Visitation Park is a very small neighborhood of less than a thousand persons on the North Side of the City of St. Louis. It takes its name from the Academy of the Visitation, which formerly occupied ten acres in the center of the neighborhood. When the Academy of the Visitation moved to the neighborhood in the 1890s, Visitation Park was part of the much larger Cabanne neighborhood, which included today’s Academy and West End (not to be confused with the Central West End) neighborhoods.
Origins of the Academy (1833-1844)
The Academy of the Visitation was once the heart of the neighborhood now known as Visitation Park. Until the 1960s when it was torn down, the castle-like structure of the school and convent occupied a large 10-acre tract in the center of the neighborhood. The story of the academy begins not in St. Louis but in Georgetown, District of Columbia, where the Sisters of the Visitation made a home after immigrating from France. In 1833 eight of the Sisters were ordered to travel west and establish a school in the near-abandoned town of Kaskaskia, Illinois. Kaskaskia, once a celebrated and bustling frontier boomtown in the Illinois territory, had by that time lost its prominence; incoming settlers bypassed Kaskaskia in favor of the more populous St. Louis. When the Sisters arrived at Kaskaskia, their first reaction was remorse and regret for ever having left Georgetown, but they made the best of their situation. They bought an abandoned hotel, and restored the building as a school. They paid local craftsmen to make desks, chairs, and beds, and so piece by piece they began a boarding school for girls. Soon elite from the region were sending their daughters to the remote Kaskaskia to be educated by the Sisters of the Visitation.
Despite their success, the Sisters’ stay in Kaskaskia was cut short by a dramatic flood. In the spring of 1844 the small Okaw River that they had admired upon their arrival swelled enough to inundate the entire town. As for the school, only the top floor was spared. A wealthy businessman who had his house on a high hill offered the Sisters and their students shelter. On the morning of June 26, 1844 the Sisters salvaged pianos, harps, desks, and benches from the top of the school with the aid of the steamboat Indiana. Later that day, full of cargo and the Sisters of the Visitation, the Indiana turned north toward St. Louis.
The Sisters of the Visitation in St. Louis (1844-1858)
In St. Louis the sisters initially arrived at a small convent on Sixth Street, which provided them with temporary lodging. But the Sisters were in need of their own building, which could accommodate classrooms and student dormitories. The Archdiocese of St. Louis soon provided them a structure on Ninth Street, between Caroll and Marion, which they occupied for twelve years.
Upon their arrival in St. Louis, the Sisters had found a benefactor in Mrs. Anne Mulanphy Biddle, a widow with a large mansion (and probable relation to the namesake of Biddle Street just north of Downtown St. Louis) who would play a critical role in the development of the Academy of the Visitation in St. Louis. Initially Biddle provided them with food and lodging in her home, but upon her death, she willed to the Sisters thirteen acres at 1928 Cass Avenue. The Cass Avenue convent and school opened in 1858.
They occupied the Cass Avenue building for thirty years while the bustling city expanded around them. Initially what was a quiet part of the city became busy and crowded. As was the case with many St. Louis institutions, the Academy of the Visitation soon looked west for a new location away from the activity of Downtown.
In Cabanne (1892-1962)
In the 1890s the Sisters bought a 10-acre tract of land in the Cabanne neighborhood, which was still mostly unsettled. Their new school located at the intersection of Cabanne and Belt Avenue, was completed in 1892. Students of the school later recalled being able to see the Côte Brilliante Native American mound (now Sherman Park) in the distance, among other landmarks, due to the few number of buildings then existing in that part of the city. However, the neighborhood experienced a boom in the few years leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. During the fair, the neighborhood and the Academy of the Visitation were admired by locals and tourists alike. International visitors were so impressed with the school that they enrolled their daughters and for some years in the future, the school was known for educating the daughters of South American diplomats.
The academy building itself was built in the French chateau style popular at the time, and coordinated well with other prominent St. Louis buildings. The building featured classrooms, a richly designed theatre, and dormitories for students as wells as the cloistered nuns, who for many years never left the grounds. Much of the furniture in the student dormitories, including beds and desks, was the same furniture used in Kaskaskia.
In the twentieth century the school grew its number of students and modernized its curriculum to comply with state accreditation. Eventually even the Sisters were allowed to leave the convent
for medical treatment. Alumni were eager to relay stories of happy moments spent on the convent grounds, even when school was not in session. In 1933 the Academy of the Visitation celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Abandoning Cabanne (1962-present)
By the 1960s the Cabanne neighborhood had become densely built, primarily with large single-family homes. Despite its long-established affluence, locals found fault with the design of the neighborhood, citing lack of green space and lack of street parking as crippling shortfalls. In the early 1960s migration out of Cabanne was already enough so that some called the neighborhood “blighted,” although this was probably hyperbole by today’s standards. In 1962 the Academy of the Visitation moved once again to its present location at the intersection of Ballas Road and Interstate 64. The Cabanne property was sold to the City of St. Louis and its seventy-year-old structure quickly demolished (soon after commencement) to make way for a public park, now called Ivory Perry Park. Where was once the Academy of the Visitation, an active and cherished institution in North City and the namesake of its neighborhood, there is now only grass.