Visitation sisters tailgate at Canonization Mass

First slide

The five Visitation sisters were just looking for a quiet, shady spot to eat their Booeymonger sandwiches before the big canonization Mass Sept. 23 - not trying to start a media firestorm.

But when they unwittingly pulled into a parking lot reserved for the press behind the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, their plans changed quickly. The religious sisters, clad in their long navy-blue-and-white habits, sitting around a minivan with the trunk popped open, proved an irresistible sight to a bus full of reporters. Photos of the "tailgating nuns" tweeted out by Catholic Herald and NBC reporters wound up in the Washingtonian, People, "The Today Show," ABC News, CBS News, Buzzfeed and even Vanity Fair.

"We just thought we would have a quiet little lunch before we went in," said Mother Mary Berchmans Hannan, who was featured in the photos with Sisters Anne Frances Nganga, Jacqueline Burke and Joanne Gonter, as well as postulant Silvia Guerron. "We knew we couldn't get food past security."

They "certainly weren't expecting" the attention from the reporters and "weren't looking for it - but it was sort of fun," Mother Mary Berchmans said.

The sisters, whose religious community is formally known as the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, were thrilled to be able to see Pope Francis up close as he canonized Junipero Serra. The community, founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal in 1610, embraces a spirituality of "little virtues": kindness, gentleness, patience, thoughtful concern of others, joyful optimism and humility. "All the things Pope Francis is doing so well," Mother Mary Berchmans said.

"His simplicity is a beautiful thing," she added. "St. Francis de Sales always said that we should live as Jesus lived and Pope Francis does that so well. No pomp and circumstance about him, but genuineness and reaching out to all people."

Mother Mary Berchmans and her sisters try to pass on those same values to their students at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, the first Catholic school within the 13 American colonies, founded in 1799. After the photo went viral, the sisters heard from former students and acquaintances from all over the country.

"Never been prouder of my #visi roots," tweeted @meredithmetzler. "These nuns taught me to work hard in high school and obviously to also have fun," tweeted @MarcelaCMontes.

Mother Mary Berchmans suspects that's why the photo resonated with people.

"One of the things we heard a lot was that we seemed so happy and joyful," she said. "Community life is just about enjoying one another's company and supporting one another in every way we can."

Stachyra Lopez can be reached at

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015