A photo caption in last week's Religion Page incorrectly stated that the nuns now living at the Order of Visitation cloister in Bethesda will be able to join other orders when the property is sold. They will be able to join other communities of the Visitation order.
The stately building, on a grassy tract shaded by tall maples and cool evergreens and cushioned on three sides by a high brick wall, is home to 17 nuns of the Visitation Monastery in Bethesda--for now, but probably not much longer.
The nuns are aging, some find their health failing, not enough new sisters are joining and, as a result, the 60-year-old cloister will soon be up for sale.
The nearest neighbor--the modern, bustling National Institutes of Health, sprawled over 300 acres just beyond the monastery's walls to the south, east and north--is a potential buyer. NIH has acquired land from the cloister before, picking up about 50 acres in 1948.
But no matter who purchases the property, the impending sale of the last 10 acres and building will mean the end of the nuns' presence at 9001 Old Georgetown Rd. and the disbanding of a religious community more than 130 years old.
"It's a gem of a little monastery with a beautiful garden," said Sister Mary Leonard of Georgetown Visitation Convent, a separate community of the Order of the Visitation. No definite date has been set for the closing of the Bethesda monastery, but when it happens "each sister can choose whatever house" within the order she wants to join, Leonard said.
The order now maintains 18 communities in this country--schools, retreats or cloisters--including the Bethesda monastery and the Georgetown convent. The nuns in Bethesda have declined to comment on the prospective sale or their plans.
It is unlikely that all 17 will wind up together, according to Msgr. E. Robert Arthur of the Washington Archdiocese, who is helping with the sale of the airy, three-story brick structure and well-kept grounds. Proceeds will go toward supporting the sisters in their new homes, he said.
One of the nuns moved into the monastery nearly 60 years ago, said Arthur, but the loss of their home and community will be a "very, very sad occasion" for all.
Archbishop James A. Hickey, in a letter announcing the decision to close the monastery, noted that the cloister has "been an honored part of this archdiocese since 1850" and said "this decision is painful for all of us who esteem the Visitation way of life."
"The constant prayers of the sisters have brought so many blessings to our nation's capital and to all of us," he wrote.
The monastery was founded by six nuns as an offshoot of the Georgetown Visitation Convent. Based initially in the District, the nuns ran an academy for girls, first at 10th and F streets NW, then a block north on G street, finally moving to Connecticut and L streets NW, the present site of the Mayflower Hotel.
The Bethesda building was constructed in 1922, and the next year the nuns moved in and began a purely contemplative life of prayer there. In their life at the monastery, portions of which are open only to them, most nuns rarely leave the cloister grounds.
"It's a jarring thing for the sisters to have to uproot themselves," said the Rev. Eugene Linehan, a Catholic chaplain at the NIH Clinical Center.
Linehan passed the word of the closing to NIH, knowing of pediatric staff interest in creating an outpatient home for children from faraway states. Such young patients are currently put up at motels for the duration of their treatment, and the pediatric staff has wanted for the past decade to provide the children and their visiting families with a "sense of community" and better facilities.
The monastery is conveniently located, adjacent to a Clinical Center wing bordering Convent Drive, and Linehan thinks the spot would be "ideal," spacious enough for recreation rooms and a playground. NIH officials agree that that could be one good use for the property. But they are considering other options and say that any purchase would depend on being able to satisfy complex federal procedures for acquiring land.
"Certainly from the sisters' standpoint, they're disappointed that they have to move," but it may be some consolation, Linehan said, to know that if the monastery ends up in NIH's hands "it isn't going to be a high-rise or a gas station."
The nuns will eventually use a real estate agent's services, and they could decide to sell to some other buyer. But if NIH purchases this last piece and the pediatric staff's hopes are realized, a new community may be born as another ends.