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‘BVM History is American History:’ Kathryn Lawlor, BVM

Kitty Lawlor, BVM autographs one of the books she wrote about BVM Foundress Mary Frances Clarke’s letters.

by Mary Glindinning

The history of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the people and places they served intertwine like a grapevine wreath.

Kathryn “Kitty” (John Laurian) Lawlor, BVM wove those inseparable branches and stories into classes and books for 32 years.

“BVM history is so integral to Iowa’s beginnings, to pioneer settlements, to the westward movement, to the spread of the Catholic Church,” she says. “BVM history is American history. It is church history. To learn about the founding of early BVM missions is to learn about the development of the regions. A study in the backgrounds of women who entered the congregation is a study in American immigration. Listening to BVM stories is listening to the intrigues of U.S. history.”

She discovered the depths of the BVM record herself in 1988, when as Secretary of the Congregation, she learned she would be teaching congregational history to novices. She had to learn it to teach it; luckily, the secretary also supervised the BVM Archives at Mount Carmel.

“Stepping into the Archives was, for me, like walking into a candy store. Every personnel file removed from the drawer, every artifact pulled from the shelf, every box of missions investigated were delicious. I wanted to learn more and I wanted to tell others what I learned. The novice BVM history class was open to all sisters at Mount Carmel. In 1998 the class, renamed ‘BVM Pioneer Sisters,’ was opened to all Roberta Kuhn Center students.”

The Roberta Kuhn Center (RKC) in Dubuque, Iowa, provides classes for women and men 55 years of age or over.

Telling Their Own Stories

“If the stories of the BVM pioneers could get sisters to come out of their rooms in Marian Hall and the Motherhouse to tell their stories about the early sisters they knew, the missions they served, the situations they survived, I had achieved my goal,” Kitty says. “Stories about BVM pioneer sisters allowed the present sisters’ personal histories to come alive. Hopefully, the class participants including RKC students went away remembering, valuing, and appreciating anew their own personal pasts.”

Kitty wrote two books—Your Affectionate: Commentary on Mary Frances Clarke’s Writings and From There to Here: The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary From 1942–1972—to share what she learned. She also edited Terence J. Donaghoe: Co-founder of the Sisters of Charity, BVM. During the pandemic, she has presented taped sessions on “Wisdom Women” for BVMs and associates.

Teaching the class is inspirational, but a recent milestone made Kitty decide to say class dismissed.

“Mary Frances Clarke told the sisters to thank God for the ‘glorious privilege’ of being a teacher. Having recently celebrated my 90th birthday, I thank God for the ‘glorious privilege’ my lifetime has been. How grateful I am to the pioneer BVMs and to all BVMs for the influential roles they have played in my life,” she says.

Students are sorry to see the class end. They appreciate her wit and interactive teaching style honed over 25 years of teaching elementary and high school (where she taught English).

“She’s the best! I wish she had been my teacher in school,” says Diane Kopp. “She always made me feel welcome. She always had a hug to share and she shared her emotions with us. I will miss being in her class and I will miss her.

“Every class had new information on the lives of the sisters and interesting places where they taught. The outside reading books showed the history of the congregation starting with Mary Frances Clarke,” Diane says. “We learned of the joys and the struggles of the leaders of the congregation dealing with finances, the bishops, and the responsibilities of heading the congregation,” Diane says.

Kitty shows the value of individual stories that combine to create national and world history, says Karen Kane-Herber, center director.

“Lay people were drawn to the story of how these women were pioneers in the American church as well as in their local communities,” Karen says. “Participants often remarked about Kitty’s wit and humor, how she always wove story and facts seamlessly together, and how welcoming she and all the BVMs were toward their lay class members.”

Kitty’s devoted research and teaching ensures that BVM stories continue to weave together the history of the congregation, communities, and the country.

About the author: Mary Glindinning is a communications specialist for the Sisters of Charity, BVM in Dubuque, Iowa.

Historical books authored by BVM sisters may be purchased through the Office of the Secretary.
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This story was featured in:

Fall 2020: BVM Legacy of Justice In this issue of Salt, we explore justice by educating ourselves about racism, continuing BVM missions through partnerships and scholarships, and being grateful for the commitment to social justice of a 9-year-old who sees BVMs as her “religious heroes.”

If you would like to receive Salt, contact the Office of Development for a complimentary subscription at or 563-585-2864.

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