The Order was founded in 1610 by SaintFrancis de Sales and Saint Jane Frances de Chantal in Annecy, Haute-Savoie, France. At first the founder had not a religious order in mind; he wished to form a congregation without external vows, where the cloister should be observed only during the year of novitiate, after which the sisters should be free to go out by turns to visit the sick and poor. This was why he called his institute the Visitation.
He invited Jane de Chantal to join him in establishing a new type of religious life, one open to older women and those of delicate constitution, that would stress the hidden, inner virtues of humility, obedience, poverty, even-tempered charity, and patience, and founded on the example of Mary in her journey of mercy to her cousin Elizabeth. The order was established to welcome those not able to practice austerities required in other orders. The Order spread from France throughout Europe and to North America.
At the French Revolution in 1789 when all the religious houses were suppressed many of the French Sisters took refuge in other Catholic countries. The sisters in Rouen, northern France, fled to Portuguese monasteries, having only escaped the guillotine by the death of Robespierre in 1794. In 1803 six sisters left Lisbon in an English packet ship and while at sea they were attacked by French pirates. They were spared because of their nationality (they were French not English) and were returned safely to a the Spanish seaport of Vigo. After a brief sojourn in Spain three of the Sisters made a second attempt to cross from Porto and without further encounters with pirates arrived in Falmouth on 29th January 1804. They later journeyed to Acton and founded the first monastery of the Visitation on English soil on 19 March 1804.
The Visitation Sisters came to Ireland in 1955 and founded a Monastery at Stamullen, Co. Meath. When Mother Mary Teresa O’ Dwyer, Superior of the Visitation Monastery of Roseland, England learned that the Brothers of St. John of God were moving out of Silverstream, she applied to the Bishop of Meath, Dr. Kyne for permission for the order of the Visitation to enter his diocese. Problems of Staffing problems were solved by borrowing three Sisters from America. The Visitation Monasteries of St. Paul Minnesota, Brooklyn New York and Atlanta Georgia each lent a Sister.
There are about 130 autonomous monasteries of the worldwide contemplative Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary: Asia (2), Africa (7), North America (24), Central America (4), South America (24), and Europe (69)
The special charism of the Visitation Order is an interior discipline expressed primarily through the practice of two virtues: humility and gentleness. The motto of the order is "Live Jesus".
In the United States
In the United States there are 11 monasteries in two federations.The monasteries of the First Federation live the purely contemplative life, observing papal enclosure. Of the eleven monasteries of the Visitation in the United States, six belong to the First Federation,
The Convent of the Visitation in Mobile, Alabama was founded in 1833 by Bishop Michael Portier, first bishop of Mobile. Aware of the lack of schools in his diocese, he remembered the fine work of the Visitation nuns throughout his native France. Five nuns from the convent in Georgetown, Washington, D. C. boarded a sailing ship in November, 1832 and arrived in Mobile a month later. In the 1950's the school was converted to a retreat house. The monastery also serves as a distribution center for communion breads used by churches throughout the Mobile Archdiocese and for many churches in surrounding states, a service extended to a number of non-Catholic churches as well
In 1866 Visitation Sisters from Baltimore, Maryland came to Richmond, Virginia at the request of Bishop John McGill. In 1987 the Visitation Sisters relocated to Rockville, Virginia (where they continue to bake altar breads as their main source of income),  and their historic former monastery, Monte Maria, became an ecumenical community known as Richmond Hill.
The Visitation Community of Massachusetts lived in Wilmington, Delaware from 1893 to 1993. In 1992, the sisters voted to relocate to their present home in Tyringham in December 1995.
The Visitation community of Tyringham, Massachusetts was founded in 1853 in Keokuk,Iowa by the Visitation Monastery of Montluel, France. In the 19th Century, it was necessary for Visitation communities, both in France and in the United States, to have academies for girls in order to support themselves. After having moved from Keokuk, Iowa, to Suspension Bridge, New York, and then, lastly, to Wilmington, Delaware in 1868, a generous benefactress enabled the community to close the school in 1893 and live the full contemplative life. In 1993 the community relocated to Massachusetts and moved into its present monastery, Mont Deux Coeurs, in December of 1995.
The Monastery of the Visitation was established in Atlanta Georgia in moved to Snellville, Georgia in 1974.
On May 3rd of 1833, eight sisters from the Georgetown Visitation founded the first Visitation Academy in the midwest at Kaskaskia, Illinois. On the final leg of their trip from Georgetown, the Sisters crossed the Mississippi River from Missouri into Illinois. First person accounts tell of the Sisters "sitting in a ferryboat that took them across the river. They sat dangerously close to the brown water. Green caterpillars covered its surface around the boat." In April of 1844, six sisters left to begin the Visitation Academy of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri. On June 24th, the flooding Mississippi River forced evacuation from Kaskaskia, and a steamboat bearing visitors to the monastery rescued sisters, students, and furnishings through the second story windows, and transported them to St. Louis. In 1992, five sisters from the Rock Island, Illinois Visitation merged with the St. Louis community.
In 1846, 11 of the Georgetown Visitation sisters relocated to Frederick, Maryland to carry on a school began by the Sisters of Charity in 1824, which from that date became the Visitation Academy of Frederick - which is still operating today and had an important part in Civil War history when it was occupied in September 1862 (until January 1863) by Union Troops and became General Hospital #5 following the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam.
The Visitation monastery in Brooklyn, New York was founded in 1855.
In 1873 six Sisters of the Visitation from St. Louis, Missouri traveled by steamship for eight days up the Mississippi river to the fast-growing river town of St. Paul, Minnesota at the request of Bishop Grace who asked them to make a new foundation and open a school. In 1966 the sisters moved to Mendota Heights where the larger facility allowed for expanded programs and enrollment.
In 1989, the Leadership of the Second Federation of the Visitation Order in the United States of America established an urban monastic community in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As part of their ministry to families they offer education sessions, such as cooking and nutrition, finance and budgeting, college preparation, etc. for neighborhood teens.
The Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy was founded in 1848 as the Wheeling Female Academy in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia and in 1865 assumed its current name. While grades five through twelve were all female, Mount de Chantal's Montessori and Elementary schools were co-ed. The school ceased operations on May 31, 2008, and the nuns re-located to the Georgetown Visitation in Washington, D.C. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, before being razed on November 7, 2011.
Visitation schools in other countries
In 1835, the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary of Dietramszell acquired Beuerberg Abbey (Kloster Beuerberg), in Eurasburg, Germany. Between 1846 and 1938 they ran a girls' school and a home for nursing mothers at Beuerberg Abbey, and afterwards an old people's convalescent home. The abbey still belongs to the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.
The best known saint of the Order is St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who received the revelations of the Sacred Heart resulting in the First Friday devotions and Holy Hours. On May 10, 1998, seven Visitandines of the First Monastery of Madrid, Spain, martyred during the Spanish Revolution of 1936, were beatified. They are Blesseds Maria Gabriela, Teresa Maria, Josefa Maria, Maria Ines, Maria Cecilia, Maria Engracia, and Maria Angela.
In 2010, in honor of the worldwide Jubilee Year for the Visitation order, Pope Benedict XVI has granted a plenary indulgence to those who would make a visit to and pray in a Visitation monastery.