I was blessed to attend a celebration with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Powhatan, Virginia. March 5th was “Super Saturday” and a big day to celebrate the Feast of St. Katharine Drexel (March 3rd), the opening of a new museum at the Belmead Mansion, the opening of a new Preschool, and honoring the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. It was a joyous occasion to celebrate this holy and historic site, and to help bring attention to this wonderful resource in Virginia that continues the work of St. Katharine Drexel.
NEW Museum at Belmead Mansion
ENSLAVEMENT | EMPOWERMENT | ENVIRONMENT
… a Place of Healing, …of Learning, …and of Peace
This new museum showcases the people, history, and nature of the 2,265 acres of FrancisEmma property and tells vitally important stories for American History. The sisters are planning to open the museum to the public two days a week, and tours will be led by the young people in the new Docent Training Program. The docents learn and share their knowledge about the important histories and ongoing preservation at FrancisEmma, and are paid a stipend. The new museum is focused on three areas to tell the rich history of the land and people along the James River in Central Virginia:
Era of Enslavement (1838-1865)
The Belmead Plantation was owned by the Cocke family and they had many slaves to run the farm. The museum shows the difficult life of slaves with archival photos, stories, and archeology. The sisters have also preserved a slave graveyard and are working to document more about the lives of slaves at Belmead.
Era of Empowerment (1895-1972)
During the Era of Empowerment the Drexel family purchased this property and St. Katherine Drexel arrived to help develop two schools to serve African-American children, St. Emma’s Military Academy for boys, and St. Francis de Sales School for girls. These were the first schools that St. Katharine built and went on to graduate over 20,000 children. St. Katharine Drexel had a strong belief that the best way to bring people out of poverty was to provide an education for empowerment to a better life. Indeed, St. Katherine’s dream came true as many of the alumni went on to become doctors, nurses, teachers, clergy, trade professionals, and community leaders.
Era of Environment (2005 and “… unto the 7th Generation)
After the the schools closed in 1972 due to desegregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament left the property, but continued to manage and rent some of the buildings to church and community groups. In 2005, the sisters returned to Powhatan, Virginia with a new mission inspired by St. Katharine Drexel and formed a new non-profit organization with other community members called Francis-Emma, Inc. that put the majority of the property in a protective easement. The sisters also received help from The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, The James River Association, and the Nature Conservancy. St. Katharine Drexel started her religious life in the Secular Franciscan Order before founding her order of nuns, and she continued to value the teachings of St. Francis and St. Clare in caring for creation. FrancisEmma Inc. developed the following values for this beautiful property with the Native American tradition of planning for 7 generations in the future:
Value Statements of FrancisEmma
FrancisEmma, Inc. acknowledges the power and beauty inherent in the story of the 2,265 acres of land entrusted to its care. We understand our role as special advocates for the sustainable environmental health of the land’s destiny as well as of our own. In view of this reality, we are called to:
- Acknowledge the rights of all life forms in mutually supportive sacred communities.
- Create an atmosphere that reverences natural, cultural, and historical heritages.
- Partner with those who share the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament mission and vision.
- Provide opportunity for youth and adults to experience the wonder of the Divine in the natural world.
- Balance the financial needs of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament’s mission while maintaining the sustainability of the land.
Programs at FrancisEmma
There are four Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament living and serving in many ministries in Powhatan, Virginia:
- Workshop Way: a new preschool serving children 3 & 4 years old using the WorkShop Way model of learning. Program is managed by Sister Beulah Martin, SBS, MA (Masters in Early Childhood)
- Sister Jean’s Garden: Volunteers committed to community supported agriculture make it possible for Francis-Emma to bring healthy foods to local food pantries for use by those having a hard time making ends meet.
- Thomas Berry Educational Center: FrancisEmma, Inc. is committed to a sustainable land ethic that acknowledges and respects the rights of all being. Therefore, the physical and spiritual environment created at St. Francis de Sales and St. Emma is one where all beings can thrive. We invite all to join in this ministry of Peace and Justice, Joy and Care with all the living and nonliving beings who inhabit the entire 2265 acres of rolling woodlands, pasture, wetlands, and floodplains in the Piedmont region of Virginia. Our ecological ethic links land and sustainable activities to all that occurs here and is foundational to the dream and vision of all that we do.
- 30 Miles of walking and horseback riding trails on property, including a marked 2-mile nature trail for education and conservation.
- Belmead BioBlitz — people helping to protect God’s Creation with education and conservation activities.
- The Birds of Belmead – pamphlet for birdwatchers — over 50 species identified by Audubon Bird Watch.
- Access for canoes and kayaks to explore on the James River.
- Study of the heavens with star gazing events hosted by the Richmond Astronomical Society.
- Belmead Stables & Riding Club: Horse boarding, pastures, and riding offered with access to 30 miles of riding trails.
FrancisEmma had more than 5,ooo volunteers and visitors in 2015, please come for a visit or to volunteer with the sisters!
The sisters started a Docent Training Program that offers young people the opportunity to learn more about the history of the FrancisEmma property and to teach visitors about the new museum on guided tours. The docents receive a stipend for the their work and this has been funded through a partnership with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and The National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Belmead Mansion (St. Emma’s) is on the National List of sites for Historic Preservation and the sisters are working to add St. Francis de Sales School.
Education: Workshop Way Preschool
A new Workshop Way Preschool at FrancisEmma has been started by Sister Beulah serving children ages 3 & 4. Workshop Way© is a system of human growth for education, for learners of all ages. Created by Sr. Grace H. Pilon, SBS. “All students can learn if they first get everything that is human inside of then: intellectual needs satisfied, all sense powers sharpened, life skills grown, and consciousness with all its thinking powers developed.” Applications are being accepted now and financial assistance is available (click link above for more information)
Collaborations with colleges
- University of Virginia: students and professors in nearby Charlottesville came to help survey the land and document the history of this sacred and holy site.
- Xavier University: students from university founded by St. Katherine Drexel come for continued field study in biology, botany, and conservation.
Ways to Help the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament returned to the St.Francis/St.Emma property as a community ten years ago to help restore and rebuild the land and buildings, as well as new ministries to serve the community in their mission. The sisters have raised $4.5 million so far to help in the restoration, maintenance, and providing new ministries, but are need in need of much more to reach their goals:
- Current goal to raise $200,000 dollars to gain a matching grant from The Cabbell Foundation — to pay for painting and exterior restoration at Belmead Mansion (St. Emma’s Military Academy)
- Goal to raise $3 million dollars to complete the restoration of Belmead Mansion in the next two years.
- Long-term goal to raise $30 million dollars to restore St. Francis de Sales School and Church.
- Looking for additional partnerships and volunteers who share the goals and mission of Francis-Emma, Inc.
- Maybe you have a calling to a vocation with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament?
I am looking to help bring more from my local community and the Secular Franciscan Order to help with this worthy project in helping the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Please contact Sister Maureen if you are able to help:
Contact for Francis-Emma, Inc.
Sister Maureen Carroll, S.B.S.
phone: (804) 598-8938
mail: 5004 Cartersville, Road, Powhatan, VA 23139