BAY RIDGE — Faced with dwindling numbers in its ranks — a dilemma faced by many religious communities in the U.S. — the Visitation Sisters confirmed that they are closing their monastery and ending their sponsorship of Visitation Academy in Bay Ridge.
Visitation Academy will close at the end of the school year in June, said Mother Susan Marie Kasprzak, VHM, one of only two sisters who remain living at the monastery. She called the impending closure of the school “painful.”
The closure of both the academy and the monastery was also confirmed in a letter Mother Susan, the Visitation Board, and Principal Jean Bernieri sent to parents on Feb. 5.
“We know that this decision is heart-wrenching for our families and our students,” the letter read. Bernieri did not return requests for comment from The Tablet.
Visitation Academy, a 3-K to eighth grade all-girls school, currently has an enrollment of 92 students.
The Visitation Sisters and school officials will assist parents in finding new schools in which to enroll their daughters, the letter read. To that end, an informational meeting for parents will take place on Friday, Feb. 9.
And while the Diocese of Brooklyn did not have a hand in the decision to close the school, it too will help parents find other Catholic schools for the children, said Deacon Kevin McCormack, superintendent of schools for the diocese.
The Feb. 9 meeting is part of that effort. “There will be resources made available from the local schools. Three of the schools will have open houses in the following week in which the parents can see what’s the best fit for their child,” he explained.
The Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights area has a number of Catholic schools, including St. Patrick Catholic Academy, Bay Ridge Catholic Academy, St. Ephrem Catholic Academy, and St. Bernadette Catholic Academy.
Meanwhile, no date has been set for the closure of the monastery but Sister Marie said it likely won’t shut its doors until several months after the academy’s closure.
That’s because several steps have to take place first, including having auditors come in to conduct an inventory of all of the religious items in the monastery, including statues, and then cataloging those items.
In addition, Mother Susan and Sister Mary must enter into a period of prayerful discernment to determine where God wants them to go. Each sister will likely go to live in another Visitation community somewhere in the U.S., Mother Susan said.
With the closure of the monastery and the school, “Jesus has to move, too. That’s the sad thing,” she added.
It’s too early to talk about what will happen to the bucolic, 7.5-acre property on which the monastery and the school are located, or whether it will be sold, Mother Susan said. “I would like to keep it holy ground,” she explained.
Technically, the property, which boasts clusters of trees and a small lake, along with the monastery, the chapel, and the school, is owned by the Visitation Sisters of Brooklyn Inc., a corporation.
But the sisters really had no choice but to close and say goodbye to Bay Ridge, Mother Susan explained. The decision to close was dictated by rules of the Holy See governing religious communities.
Under “Cor Orans,” a set of instructions from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, when the number of sisters living in a community drops to a point where carrying on a full ministry becomes difficult, certain steps must be taken.
Those steps include establishing an ad-hoc commission to take a hard look at the community’s future viability. It was the ad-hoc commission that made the decision to close, Mother Susan said.
The Visitation Sisters, formally called the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, were founded in France in 1610. The sisters first came to the U.S. to establish a community in 1833 and came to Brooklyn in 1855, setting up a monastery in Downtown Brooklyn. Mother Susan said the sisters came to Bay Ridge in 1903, establishing both the monastery and Visitation Academy on Ridge Boulevard.
The monastery opened in an abandoned building that had formerly served as a hospital that treated alcoholics. It had been empty for approximately eight years when the Visitation Sisters moved in, Mother Susan said. The sisters then built a chapel at the academy.
Visitation Monastery is closing at a time when the numbers of vocations of women religious are on the decline worldwide.
According to the Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate (CARA), that downward trend is reflected in the U.S., where the number of nuns decreased from approximately 180,000 in 1965 to approximately 36,000 nuns in 2022 — a 78% drop.
Vocations are also decreasing. According to CARA, 87% of the religious communities that responded to its survey reported that they had no new vocations at all in 2023. The survey covered religious communities of priests and nuns.
The Diocese of Brooklyn issued a statement expressing sadness at the closure of the monastery and the academy.
“There is a significant history to reflect on with great appreciation for their nearly 170-year commitment to the Catholic faith, the students, and the surrounding community. They leave a great and powerful legacy in the many young women who have been educated on their grounds and by their many prayerful acts,” the statement read.