In 1737, explorer William Byrd gazed across the James River and was reminded o f his home, Richmond-on-Thames in England. This area came to be known as Church Hill because it was at St. John’s Church there that Patrick Henry delivered his famous challenge, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” The land was first developed by Richard Adams, a Richmond citizen and personal friend of Thomas Jefferson. Adams built a white frame house near the top of the hill around 1788. The house was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War. Later, Washington and Lafayette attended dances there. Around 1810, one of Richard Adams’ descendants added another house and a one-story federal building. By 1844, this house had been bought by a clerk of the court named Palmer and then sold to William Taylor, who added two more stories, a porch, and a cupola, which increased the building’s capacity from six to twenty rooms. The Palmer-Taylor house was used to house wounded soldiers during the Civil War and served as the headquarters for a Union general. The Taylor family lived upstairs while the soldiers lived below.
After the Civil War the spirit of Richmond Hill began to emerge. In 1866, Bishop McGill looked at the war-torn city of Richmond and felt the call to pray for the city. Seven Sisters of the Visitation, a contemplative order that was founded in France in the early 1600s by Saints Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales, came from Baltimore at the Bishop’s request to start a convent. He purchased the Palmer-Taylor house for them, and they named their new home Monte Maria, meaning Mountain of Mary. In order to sustain themselves financially, the Sisters of Visitation established a school for girls, Monte Maria Academy, on the property. It opened on September 17, 1866 with five boarders and 24 day students. In 1877 Bishop Gibbons deeded the house to the Sisters for five dollars, and city officials gave them permission to close off the spur of 22 nd street that bisected the property. A high wall was built around the convent, and in return for the city’s gift to them, members of the order built terraces and a public park named Taylor Hill.
In 1894, the Sisters of Visitation began work on the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, funded by an endowment from Mrs. Thomas Fortune Ryan. The chapel is still in use today. The Sisters then added a dormitory, visiting parlors, and in the early 1900s, a new brick wall around the garden. The Sisters staged a fund drive to raise money for a new dormitory after sixty applications to the school were rejected in the 1918-1919 school year due to lack of space. They believed that God would provide, and construction began before all the money was available. In 1922, Mother Mary Magdalene received a legacy from her brother that enabled the Academy to pay for the cost of the new building. Mother Mary Magdalene died in 1927, leaving the remainder of her legacy to Monte Maria, allowing the Sisters to return to a contemplative life. After voting by secret ballot, they decided to close the doors of the Academy, doing so after a final graduation and farewell reunion. Monte Maria became a true monastery, walled off from the world, devoted wholly to prayer.
The old house was torn down and a greenhouse and porch were built on the foundations. Dormitories were converted to sleeping quarters for the Sisters; the dining room became an assembly hall and the gym, a refectory. In the first decade after the enclosure, the monastery attracted 10 new postulants and a new resident chaplain. Father A. J. Van Inglegem, of West Falls Church, Virginia, resigned his pastorate to come live at Monte Maria, and the Sisters built a cottage for him.
The Sisters maintained the property, having little contact with the outside world except for one nun who did the shopping. The Sisters began their day at 5:00 am and ended their day at 10:00pm. They had morning prayers and four additional sessions of collective prayer during the day. Sisters did their own cooking, sewing, plumbing, and carpentry. Their prime source of income was baking communion bread, used by nearly 100 parishes and the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. They also had and artist’s workshop and a printing press.
In 1980 it became apparent that the Church Hill property was too small and the facilities were not sufficient to care for their aging members. They decided to move outside of the city, began building a new monastery in Rockville in Hanover County, and put Monte Maria up for sale.
The Reverend Benjamin Campbell, priest in residence at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, gathered some Christians who shared his vision that the monastery remain a place of prayer. This group of Christian’s, calling themselves Richmond Hill, attracted clergy and laypeople from all over metropolitan Richmond. By December 5, 1985 Richmond Hill had a board of men and women who responded to Ben Campbell’s open invitation to the tasks of fundraising, public relations, and membership. Eventually this board became a council of duly elected members. The Board began the task of raising $1,000,000 in time to purchase the option for Monte Maria. They were ultimately successful, and on November 30, 1987 the Richmond Hill Board purchased Monte Maria for $630,000. Money for the purchase came from loans and donations. The Jesse Ball Dupont Foundation loaned the Board $100,000 but forgave $80,000 of the loan, while a $300,000 loan from the Historic Richmond Foundation was repaid by an anonymous donor. Others donated furniture and equipment.
While raising money for the purchase of Richmond Hill, the Board adopted policies for governing that are still in effect today:
Richmond Hill would be and ecumenical retreat 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.
From 1988 to 1990 fundraising continued, and the first few residents and volunteers established a pattern of life at Richmond Hill. The chapel, library, and grounds were opened to the public, and a regular cycle of prayers began. In 1990, overnight retreats began once the center obtained a Certificate of Occupancy from the city. Clergy from all over the Richmond came to lead Monday night worship, celebrating the Eucharist with congregants from a wide variety of denominations.
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 the downtown area. Richmond Hill is a non-profit corporation that is governed by a Council consisting of residents, staff and members of many Christian denominations. Individuals and churches are asked to support Richmond Hill through modest monthly pledges and gifts. The facility offers individual and group retreats, workshops, and classes to revive and inform the spirituality, the ministry, and the urban life of metropolitan Richmond. The chapel, gardens, and library are open to the public for prayer, study, and meditation. Overnight accommodations are available for both individuals and groups. Richmond Hill maintains a residential community of persons who commit themselves to a ministry of hospitality and prayer. Some residents are full-time staff at the center while others have outside ministries. The facility is also supported by non-residential staff, and by several hundred volunteers. Richmond Hill has daily prayer for persons or situations for which prayer is requested. There is also a weekly prayer cycle for the city of Richmond, surrounding counties, businesses, hospitals, prisons, and all residents of the city and counties.
2209 East Grace Street
Richmond, VA 23223
Profile prepared by Norma Montgomery