Remembering The Mount

A long-awaited film, examining the history and documenting the final days of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy in Wheeling, has been completed.

The Mount educated generations of young women for 160 years, from the time of the private school’s founding in 1848 until its closure in 2008. For 38 years, from 1970 to 2008, younger children of both genders also were enrolled in the institution’s Montessori preschool and elementary programs.

The documentary, titled “For Mind and Spirit,” has been released in a DVD format. Copies of the DVD are now being sold at the Wheeling Artisan Center.

A “red carpet” premiere of the documentary will take place Tuesday, July 10, at the Ohio County Public Library, 52 16th St., Wheeling. Dr. Barbara Howe, a retired professor of history and women’s history at West Virginia University, will offer remarks in the library’s auditorium at 6:30 p.m.

Howe will talk about the school’s founding and its early days, said Sean Duffy, coordinator of programming at the library.

Immediately after Howe’s remarks, at approximately 7 p.m., the film will be shown on the big screen in the auditorium, Duffy said. The presentation is free and open to the public.

Sister Joanne Gonter, VHM, a former superior of the Mount community who now resides at the Georgetown Visitation convent in Washington, D.C., is pleased with the film. She said, “When the five of us Mount sisters here at Georgetown viewed the DVD, it is not an exaggeration to say that we were thrilled.”

The Mount de Chantal film was produced by the Walkabout Co. of Wheeling. The project, begun by Walkabout owners Deb and Rick Warmuth in 2008, took four years to complete. The project entailed extensive research, filming of classroom scenes and events during the final two months of the school’s last academic year (2007-08) and conducting interviews. Writing, narration and editing followed.

Deb Warmuth served as producer for the project. Her husband, Rick, was the writer, director and editor. Dr. David Javersak, a retired professor of history at West Liberty University, conducted research for the film.

Major funding for the film was provided by the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., funded in part by the National Park Service. Additional funding was provided by the Schenk Charitable Trust and the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley.

Work on the project started in early 2008, soon after the Sisters of the Visitation announced that the academy would be closing permanently on May 30, 2008.

Jeremy Morris, executive director of WNHAC, emphasized that the film project began long before the school’s buildings were demolished. The demolition is not mentioned on the DVD, although the narration uses the past tense to describe some of the architectural features in the Mount’s main building.

“This (filming) was happening three years before the demolition took place,” Morris said. “It’s a major undertaking to do video documentation like this and to turn it into a viewable piece.”

Previously, WNHAC documented the last days of the Marsh Wheeling Stogie plant and the LaBelle nail factory, Morris said. “When we hear of these institutions going to close, we try to put some money into documenting them before they’re gone,” he explained.

As part of the Mount project, Michael Gioulis, who specializes in preservation and rehabilitation, documented the building and wrote “a thorough architectural description of the building from end to end,” Morris said.

The film offers a history of Mount de Chantal, interspersing vintage photographs with modern video of the students, faculty and facilities. The film documents “the history of the Sisters of the Visitation and how they came to be in Wheeling,” Morris said.

Officials of West Virginia Public Broadcasting have shown interest in airing the documentary, Morris said. A screening at Wheeling Jesuit University also is anticipated.

The Warmuths stated, “We first approached the sisters about a documentary in the fall/winter of 2007. It was in 2008 and the announcement of the closing that prompted us to quickly enter the first phase of the project, and that was to document daily life at the school.

“The faculty and students were very helpful as we filmed the last two months of the school – classrooms, lunch time, student free time, Masses and graduation for both the seniors and juniors,” the filmmakers related. “We were in the school at least three days a week during the last two months, for taping as well as still photography. We also used this time to document the complete interior and exterior architecture using hi-res still photography. With the last graduation, we completed the first phase of the project – documenting the institution.”

Gonter commented, “When Deb and Rick (Warmuth) first asked us for permission to take pictures, do interviews and look through materials in the Mount archives, we immediately said ‘yes.’ As the archives contain pictures and printed and handwritten material from 1848 on, it was a daunting task to produce a 30-minute DVD, but they accomplished that masterfully.”

The Mount de Chantal Alumnae Association purchased 100 copies of the DVD, Gonter said, adding that they planned to sell the DVDs at the alumnae reunion held at Georgetown Visitation Academy Saturday, June 23. She said they expected about 60 alumnae and guests, including seven golden jubilarians and seven from the 60-year class of 1952, to attend.

“In the name of the five of us Sisters of the Visitation and of the Mount de Chantal Alumnae Association, we would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Deb and Rick, two very talented and generous persons, and to the representatives of the Wheeling National Heritage Area, the National Park Service, the Schenk Charitable Trust and the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley, as well as to all the persons who were involved in the filming,” Gonter said.

During the initial phase of the project, oral histories of each of the remaining sisters were committed to video. “While these were not included directly in the final documentary, they served as a valuable resource and became a part of the project archive,” the Warmuths said.

The filmmakers recalled, “Funding was fully available in 2010 and we spent several weeks scanning materials from the archives on site. We received a tremendous amount of help from Mount alum and archivist Dana Golden Jesky. She, along with the sisters; Kim Vickers, the school secretary, and Joe Mitch, who managed the physical plant, provided the support that allowed us to create a digital archive of much of the history of the Mount.

“We then had to distill 160 years into a single half-hour production. It was both a pleasure and a challenge,” the Warmuths commented.

Contemplating the best direction for the production, the producers said they decided that “there was great interest is the architecture, but we felt, while the building was a true treasure, it was a school, and it was the life of the school and the student that then became the focus of our work and was the true story of Mount de Chantal – that was the legacy – the people and young lives that were transformed.”

Many additional hours of footage and scores of still photographs remain from the production. Asked about the potential usage of that documentation, the Warmuths stated, “As to the future, we are working to create new projects to continue and expand the story of Mount de Chantal and we are in contact with the sisters in this regard.”

The Warmuths said, “We were genuinely pleased to have spent time at the Mount with the students, faculty and sisters. While it was a great loss to the community, it was also a source of inspiration, not just to us as filmmakers, but to generations of young women.

“It set a higher standard and demonstrated that it was possible and practical to pursue academic success while shaping character and enriching the spirit – all to send students out to face the challeges of the world armed with a good education, high intellectual capacity and a strong sense of self and moral character. It was a portrait of success that we were fortunate to be able to paint,” the filmmakers commented.

They added, “We are very pleased with the extremely positive reception given our work and look forward to continuing the effort. Our thanks to all those who supported the project.”

Observing that “Walkabout always does good work,” Morris said he hopes the documentary is well received. “There are so many (Mount) alumnae and so many families still in Wheeling,” he remarked.

The documentary opens with a scrapbook-style montage of old and new images of Mount students, teachers and nuns. Detailed line drawings illustrate the opening segments exploring life in Wheeling and the status of American edccation in the mid-19th century.

In an interview, Javersak explained that the state of Virginia was not providing public education at that time. “In places like Wheeling, the wealthy could afford to send their children to private schools or hire private tutors,” he said.

In another interview, Dr. Leslie Leidel described the Visitation sisters’ travels by train and stagecoach to reach Wheeling. The film’s narrator, C.J. Farnsworth, then shared insight into the academy’s early years. Detailed descriptions and footage of the school’s beautiful chapel, with its impressive altar and massive dome, and the large music hall, with its Wheeling-made Hobbs, Brockunier chandelier, are included in the film.

The film also features interviews with Mount students Mattie Cannon and Sara Fowler; 2007 graduate Sarah Harshman; her father, Marc Harshman, of Wheeling and alumna Winifred Bourne Foose.

As a student at the Mount, Fowler said, “You’re confident in yourself. You’re confident in what you’re thinking and what you’re doing … Your thoughts and opinions are valid.”

Sarah Harshman reflected, “Developing your own voice, I think, has always been a major part of the Mount education.” She remarked, “In a supportive, small and caring environment, I think girls feel really free voicing their opinions.

“By the time you walk out the Mount doors for the last time, you can hear your own voice and you can share that voice with other people,” Sarah Harshman concluded.

Reflecting on Mount de Chantal’s legacy, Marc Harshman said, “It was clearly recognized that this was something special.” He commented that, at the Mount, “a cross-section of students were exceeding all expectations in a place where dreams were nurtured, where passions were fed.”