got a job offer to drive a bus for Greyhound but needed a uniform to attend training sessions in Richmond, Virginia. Someone at Turning Point suggested he meet with the sisters, saying they were known to support people with job-related challenges.

He reluctantly rang the doorbell.

“I swallowed my pride and told Sister Mary Frances that I didn’t have enough money to buy the uniform I needed to get trained,” he remembers.

After the sisters agreed to help him, he went with Sister Karen to Target and they bought a few pairs of pants, a shirt, and a tie.

When Smith finished the training, he went to the monastery and paid them back. He worked for Greyhound for almost two decades before switching to Metro Transit.

“The day they trusted me changed my life,” he says.

Since then, he has helped them out whenever he gets a request, whether it’s for a ride or to pick up a load of dirt for their garden. Which is exactly what the sisters want.

“We are not social workers,” says Sister Mary Frances. “We do things in the spirit of mutuality.”

The sisters understand modern religion has changed, that the life they feel blessed to live is now an endangered species. While they hope and pray that a new generation of nuns joins their order—they’ve created a YouTube video for recruiting—they know that may not happen.

As the youngest nun by almost 20 years, the future of the monastery will likely be guided by Sister Brenda, who is starting conversations with the sisters about how they will know if they have completed the monastery’s mission. But she still sees a place for monasteries like Visitation.

“There is a hunger [in the world] for the sacred space,” she says. “And to me, monasteries and sisters who are here in whatever order they are in are holding sacred space.”

And while their monastery receives no funding from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, they are keenly aware that the Catholic church is rife with contradictions, that they are working for justice within a framework that denies equal opportunities to women. Why do they stay?

Sister Mary Frances is quick with her answer. “I live in a vibrant religious community where we choose to be educated on issues including sex abuse, voting rights, systemic racism, police brutality, liturgical exclusion, war, and the legacy of slavery—and to have open dialogue with one another and others,” she says, adding that they do not always agree with the church or even with each other. “I have chosen to stay because I love the living tradition of the church, realizing all the while that droves of young people are leaving. In staying, I have opportunities to speak for those who are not heard.”

Adds Sister Brenda: “Our general take is, stay and try to work for change from within. If it becomes detrimental to your own health and spirituality, then it’s time to leave.”

As the nuns process the changes in the world around them, so too must they face the reality that their needs are different from when they were in their 40s and 50s.

By 2016, after Sister Mary Margaret had a stroke, they began to realize that walking back and forth between the two houses on icy or snowy sidewalks wasn’t safe.

“We needed to be under one roof to care for each other as we age [so we can] stay in the neighborhood for as long as we can,” says Sister Karen.

The question was how. That same year, Curt Gunsbury was spending time at the monastery while one of his sons was volunteering doing landscaping as part of his Eagle Scout program. Gunsbury’s wife, Catherine, graduated from the Visitation Academy in St. Louis, where Sister Karen was her teacher. He was struck by how much the houses were in decay and how easy it would be to get injured doing basic things like walking up and down steep staircases.

“We needed to be under one roof to care for each other as we age [so we can] stay in the neighborhood as long as we can.”

–Sister Karen

Gunsbury is the owner of Solhem, which builds and manages apartment buildings in Minneapolis, including The Archive and Borealis in the North Loop and The Julia near Northeast Minneapolis. He knows not only how to build things but also how to navigate the city’s building codes and approval processes.

“These women helped my wife grow up to become this amazing person,” he says. “Of course I could help them.”

He went to his building industry colleagues to see if they wanted to donate their services to help build a new monastery on an empty lot down the street from one of the houses. More than two dozen architects, engineers, tradespeople, designers, and real estate professionals—including Ironmark Building Company and Lumen Design and Development—jumped in. Everything except the labor was donated. Some companies waived fees that were worth $600/hour.

Designing a new home and place of worship for a group of women who not only make decisions consensually but also have taken vows of poverty came with its own set of challenges. Gunsbury remembers the argument he had with Sister Mary Frances, who felt that an irrigation system for the lawn and gardens was not in line with their values. Gunsbury countered that if one of the nuns got injured dragging around a sprinkler, that person would require care that would in turn compromise the other sisters’ ability to do their community work. The irrigation system got the green light.

Together with the sisters, architect Jason Lord designed a connected triplex, with three separate kitchens, so that each unit could be converted into affordable housing. In this way, the monastery will continue the sisters’ work long after they are gone. The chapel paneling is from Wood from the Hood, which used neighborhood trees that were killed by the emerald ash borer. It’s a stunning space that is at once cozy and serene but modern and full of meaning. The chapel floor is centered with a brass circle that shows the silhouettes of Northside churches, mosques, and synagogues. The building was named a 2021 Top Project by Finance & Commerce.

On the day of my visit, the sisters eventually get around to that old door knocker. Sister Mary Frances holds it up against the door to get the group’s approval.

“I think it needs to be a tiny bit higher,” says Sister Karen, acknowledging the group’s collective shortness.

The decision takes all of 30 seconds. Which is good, because before you know it, the doorbell rings.

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the author of 111 Places in the Twin Cities That You Must Not Miss.

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