By Glynis Board
West Virginia Public BroadcastingWHEELING, 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."