This article describes the history of the buildings and property associated with Richmond Hill, beginning in the Colonial Era. Please follow the history of Richmond Hill through the following periods:
The “First” Richmond Hill
The Establishment of Monte Maria
Life in the Monastery
The “New” Richmond Hill
The Renovation of Richmond Hill
THE “FIRST” RICHMOND HILL
Located on the crest of Church Hill, the city’s highest point, Richmond Hill offers an island of peace and quiet in the heart of downtown Richmond. It was here that the city received its name when, in 1737, explorer William Byrd gazed out across the James River and was reminded of his home, Richmond-on-Thames, England. Today this area is known as Church Hill because it was here, at St. John’s Church, that Patrick Henry delivered his famous challenge, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Like the name Richmond Hill, the land on which Byrd stood has had several owners. It was first developed by Richard Adams, one of Richmond’s most prominent citizens and a personal friend of Thomas Jefferson. Adams built a white frame house near the brow of the hill somewhere around 1788. This house was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War. Later, Washington and Lafayette attended dances there.
Sometime around 1810, one of Adams’s descendants added another house to the property, a one-story Federal building. By 1844 this house had been bought by a clerk of court named Palmer and sold to a Mr. William Taylor, who added two more stories, a porch and a cupola, and increased the building’s capacity from six to twenty rooms.
Like many other homes in Richmond, the Palmer-Taylor house was used to quarter wounded soldiers during the Civil War; but unlike many other homes, it was also used as headquarters by a Union general. The Taylor family was relegated to the upstairs rooms while soldiers took up residence below.
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF MONTE MARIA
It was after the Civil War that the spirit of Richmond Hill truly began to take shape. In 1866, Bishop McGill looked out across war-torn Richmond and felt an urgent call to pray for the city. At his request, seven Sisters of the Visitation came down from Baltimore to establish a convent, and he purchased the now-available Palmer-Taylor house for their use. They named their new home Monte Maria, meaning “Mountain of Mary.”
Founded in France in the early 1600′s by Saints Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales, the order of the Visitation is a contemplative order based on prayer and contemplation. However, the Sisters of Monte Maria were soon forced to open a girls’ school on their property to make ends meet. Thus was Monte Maria Academy born. It opened its doors on September 17, 1866, with five boarders and 24 day students; and it grew steadily for the next 61 years. In 1877 Bishop Gibbons deeded the Adams house to the Sisters for five dollars, and city officials gave them permission to close off the spur of 22nd street which bisected their property. The Sisters erected a high wall around their convent and, in return for the city’s gift to them, built the terraces and public park called “Taylor’s Hill” which extend downhill from the rear of the Palmer-Taylor house.
Monte Maria grew quickly. In 1894, thanks to a generous endowment from Mrs. Thomas Fortune Ryan, the Sisters began work on what was to become the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, still in use by the Richmond Hill community today. The Sisters also added an attached dormitory and visiting parlors and, in the early 1900′s, a new brick wall around the garden. In 1918 – 1919 school year, when sixty applications for the girls’ school were rejected for lack of space, the Sisters staged a fund drive to raise enough money to build a new dormitory. Believing strongly that God would provide, they began construction even before all the money was in hand; and sure enough, in 1922 Mother Mary Magdalen received a legacy from her brother which allowed the Academy to pay off the new building.
In 1927, however, Mother Mary Magdalen died and left the rest of her legacy to Monte Maria. This sudden windfall allowed the Sisters to fulfill their decades-long dream of a return to a contemplative life. Voting unanimously by secret ballot, the Sisters closed the doors of the Academy after a final graduation and farewell reunion. From now on, Monte Maria would be a true monastery, walled off from the world and wholly devoted to prayer.
LIFE IN THE MONASTERY
Energized by the return to contemplation, the Sisters began major renovations to their property. The old Adams house was torn down, and a greenhouse and cloistered porch erected on its foundations. The girls’ dormitories became sleeping quarters for the Sisters; the dining room, an assembly hall; and the gym (with its floor raised), a refectory.
Monte Maria flourished under its new way of life. Within the first decade of enclosure, the monastery attracted ten new postulants, as well as a resident chaplain. Father A. J. Van Ingelgem, of West Falls Church, Va., resigned his pastorate to come and live at Monte Maria; and the Sisters built him a cottage in the garden. Later the monastery would be home to as many as 36 Sisters at one time.
As a cloistered community, the Sisters had very little contact with the outside world. They maintained the property, as much as possible, on their own. According to one anonymous source, “The furnace of the old building is said to have been kept working by a ‘diminutive nun with a wire coat hanger.’” The monastery even had its own dental office, where a visiting dentist could perform minor surgery on the premises. The only sister authorized to leave the grounds was the “outside nun,” who did most of the community’s shopping.
A typical day in the monastery began at 5:00 a.m. with morning prayers and ended at 10:00 p.m., after four more sessions of corporate prayer. In between, the Sisters observed twice-daily personal meditations. Each Sister also had her own tasks to perform: cooking, sewing, plumbing, carpentry, etc. However, the monastery’s primary income came from baking communion bread, which was used by nearly 100 parishes and also by the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet (said to be their biggest consumer). The Sisters also had an artist’s workshop and a printing press.
In 1975 Monte Maria renovated its chapel, with the Sisters doing most of the preparatory work themselves. However, by the early 1980′s it had become apparent that the Church Hill property could no longer meet their needs. Citing lack of space and facilities to care for their older members, they decided to sell Monte Maria and move out to the country.
THE “NEW” RICHMOND HILL
After receiving permission from their religious officer in Rome, the Sisters put the Monte Maria property up for sale and began construction of a new monastery in Rockville, in Hanover County. Meanwhile, news of the pending sale of Monte Maria Monastery drew interested developers from as far away as New York City. The property was prime real estate.
Among those pursuing the sale was a rather unusual group. The Rev. Benjamin Campbell, Priest in Residence at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, had gathered a band of Christians who shared his vision that the monastery remain a place of prayer. Calling itself Richmond Hill, this eclectic group attracted clergy and laypeople from all over metropolitan Richmond. At St. Paul’s, the enthusiasm was so high that less-interested members of the congregation were heard to say, “Those crazy Richmond Hill people, that’s all they talk about!”
By December of 1985, Richmond Hill had a Board consisting of men and women who responded to Ben Campbell’s open invitation: “If you can fill this specific job [Fund Raising, Public Relations, Membership, etc.], raise your hand.” Eventually, this fledgling Board would become a Council of duly elected members.
The Board immediately began work on a nearly impossible task: raising $1,000,000 in time to purchase the option on the Monte Maria property. At the same time, they also began outlining the policies which still govern Richmond Hill today:
• Richmond Hill would be an ecumenical retreat center based on prayer, healing, hospitality and reconciliation.
• This center would be distinctively Christian, but would welcome people of other faiths who chose to worship there.
• Richmond Hill would house a full-time residential community that would support the operation of the retreat center.
• The community would be made up of men and women, clergy and lay people, black and white, old and young, single and married.
The Board was unable to secure first option on Monte Maria, but thanks to overwhelming local support and lots of prayer, their efforts were successful in the end: on November 30, 1987, the Richmond Hill Board purchased Monte Maria for $636,000. The headline in the Update newsletter said it all: “The Monastery Is Ours — and God’s.” From the beginning, everyone involved had a clear sense that they were stewards of a property that truly belonged to God.
Money for the purchase had arrived in the form of loans and donations, and in the ensuing months, Richmond Hill received still more blessings. The Jesse Ball DuPont Foundation, which had presented the Board with a loan of $100,000, forgave $80,000 of that amount; while the $300,000 loan from the Historic Richmond Foundation was repaid by an anonymous donor. Others gifted the new retreat center with furniture and equipment to replace what the Sisters had taken with them to Rockville. Richmond Hill was now well furnished.
The Richmond Hill Renovation
In December 2004, we completed an $8 million renovation which will preserve the monastery for another generation. The newly renovated facility now includes a modern kitchen, heating and air conditioning system, and is handicapped accessible. The renovation included the addition of a Cloister, which connected all of the buildings together, and the west meeting room, a large meeting room with a beautiful view overlooking the city. The old Solarium was torn down, and in its place a new wing of the building was added with office space for the staff of Richmond Hill, a brand new Solarium, and an inward facing stained glass sundial that as far as we know is one of only two in the world.
Goodpasture, H. McKennie. The Story of Richmond Hill: The First Twelve Years. Richmond, 1999 (Copies of this book may be purchased from our Gift Shop).
Sentinel on the Hill. Richmond: Monastery of the Visitation, 1966
Waldrop, Lynn M. “Historical Report: Monte Maria Monastery, Church Hill, Richmond, Virginia.” Unpublished. February 1985.
–information compiled by Karin Allen, Cindy Bowers and Page Harmon