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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Fit to be king
Lilli Dellheim, Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

Mass at a Cloistered Convent

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The chapel of the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary is currently draped in purple to represent Lent (Photo by Luke Malanga, ’20).

Attending services with the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary


Waking up before 9 a.m. is something I rarely do. Waking up before the sun to attend Mass at a cloistered convent is definitely something I never do.

Every morning on my way to campus, I pass an unfamiliar building along City Avenue. After asking around (and looking at the sign) I discovered the Sisters of Visitation of Holy Mary cloistered convent tucked away on the Philadelphia side of campus. As someone who has been called a “chatterbox” throughout her entire life, I decided to go out of my comfort zone and wondered what it would be like to be immersed in a secluded and reflective place that is much different than the average college student’s usual environment. After tearing apart my closet and frantically calling upon friends for “Mass appropriate” outfits, I left my apartment at 7 a.m. sharp to attend Mass at the convent.

The Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary monastic cloistered convent directly borders the Saint Joseph’s University campus. It is one of roughly 160 independent monasteries of the worldwide contemplative Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, founded by Jane Frances de Chantal, a Roman Catholic saint, on June 6, 1610 in France. St. Chantal founded this visitation order after her husband died specifically for women who had been rejected by other orders due to poor health or age.

Mass is held at the convent Monday through Saturday at 7:20 a.m. and is open to the public. There, a group of about 10 sisters pray daily for the St. Joe’s students who pass by, largely unaware that the convent is even there.

On the day I awoke before the sun to attend Mass at the convent, I was immediately welcomed by the sound of prayerful chants coming from somewhere beyond the altar in what appeared to be an empty chapel. The stained-glass windows and arched tan cement architecture made me feel as if I wandered into an old, small French town from centuries prior.

The heavenly words were sung by the Sisters, who attend Mass in an open room just off the altar. Sitting in small individual pews in this room, they are separated from the rest of the chapel by a thin black metal railing that also lines the altar.

I expected to feel like an outsider, but I was not. I felt welcomed by the familiarity of the Mass itself, despite a few differences.

One difference was that the chaplain stood to the side where both the nuns and the public could easily see him. Another difference was that instead of receiving Eucharist from the chaplain standing up, I knelt before the altar against the railing and received the Body and Blood of Christ directly on my tongue.

Mass is usually celebrated at the convent by Jesuits from the area. Dan Joyce, S.J., executive director of mission programs and director of the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph’s University (ACESJU), has often celebrated Mass with the Visitation Sisters and recognizes the unofficial relationship between the convent and university.

Joyce said that students from St. Joe’s have visited the convent for community service days from time to time, but other than that, most don’t know the convent is there. Students are always welcome to attend the convent’s morning mass, he said, as well as special presentations the Sisters hold in the chapel throughout the year.

After the 40-minute Mass concluded, I sought out Sister Catherine Therese, one of the Sisters living at the convent. She began contemplating religious life when she was a teenager growing up in Fall River, Mass. At first she felt called to a life in missions, but said that she soon began to have an even stronger calling towards living a life of devout prayer. Sister Catherine Therese made a retreat to her local parish of Saint Anne and spent the long weekend in deep prayer for her vocation.

“During the retreat, I saw a little ad for vocation retreats,” Sister Catherine Therese said. “My brother thought ‘you’re going to trust that little piece of paper?,’ but I knew it was part of my calling.”

Sister Catherine Therese mentioned that she understands her vocation is not for everyone and that some people might not understand why someone would want to devote their life to such a devout calling.

“I think to make sense of our life, it only makes sense, obviously to the Sister who responded to God’s call, for someone to really have faith, a good relationship with the Lord and always Our Lady, faith and prayer,” she said.

As I turned to go, Sister Catherine Therese leaned over the railing and gave me a hug. She promised to pray for me and invited me to come back.

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