A band of six IHM sisters departed from Immaculata, Pennsylvania for “Ole Virginny” headed by Mother Mary Josepha and Sisters Mary Selesia, Mary Grace Madeline, Mary Rosemary, Mary Cecil and Mary Frances Bernardine. Sister Mary Pierre left a day later. Laden with boxes and bundles they arrived at Union Station where the warmth of Father Van’s welcome must have surely compensated for the dark skies and torrential rain which greeted them as they detrained.
The following excerpts are from the First Annals of Villa Maria Convent: “The route led along Lee Highway, from which it branched off to Leesburg Pike. The first of the parish’s buildings to greet their eyes was St. James School, a three-story building of red brick, set back about sixty feet from the highway and surrounded by spacious playgrounds. The Sisters’ first visit was to our dear Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Before His tiny altar-throne in the beautiful little church, they knelt to consecrate themselves once more to His service. A very substantial meal had been prepared at the Rectory, and if good appetites are the criterion of strong vocation, then there is little doubt of Virginia’s pioneer band wavering. After dinner the Sisters proceeded on a tour of inspection.”
The Sisters’ first days were spent unpacking furnishings for the Chapel and household effects for the convent. The convent was renamed “Villa Maria.” The convent was substantially built with fine quality woodwork, though improvements were needed to repair drainage and plumbing and replace appliances. In the basement were the kitchen, refectory, laundry, store room and boiler room. On the first floor were rooms suitable for a parlor, music room and classrooms. On the third floor could be found a community room, dormitory, a semi-private room and eight individual cells; a spacious attic was above. The “most beautiful part of the interior was the Chapel.”
The Sisters also unpacked a thousand volumes of books for the school library; fifteen typewriters, adding machines and a duplicator for a postgraduate secretarial course which was to be taught in the convent.
On September 17, 1923, the IHM Sisters opened St. James School with 92 pupils enrolled. On the same day Villa Maria High School opened in the convent with eight students who registered for advanced work. On April 23, 1926 Bishop Denis J. O’Connell transferred the deed for Villa Maria Convent to the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The high school fulfilled state and diocesan requirements and in 1925 received the coveted affiliation with The Catholic University of America. Both the school and high school progressed successfully with “the excellent teaching and great discipline given by the Sisters.”
The Sisters began many traditions still followed in our parish today -- Christmas Pageants, honoring our Blessed Mother in May, musical and theatrical performances enjoyed by both parents and parishioners. Father Van knew he brought the “most efficient and best Sisters of this country” to St. James Parish. Father Van said, “You parents and children are all here, without exception to back by facts, this pastoral assertion. Thanks to my Dear Sisters!”