Why is there a Convent Drive on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health? Was a nunnery there?
— Suzanne R. Glaser, Bethesda, Md.
On Oct. 23, 1949, Rita Parle, a young woman who had grown up in Omaha, listened as a Roman Catholic bishop blessed her and said, “Sister, you are no longer to live for yourself, you are dead to the world and to yourself and must live now only for God.”
She lay on the floor and was covered by a black funeral pall. A group of nuns recited prayers over her. Parle — or Sister Mary Rita, as she was then known — was at the Bethesda monastery of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.
She had already been there four years, arriving at age 20 and spending the first six months as a postulant before becoming a novice nun. After three years, she performed her first profession: professing her desire to pledge her life to God.
The ceremony on that day in 1949 marked Sister Mary Rita’s final profession. She was now a fully fledged Visitation Sister, or Visitandine.
Sister Mary Rita’s days would be centered on prayer and circumscribed by the cloistered convent in which she lived and which she could not leave. She wore a black habit and veil. She saw only other nuns and communicated with visitors from the outside world through a screen.
It was a vocation little changed since the Visitation order was founded 300 years earlier in France by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal.
The Visitation sisters who built the Bethesda monastery had originally been in downtown Washington. They had lived since the 1860s in a cloister at Connecticut Avenue and DeSales Street NW, a street named after the co-founder of the order.
But that neighborhood had grown up tremendously, making it less and less suitable for a contemplative life. In 1919, the nuns sold the land for $800,000 — it became the site of the Mayflower Hotel — and moved temporarily to another Visitation cloister, in Georgetown.
“They stayed here at this convent for a year or two figuring out what to do,” said Sister Mada-anne Gell, archivist of the Georgetown Visitation Monastery Archives. “Then they found the perfect site, so far out that no one would ever encroach on their grounds.”
They purchased 61 acres in Bethesda and built a new monastery. The red-brick neo-Georgian building was shaped like a U. There were vegetable gardens, fruit trees and chicken coops. Dairy cows provided milk and butter. The land was covered in trees. The gardens bloomed with yellow and red roses, irises, lilacs and peonies.
Inside the monastery, the nuns followed a strict schedule, rising at 5:30, attending Mass and praying together five times a day.
“We serve by praying,” explained Sister Mada-anne, who lives in the Georgetown cloister and taught at the nearby Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. “So much prayer is needed in our world and always has been.”
The experience, she said, is far from boring or solitary.
“The mark of a true contemplative is joy,” Sister Mada-anne said. “You’re living in the moment, doing ordinary things extraordinarily well, living in rhythm with the seasons.”
In 1938, NIH began relocating from the District to land adjacent to the convent. As the research institution grew, it needed more space. The sisters sold 50 acres to NIH in 1949. Over time, more buildings began to encroach on the cloister, just as they had downtown.
In 1982, the church decided to sell the remaining land to NIH, close the convent and relocate the sisters. The bodies of 23 sisters who were buried in the convent’s cemetery were exhumed and reinterred elsewhere.
The monastery building is now home to the Mary Woodard Lasker Center for Health Research and Education, a research training program for medical students. Building 60 — colloquially known as the Convent or the Cloisters — is the oldest building on the NIH campus.
The last sisters — there were 17, including one who had lived in the monastery for nearly 60 years — moved to other Visitation locations, including Georgetown.
This did not include Sister Mary Rita. Though she rose to become mother superior, in 1969, she decided to leave the monastery. Five years after that, she ceased being a nun.
Parle returned to Nebraska, earned a PhD in counseling and human development, and ran a 12-county mental health program before retiring and relocating to Washington state.
Answer Man called her on the phone.
“I’d rather you just say, ‘She went on to another life and has a very peaceful happy old age at 95, surrounded by loving friends and people,’” said Parle, whose unpublished memoir is in the NIH Office of History. “I loved the contemplative life. I still do. I go to Mass every day, as much as I can.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.