Her office and apartment packed, Sister Cecilia Liberatore will walk today along the sunflower-lined paths of Middleburg's Notre Dame Academy for the last time and roam from room to room in the school's headquarters, the almost two-century-old Mary House.
She will end in the chapel, where for years she prayed with her fellow sisters. The small, wood-paneled room was a library before the equestrian estate was converted into an independent Catholic school in 1965.
Liberatore, 59, is the last nun working at a school that was owned by nuns until 2000. Her departure today is symbolic of the dramatic changes that have come in recent years to one of Northern Virginia's first Catholic high schools.
Set on 90 acres in the heart of Virginia's hunt country, the academy was founded as a girls' boarding school by the Chardon, Ohio, branch of the Sisters of Notre Dame, an international order of nuns that traces its roots to France.
The order sold the school in the 1990s, and since then it has been a coeducational day school for students from the surrounding community. Most of the sisters, who once administered the school and made up its faculty, left in 2000. Liberatore, the school's head since 1985, stayed on to oversee the transition to local control and provide a bridge to her order's legacy.
Liberatore, who was born in Niles, Ohio, took her vows at 20. After a lifetime spent in the company of her sisters, the last few years have been a time of quiet reflection and introspection on her own, she said. Now, however, it is time to return to her community.
"I began to have the sense that there was something in my own community that God was calling me to," she said.
She will become the director of ongoing spiritual formation at the congregation's headquarters in Chardon, a move that also will allow her to be closer to her aging parents.
Liberatore arrived at the school in 1981, assigned by her superiors after teaching assignments in Ohio and Florida. She taught English, religion and government and lived in the dormitory with the students, who came to Middleburg from around the world.
By the late 1980s, Notre Dame Academy had become the only school outside Ohio owned and run by the Chardon branch of the Sisters of Notre Dame, and it decided it was time to leave. It considered closing the popular school, but residents stepped in, urging the school to accept more day students and then to accept boys. A local board of directors leased the school in 1994 and then bought it outright in 2000. Now, enrollment has grown to 300. The dorms where the girls once lived have been turned into a bright art studio. The convent houses administrative offices.
"There's a level of stability now," Liberatore said. "Not in the sense of things being stagnant, but in terms of there being an ability to grow."
In some ways, Liberatore defies her students' expectations of a nun. She's an avid hiker who has trekked 161 of the more than 184 miles along the C&O Canal and has promised to complete the final miles on future visits. She reads mystery novels and loves to dance, including moves she has learned from her students, such as the electric slide and the tootsie roll.
"I don't know if these are things people expect, but these are the things I love to do," she said.
Still, she remains a solemn presence to students, said Lisa C. Clough, Notre Dame Academy communications director and a parent.
"If she walks into the gym when the students are there, they'll get quiet," she said. "It's like Elvis is in the building."
She also has embedded herself in the community, said the Rev. Joseph Biniek, priest at Middleburg's St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church, who visits the school several times a year to conduct services. Biniek said Liberatore has played a key role in helping the Windy Hill Foundation get affordable housing built in town, and she often ministers to residents long after their children have graduated from the school.
"She has been a very important part of the local scene here," he said. Her departure has been "a little shake, a sign things are changing that we never thought would change."
Yesterday, Liberatore attended the on-campus wedding of two Notre Dame faculty members who met while teaching at the school -- another symbol of the changes that have come to a place where once the teachers were all nuns.
Her final prayers planned for today are a repetition of a similar circuit she made with departing sisters in 2000. At that time, they shared memories and said goodbye together. Today, she planned to walk alone.
"When I decided to stay on, I had to ask, for how long?" she said. "I knew I would know when. It would feel right."