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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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1150 Carmel Drive. Photo courtesy: Old House Enthusiasts' Club House Tour, 2007

MOUNT CARMEL MOTHERHOUSE. Land was purchased in 1889 with part of the money the SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (BVM) received as part of an indemnity of $6,400 for buildings of theirs burned in Philadephia. Although the land belonged to the government, it was claimed by John Joseph Walsh as was the custom of the time. A novitate was constructed, and their school and convent in Dubuque was moved south of Dubuque. The convent was called Mount Carmel and and the land, St. Joseph's Prairie. (1)

On May 15, 1849 fire destroyed the buildings. A man named John Kelly later confessed to the crime. His appearance late at night had frightened the sisters who closed him out of their building. Angered by the action, he returned a few weeks later and set the buildings on fire. The sisters rebuilt the school and converted such buildings as a sheep "fold" into a chapel. (2)

As the order of sisters grew and their work expanded, land for the present Mount Carmel was purchased from Frank D. STOUT who used the land as a pasture. The purchased was made by William J. KNIGHT. The novitate was transferred there on November 28, 1893. (3)

Mount Carmel Motherhouse sits on 110 acres overlooking the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. In the past, the building was the spiritual home for nearly 600 Sisters in the community. In recent years, seventy retired Sisters lived there; an additional one hundred forty Sisters lived in adjacent buildings. The motherhouse is also the administrative center of the congregation.

Road leading (road to Mount Carmel. Image courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier

Limestone quarried on the ground and faced with Bedford stone gives the Motherhouse a solid foundation, seven feet thick at its base. The spectacular view of the Mississippi can be seen from its 250 foot long bluff frontage. The original flooring is hard maple, and all other woodwork is solid oak. Original fireplaces and shutters are among other interesting original features. The completion of a major renovation, resulted in the entire building of 96,000 sq. ft. being geothermally heated and cooled.

Aerial view of Mt. Carmel

Although many sisters chose to retire and live in the missions where they had lived and worked, in 1974 there were no vacant rooms at Mount Carmel. Marian Hall which had been constructed as a home for retired sisters had been converted into an infirmary for approximately 115 infirm sisters with most confirmed to their rooms and only about 35 able to go to the dining room for meals. The occupational physical therapy rooms offered morning and afternoon craft sessions under the direction of Sister Mary Rosina Shamroake, a registered occupational therapist. (4)

St. Joseph's Convent that formerly housed the novitiate where young sisters were trained, had also been renovated. Dormitory living quarters on the second and third floors had been divided into private rooms. The former convent offered housing for seventy retired sisters with another twenty who worked at Mount Carmel living there too. Several rooms in the building were used for sewing while Willing's Alley, named after the street where the sisters settled in Phladelphia, were used for craft activities in the fall and winter. Items made are sold at local sales. (5)

Construction on the Mount Carmel campus in 1963 began with the completion of the Mount Carmel service building, in May the laying of the cornerstone for the administration building, and in the future an addition to Marian Hall infirmary. (6)

In 1974 the BVMs were planning to sell several riverfront lots, but not those directly in front of their buildings. (7) A request to rezone about fifty acres was tabled by the city council in March, 1974 after neighborhood protest and city planning staff concerns were raised. Current zoning code would allow 750 multiple-family units on the property. Planning staff urged a 250-unit ceiling for the property since only one-third of the property could be developed. (8)

In 1999 retirement and health-care facilities at Mount Carmel were expanded with the renovation of Caritas Center. The new center included a 32-bed Alzheimer's unit, 21 rooms for assisted living, physical therapy and wellness facilities and a large dining hall. In addition a wing was remodeled in Marion Hall as an enhanced care unit for sisters in the third stage of dementia. (9)

In 2018 there were about 320 BVMs, with between 20 to 25 deaths annually and few new members. Diminishing numbers meant more vacant rooms at a time when the Dubuque area was increasingly in the need for senior-living options.

An announcement in June 2018 meant that the Mount Carmel Campus might be able to provide new housing options for local seniors and allow the sisters living on campus to continue residing there. The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Presbyterian Homes and Services entered into a $60 million agreement to develop the property over five years. Presbyterian Homes and Services, founded in 1955, by 2018 had more than 25,000 adults living in 46 senior communities it administered. (10)

The City of Dubuque rezoned twenty-eight acres of the campus for a planned unit development district for senior living. The new plan meant that the BVMs would need to come back to the city to request a minor expansion of this area. The construction of a new building would reach outside the existing boundary. The BVMs would also also need a certificate of need from the State of Iowa for licensed skilled-nursing beds. (11)

The first phase would be the construction of a new building south of the motherhouse. This would include sixty new long-term care suites, forty-two assisted-living apartments and twenty memory-care apartments. The second construction phase would create 112 senior-living apartments north of the motherhouse. This would necessitate the deconstruction of Marian Hall and Caritas Center. Sisters living in these two buildings would be moved to the newly constructed building. The renovation of the motherhouse would be the third construction phase. (12)

Groundbreaking was held on June 13, 2019 on the $80 million campus renovation project named Mount Carmel Bluffs. (13)



1. "Congregation of Sisters of Charity, B.V.M,, Now 100 Years Old," Telegraph-Herald, August 6, 1933, p. 25

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. "The View at Mount Carmel," Telegraph-Herald, August 4, 1974, p. 8

5. Ibid.

6. "Mount Carmel Rites Planned," Telegraph-Herald, May 23, 1963, p. 12

7. "The View..."

8. "Mount Carmel Rezone Request Tabled," Telegraph-Herald, March 21, 1974, p. 8

9. Nevans-Pederson, Mary, "Placing of Turret Tops of BVM Center," Telegraph Herald, May 27, 1999, p. 1

10. Montgomery, Jeff. "Mount Carmel to Expand Campus," Telegraph Herald, June 20, 2018, p. 2A

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Hinga, Allie, "Mount Carmel Readies for Senior Living Center," Telegraph Herald, June 14, 2019, p. 1A