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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (BVM). The order was founded by Sister Mary Frances CLARKE and Father Terrence Donaghoe and was noted for promoting women in leadership roles and education--characteristics Clarke and two of the Sisters who accompanied her demonstrated. Mary Francis Clarke had an accounting background. Catherine Byrne was an apprentice for a pharmacist surgeon. Margaret Mann was the owner of a millinery shop with twenty employees. These three with Eliza Kelly and Rose O'Toole operated a Catholic school in Dublin after the Emancipation Act of 1829 made it legal. Although the school thrived, the Sisters, who declined to join established religious orders, believed God willed them to be missionaries. (1)

The Sisters of Charity arrived in Philadelphia in 1833 as poor as the immigrants with whom they sailed. By accident, Sister Kelly had dropped a pouch with nearly all their money into the ocean. During the ten years in Philadelphia, they established another school which prospered. Newspaper advertisements about Dubuque and the vision of Bishop Mathias Loras that "savages" could be converted drew them to Dubuque. They arrived in June 23, 1843. (2)

The five sisters were accompanied to Dubuque by Bishop Loras who had purchased a bell for his cathedral, the first church bell in Dubuque. As they approached Dubuque by boat from the south and opposite an island, the bell was sounded. Since that time the island has been known as "Angelus Island." (3)

Originally intending to teach Native Americans, the Sisters one month later opened St. Mary's Female Academy to teach the children of the miners and shopkeepers. (4) Ironically the Irish could not let their children attend the school because it was sanctioned by Loras who they disliked. (5) This commitment to education eventually led to the BVMs opening 59 schools in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. (6) The sisters later moved to St. Joseph's Prairie near Key West and founded their motherhouse. The order continued to grow and provided teachers for communities throughout the Midwest.

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

Disaster struck the order on May 1849, when fire destroyed all the buildings around their motherhouse. All personal belongings were lost, and for a time the sisters had to accept clothing from friendly neighbors. The Mount Carmel motherhouse was started when 110 acres of pasture land was purchased by attorney William J. KNIGHT at the southern end of Grandview Avenue from Frank D. STOUT who had used the area as pasture for his race horses. First occupied in 1893, the motherhouse has been expanded to include an infirmary (1906), Marian Hall infirmary (1955), and Generalate (1963).

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

The announcement was made in 1866 that the Sisters of Charity would open a school for girls on September 3. Piano, guitar and harp were being taught and "all branches of education qualifying young ladies for any position in public or in private life."

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 Clarke be allowed to remain the Superior General for life. That decision the Vatican left to the bishop of Dubuque who approved.

The BVM congregation continued its strong commitment to education. The first school in Dubuque grew into ST. JOSEPH ACADEMY and later expanded into Mt. St. Joseph College (later CLARKE UNIVERSITY) in 1881. The Sisters also staffed Mundelein in Chicago, Illinois. The Sisters have also been affiliated with many schools in Dubuque including St. Anthony's, St. Patrick's, and WAHLERT CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL.

In 1956 Dubuque BVM Alumni, formerly St. Joseph Academy Alumnae, became the local chapter of the national Federation of Alumni, Sisters of Charity, BVM. (7) When Wahlert replaced the small high schools, the group opened its membership to all interested persons taught by the BVMs. (8)

Sister Mary Xavier, BVM, chairman of the Clarke College drama department became in 1964 one of the first sisters to travel abroad with a drama troupe for the USO and the American Educational Theater Association. She also was possibly the first sister to design an entire touring-acting wardrobe for a group of fourteen girls. She developed twelve complete outfits which converted a basic black shantung drip-dry with A-line skirt into a variety of costumes. (9)

In 1972 the BVM represented 1,864 sisters working in 31 dioceses nationwide. To provide stability to its treasury the order developed a five-year financial projection of each convent in the terms of medical, household, educational, personal with notation of the number of sisters and age distribution per convent. The study focused on the fiscal year 1969-70. At that time, there were 1,541 BVMs in local convents--97 were fully retired, 20 were in part-time study, and 1,424 in full-time work. The study found the operating costs were $1,105 per earning sister including present retirement but not in the future. The average living cost on the local level was $1,590 for an average subsistence cost level of $2,695 per sister.

During the same 1969-70 period each sister earned an average stipend of $1,920 leading the order to absorb a $375 average deficit per sister. In 1972 the deficit was $597 per sister with no provision for future retirement. Previous total deficits included $220,000 (1968-69) and $144,258 (1970-71). Funds to offset the deficits had been withdrawn from funded retirement. The report concluded. "We wish to continue to contribute, but what we realize now is that we can no longer continue to contribute so much." The deficit in Natchez, Mississippi in fiscal year 1972 were estimated to be $1,860 per sister. (10) By 1987 the pioneering work of planning for retirement was being adopted by other orders.

In 1982 the Sisters founded the Roberta Kuhn Center, named in memory of Sister Roberta KUHN, as a "ministry to older people." Initially free classes in art, bridge, foreign language, word processing, scripture, and crafts were held in a converted barn at Mount Carmel. As the program grew, classes were moved to the Motherhouse and other locations. (11)

In the mid-1980s, the order established a low-interest loan fund which grew gradually as unrestricted donations were invested in it. In 2006 this fund had grown to $5.5 million. Recipients were as near as the DUBUQUE RESCUE MISSION or Opening Doors, Inc. to obtain a site for a new emergency shelter to South Africa where a loan helps women widowed by AIDS to support their families. The order also established investment funds to provide money for sisters' education and retirement. (12) In 2011 the BVMs received a runner-up award in the 6th Annual Lumen Awards presented by the National Catholic Development Conference for the 2010-2011 BVM Retirement Appeal. The award was in the category of "Best Donor Renewal Program Campaign." The awards were created to recognize excellence within the ministry of fundraising. (13)

Election for the international offices of president and two vice presidents for the order were held in April 1984. The type of election called discernment/election was different than in the past. Candidates were chosen with the local BVM communities on the basis of the needs of the local community and the order at large. The candidates were interviewed by nuns were were elected delegates, called senators. The process continued until the delegates believed they were ready to vote. Discernment for president was held first and then vice president. A candidate could initially, therefore, run for both offices. (14)

Sister Helen Garvey of Dubuque and president of the Sisters, addressed Pope John Paul II in September, 1987 on the role of women in the church. Speaking in San Francisco, she urged the pope to considered expanding women's roles in all areas of church life. (15)

Celebrating the ancestry of past members of the order was the goal of an activity on June 13, 1992. According to Sister Mary DeCock, BVM, and a historian of the order, of the 4,800 women who entered the BVM congregation since its beginning, an estimated 1200 were born in Iowa. An estimated 200 sisters and family members gathered at the Mount Carmel Motherhouse to honor those who joined from Iowa. All the Iowa-born sisters' names--posted by county and hometown--were displayed at the Roberta Kuhn Center. The attempt by the early BVMs to build friendships within and outside the order led to rapid growth. Some sisters found they were not the only members of their family to have been joined the order. (16)

Celebrating the philosophies she held dear--charity to others, value of education, and courage--a 9-foot, 2,200 pound statue of Mary Frances Clarke was given by the BVMs to Clarke College in November, 1993 during the school's homecoming and sesquicentennial celebration. (17)

In October 1995 the Sisters had to wait until almost Christmas for a change in city law to allow them to construct housing for twenty-eight members. The four buildings, according to the Sisters, were a convent which was allowed in the single family neighborhood near South Grandview. Neighbors, however, contended the buildings were apartments. The Zoning Board initially opposed the building permit, but later reconsidered the plan. Legal action and the zoning board's opposition to a new definition of convent, led to the need of the city council to pass the issue by a "super majority." The soonest this could be done was December 18th. (18)

Work on the $7.8 million Caritas Center was completed at Mount Carmel in 1999. The new building increased the retirement and health-care facilities while connecting the motherhouse, Marian Hall retirement center and the BVM Center. The new construction included a 32-bed Alzheimer's unit, 21 rooms for assisted living, a wellness center and large dining room. A wing was to be renovated in Marion Hall for increased care for sisters in the third stage of dementia. In 1998 there were 919 BVMs in 25 states and 3 foreign countries with 73% older than 65. (19)

In coordination with other congregations of religious women, the BVMs in 2002 joined a national initiative called "For Whom the Bell Tolls." The organization, aimed at the abolition of the death penalty, worked to raise public awareness of the number of executions in the United States by calling attention to each one by ringing bells on the day of or after an execution to recognize the person to be executed and the victims and their families. (20)

Despite careful study and having retirement plans in place, by 2008 the BVMs found themselves, like other orders, in financial trouble. In that year the average age og the 589 BVM sisters was 78 and all but 100 were retired. Investments had declined in value to the point that care plans were 60 to 70% underfunded. In 2007 a total of $180,205 was collected for the retired religious community from the Dubuque Archdiocese. In 2007 the BVMs received $486,700 from the national retirement fund. (21)

Annually on December 8th, BVMs and associated renew their vows and commitments. In 2013 for the first time, the Sisters celebrated the reception of a new BVM novice and the commitment of a new BVM associate. The combined event symbolized the collaboration between BVM sisters and associates as faith and ministry partners. (22)

Like the first BVM sisters to arrive in Dubuque, the order in modern times has been a pioneer on many fronts. In 1952 McCall's magazine awarded Sister M. St. Clara, BVM, with its "Mike" award honoring "the radio executive performing the greatest public service to women." Sister St. Clara, later chairperson of the home economics department at Clarke College, began the "Clarke Radio Kitchen of the Air" in 1939. It ended 30 years later. (23) Sister Carol Blitgen, director of plays and instructor of speech and drama, received the coveted Medallion of Honor in 1998 from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. (24) Sister Mary McCauley BVM while serving in St. Bridget's Parish in Postville, Iowa was one of the first responders to the raid of May 12, 2008 on Agriprocessors, Inc. carried out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security together with other agencies that led to sudden deportation of immigrant workers. Mary Kevin Gallagher BVM became the first woman chancellor of the Archdiocese and author of Seed/Harvest: A History of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Carolyn FARRELL was elected as Dubuque's first woman mayor. Sister Judy Callahan, BVM, served as Archdiocesan Director of Hispanic Ministry while Sister Helen Maher Garvey, while president of the BVMs, led efforts leading to the Dubuque Housing Initiative providing low-income housing in the city. Sister Mary Ann Zolliman, president of the BVMs, joined other women religious leaders to establish MARIA HOUSE and TERESA SHELTER. (25) Sister Marge Clarke, BVM joined prayer vigils at the Trident submarine base in Washington State, protested a naval arms "bazaar" during Holy Week in Washington, D. C,; and participated in a prayer vigil and entrance barricade at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (26) Established in the memory of Sister Mary Murphy, BVM, chairwoman of Clarke's biology department, the annual Sister Mary Murphy BVM Endowed Lecture at Clarke brings noted scientists to Dubuque. (27)

With their numbers declining (424 in the congregation with 200 retired) and the median age increased, the BVMs in 2014 announced their plans to downsize Mount Carmel. In March they asked the zoning commission to rezone 108 acres of river bluffs and ravines and the complex of buildings on the southern end of Grandview Avenue from R-1 (single family residential) to a planned-unit development designation. There was no intention of immediately selling any of the property or buildings. The Dubuque County Assessor's office did not list a value of the land, but listed a value of the buildings at $21 million. The rezoning request suggested such regular uses of a planned-unit development as a hospice house, hotel, bed and breakfast, museum or library. Prohibited uses of the property included correctional facility, retail store, heavy industry or casino. Future development would depend upon a vote of the entire body of BVMs, the zoning commission and city council approving the plan, and the city planner approving the final site plan. (28) When the date of the meeting with the zoning commission arrived, the sisters asked for more time to refine their plan. Commission members had expressed concern about a lack of detail in the proposal and a lack of city oversight over future development. (29)

The MOUNT CARMEL MOTHERHOUSE in 2016 was the home of about 170 retired Sisters and the administrative center of the order. BVM Sisters served in seventeen states as well as Ecuador and Ghana in ministries including education, advocacy for immigrants' rights, parish ministry and hospital chaplaincy. (30) In 2017 it was estimated that nearly five thousand women had entered the BVM sisterhood. (31)



1. Hanson, Lyn. "BVM Sisters Followed Their Call to Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, June 4, 1989, p. 24

2. Ibid.

3. "Sisters Have 117 Schools in Their Charge," Telegraph-Herald, August 26, 1934, p. 8

4. "The Sisters' School," The Herald, August 29, 1866, p. 4

5. Hanson

6. Kundert, Rob. "Tri-State's Irish Heritage," Telegraph Herald, March 16, 2017, p. 51

7. "Alumnae Remain Active," Telegraph Herald, April 25, 1971, p. 31

8. "Church Women Provide Welfare Services, Money," Telegraph Herald, April 26, 1970, p. 64

9. "Nuns First to Travel Overseas for USO Unit," Telegraph Herald, May 3, 1964, p. 13

10. Tighe, Mike, "Nuns Project Financial Picture into '75," Telegraph Herald, January 17, 1972, p. 16

11. "Center of Spirituality," Telegraph Herald, April 24, 1994, p. 9

12. Bragg, Mary Rae. "Religious Order Puts Money Where Its Values Are," Telegraph Herald, January 5, 2006, p. 1

13. "Tri-State Business," Telegraph Herald, September 14, 2011, p. 11

14. Hanson, Lyn. "Religious Women Trace Roots," Telegraph Herald, June 14, 1992, p. 2

15. Walsh, Karen. "BVMs to Elect International Officers This Week," Telegraph Herald, April 18, 1984, p. 2

16. "1987," Telegraph Herald, December 27, 1987, p. 26

17. Eller Donelle. "Statue Honors Founder," Telegraph Herald, November 10, 1993, p. 3

18. "Delay Makes Nuns Wait," Telegraph Herald, October 17, 1995, p. 3

19. Nevans-Pederson, Mary. "Caritas Center Means Care for Frail Sisters, Telegraph Herald, May 6, 1998, p. 2

20. Nevans-Pederson, Mary. "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Telegraph Herald, July 13, 2002, p. 23

21. Nevans-Pederson, Mary. Religious Sisters Face Financial Shortfall," Telegraph Herald, December 12, 2008, p. 3

22. "Sisters of Charity Note 2 New Designations," Telegraph Herald, December 14, 2013, p. 27

23. " 'Mike' Given Clarke Sister," Telegraph-Herald, January 17, 1952, p. 13

24. Glindinning, Mary. "The Play's the Thing for this Award Winner," Telegraph Herald, February 12, 1998, p. 19

25. Lawlor, Kathryn, BVM, "BVM Sisters Celebrate 170 Years," Telegraph Herald, June 29, 2013, p. 19

26. Nevans-Pederson, Mary. "Demonstrating Their Belief," Telegraph Herald, December 5, 1998, p. 17

27. Hogstrom, Erik. "Researcher Discusses Challenge of HIV Vaccine," Telegraph Herald, March 29, 2006, p. 1

28. Nevans-Pederson, Mary. "Sisters Ponder Downsizing of Mount Carmel Campus," Telegraph Herald, March 24, 2014 p. 1

29. Jacobson, Ben. "BVMs Seek More Time to Refine Rezoning," Telegraph Herald, April 3, 2014, p. 5

30. Miska, Rhonda. "Sisters Take to the Airwaves," Telegraph Herald, March 12, 2016, p. 12

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