By Glynis Board
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
WHEELING, W.Va. -- Wheeling Jesuit University officials and the Sisters of the Visitation recently announced plans to establish a new arts conservatory dedicated to the school that once stood next door to the university, Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy.
In 2008, the all-girls Catholic school Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy closed its doors after 160 years of educating young women in West Virginia. It was one of the only single-sex schools in the state. Bought by the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, the historic five-story building, built just after the Civil War in 1868, was gutted and demolished in 2011. Now, the school is to be remembered, thanks to a friendship that stretches back more than 400 years.
Together with the Sisters of the Visitation, Wheeling Jesuit University officials recently announced plans to expand their dedication to the arts with the creation of the Mount de Chantal Conservatory of Music, which will honor and carry on the legacy of the Visitation Sisters of Mount de Chantal. Wheeling Jesuit neighbored the school since the university was built there in the 1950s.
"This just blew our minds. We were so thrilled that they would want to have something concrete right there at Wheeling Jesuit," says Sister Joanne Gonter, a Visitation Sister. She explained that University President Richard Beyer and Executive Vice President Father James Fleming presented the idea of dedicating the conservatory to the sisters and their former school in 2011.
"The sisters wanted to leave something behind in Wheeling that was living, that was their legacy, that said, 'This is who we are; this is what we value,' and, 'We value the arts and education,'" Fleming says. "And it made perfect sense to us because the Jesuits have long had a history of arts and education."
Gonter says that in addition to their name and special artifacts from the building that once stood a stone's throw from the university, her order also left a $50,000 endowment fund to the Jesuit school which will provide annual scholarships to female arts students beginning in the fall of 2013.
"We're going to recruit musicians," says Fleming. "We're going to recruit artists. And we're going to do what we do with our athletes. We're going to offer them scholarships to come here to participate but instead of participating on a field with a ball, they're going to be participating in a recital hall with an instrument."
Gonter knows the school and the university perhaps as well as anyone, as she was part of the inaugural class of the Jesuit university in 1954, and taught and resided at Mount de Chantal until the sisters relocated to the Georgetown Visitation Monastery in Washington, D.C., in 2010.
She says friendship and shared values between the Jesuits and the Sisters of the Visitation stretches back to the 17th century.
"Saint Francis de Sales founded the order of the Sisters of the Visitation with Saint Jane de Chantal in 1610," Gonter says. "He himself was a student of the Jesuits in France, and he had them as his spiritual advisers so he was very close to them."
"To bring it here to the United states, in 1789, Georgetown University was founded [in Washington, DC], and one of the priests who eventually became Archbishop Leonard Neale- he founded the Sisters of the Visitation right here in 1799. So these two communities have been friends for over 200 years."
Gonter remembers when, in the 1950s, Bishop John Swint bought the 60-acre cow pasture from the Sisters of Mount de Chantal and donated it to the Jesuits to found Wheeling Jesuit.
Fleming says because of this shared history and shared educational values, it was common for Jesuit schools and schools led by the Sisters of the Visitation to establish close to each other throughout the years.
He explains that Jesuit educational traditions developed during the Renaissance period in Western Europe.
"We grew at a time when the traditional humanist education -- rhetoric, Latin, and the arts -- was combining for the first time with what we would call vocational education, but what would become the universities of Western Europe," Fleming says.
He says many of the first Jesuits were humanists, meaning they were students of philosophies and ethical perspectives that emphasize the value of human beings, and generally place more importance on rational thought than strict faith. When the Jesuits began to establish educational facilities of their own, these values were core components.
"The whole point of the humanist education was that if you learned these things -- art, music, literature, mathematics, science -- you would be a better person. It wasn't that you were going to be smarter; it was that you were actually going to be a better person. You would be more human, more 'humane,' as we say. So you would be a better human being if you had this information in your lexicon of things to do in the world."
Fleming says this emphasis on the arts, with the aim of molding students into more humane versions of themselves, is still central to the Jesuit model of education and is a vision of education that the Jesuits have long shared with the Sisters of the Visitation.
He's looking forward to seeing the renovation of the 5,000-square-foot space in the WJU Center for Educational Technologies, transforming it into the new home of the university's Department of Music. The space will house a recital hall, a study lounge, multiple practice rooms, an artist-in-residence studio, a director's office and the Sisters of the Visitation Art Gallery, which will showcase Mount de Chantal antiques and archival materials, along with WJU student art.