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CLARKE, Mary Frances

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Sister Mary Frances Clarke

CLARKE, Mary Frances (Sister) (Dublin, Ireland, Dec. 15, 1802--Dubuque, IA, Dec. 4, 1887). The first of four children of Cornelius Clarke, a prosperous harness and carriage leather merchant in Dublin, Mary Frances Clarke said of herself that she had never attended more than a "penny school."

During a plague outbreak in 1828, Mary Frances and her friends witnessed the poverty of their countrymen who had been forced off the farmland into the slums of Dublin. The young women decided to bring hope to a desperate situation. They moved into the area and began Miss Clarke's Seminary, a school for girls on North Anne Street. (1) By educating girls, they expanded literacy among the impoverished people. When the graduates became mothers they, in turn, taught their children to read and write.

Perhaps believing that the archbishop would not welcome another new religious congregation in Dublin, Mary Frances Clarke and four friends emigrated on August 31, 1833 to the United States from Ireland. (2) They arrived in New York and then traveled to Philadelphia where Terence James Donaghoe, pastor of St. Joseph's parish, helped them to become a religious congregation. (3) The sisters soon opened two private schools and taught the children of local parishes. To support themselves while they taught the poor girls of the Irish immigrants, the women did piecework for a garment factory. (4)

When the order had grown to nineteen members, Mary Frances Clarke was chosen by the women as their leader. On November 1, 1833, the Sister pronounced their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience beginning the SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (BVM). (5) During their ten years in Philadelphia, the sisters were confronted by a CHOLERA epidemic and the negative attitude of the Nativist Party who discouraged immigrants and disliked Catholics. (6)

Religious leaders in New York attempted to convince the Sisters to relocate. The plea of Dubuque Bishop Mathias LORAS, however, was what brought the nuns to Dubuque in early 1843. (7) A second group of Sisters arrived in September of the same year. Dennis MAHONY aided the Sisters by instructing them in their writing skills. (8) Although plans to work with Native Americans never developed, the congregation soon opened schools including St. Mary’s Academy. After the Sisters began the school in a log cabin near the church, they realized that the girls in the rural areas needed to move in with them if they were to receive an education. (9)

In the early days, the Sisters were not always respected. The rejection by some of the Irish population may have been due to Mother Clarke's wishes that the Sisters not distinguish themselves from the general population. The Sisters were instructed to wear simple clothing. (10)

The Sisters' work week expanded to 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, as they became both teachers and care givers. The lack of convenient transportation in the early days necessitated the establishment of girls’ boarding academies along with parish schools as the pioneers moved westward. The convent, school and chapel were destroyed by a fire in 1849. The Sisters rebuilt the academy. They opened a hospital on 14th Street in Dubuque in 1855. (11)

In 1859 the academy was renamed St. Joseph Prairie Boarding School. This school for girls, later called Mount St. Joseph, was moved to the top of Seminary Hill. In 1928 the school was renamed CLARKE COLLEGE in her honor. (12)

With the death of Terence Donaghoe in 1860, Mary Frances Clarke had the congregation incorporated and started the process of receiving papal approval. Pope Pius IX issued the Decree of Approbation in 1877 approving the SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (BVM) for six years. The Vatican gave final approval of the congregation's constitutions on March 15, 1885. The BVM sisters at that time asked that Sister Clarke be allowed to remain the Superior General for life. That decision the Vatican left to the bishop of Dubuque who approved it.

In 1846 the motherhouse of the congregation was established on the prairie about eight miles southwest of Dubuque. The sisters expanded their work into many towns in Iowa and Wisconsin. In 1867 at the invitation of Arnold Damien, S.J. they traveled to Chicago to teach in the Holy Family Parish. By the time of Sister Clarke's death, BVM sisters staffed school in twenty-three Iowa communities and as far away as Wichita, Kansas and San Francisco, California.

During her lifetime, Sister Clarke did not like to be photographed. The only known picture of her was taken just prior to her burial. (13) She was buried near the first headquarters of the order in an area known as St. Joseph's Prairie. Her remains were moved in 1898. In 1910 they were finally placed in a MAUSOLEUM at the MOUNT CARMEL MOTHERHOUSE.

In 1978 Philip Mihalakis, operator of the Ecology Control Corporation scrap yard, discovered a 9- by 12-inch grave marker later identified as that belonging on the original grave of Sister Clarke and returned it. (14) The order announced plans to restore the 6.25 pound cast iron plaque for display in the "Heritage Room" at Mount Carmel. Sister Mary Frances Clarke was added to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame on August 27, 1984. In 2014 she was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame in Chicago. (15)



1. "About Mary Frances Clarke." Online: http://www.clarke.edu/page.aspx?id=498

2. Harrington, Ann M. "Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: The Philadelphia Connection 1833-1843," U.S. Catholic Historian, Volume 27, Number 4, Fall 2009, p. 20

3. "About Mary Frances Clarke."

4. Harrington, p. 7

5. Ibid.

6. Meyer, Jeffrey. "The BVM Mystique of Mary Frances Clarke," Julien's Journal, March 2012, p. 33

7. Meyer, p. 34

8. Ibid.

9. "About Mary Frances Clarke."

10. Ibid., p. 35

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Day, Mike, "Research Reveals Odd Occurrences in Late '70s," Telegraph Herald, December 19, 2021, p. 10A

15. Lawlor, Kathryn. "Teaching Without Seeming to Teach," Telegraph Herald, March 16, 2017, p. 47

Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin; Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008

"Mary Frances Clarke." East Dubuque Local Area History Project. http://www.edbqhs.org/District/LocalAreaHistory/MaryFrancisClarkelah.htm

"Mother Superior Mary Frances Clarke." http://iagenweb.org/history/bios/famousIA/bio_clarkesrmaryfrances.htm