By Mira Mosle, BVM
The Sisters of Charity, BVM, will mark 185 years as a religious community – 175 of them based in Dubuque – on June 10 at the 9 am Sunday liturgy at St. Raphael Cathedral. A reception will follow in the Cathedral Center; all are invited.
In 1833 Mary Frances Clarke and four companions journeyed from Dublin to Philadelphia to help teach children in the immigrant church, and formed a religious community. A decade later, Bishop Matthias Loras invited them to cast a wider net and bring education to Native Americans as well in his sprawling missionary diocese in the Iowa Territory.
Arriving via river packet on June 23, 1843 – 175 years ago, they quickly reached their first home behind the small stone Cathedral. Theirs was the first school in town; they were the first women religious in what would become the state of Iowa. The 19 hardy souls soon made their home on a farm ten miles south, which they named St. Joseph’s on the Prairie. The sisters established a girls boarding school, and learned from their neighbors how to milk cows, gather eggs, and till the land. That first school evolved into what is now Clarke University, which is also celebrating its 175th year.
Education for Native Americans never materialized because the Winnebago Indians who had settled along the Turkey River were transferred to a reservation in the Minnesota Territory.
BVMs quickly become educators along the river towns from McGregor to Burlington. From 1843-1968, the BVMs opened nearly 100 schools in Iowa; 59 were in the Dubuque Archdiocese. They followed the trails and the railroads from Iowa City to San Francisco, founding both girls’ boarding schools and parish schools. They began schools in Chicago in 1867. Responses to God’s call took them to the South in the 1930s, to Hawaii soon after World War II, and to international missions in Ecuador, Guatemala and Ghana beginning in the 1960s.
“Little did they know about the future that would unfold here,” said Sister Teri Hadro, BVM president. “They would grow into their identity as Catholic sisters, excellent educators, advocates for groups and persons pushed to the margins by the ambition of others, and above all, as women of hospitality, compassion and prayer.”
Mother Clarke stayed connected with the Sisters through letters of encouragement and love. She directed her Sisters to teach that God loves them by showing them love and helping each child develop his/her potential. Her wisdom forms the theme for this 185th celebration: Continuing a Legacy of Love.
The Sisters moved into a newly built Motherhouse in Dubuque in 1893 to accommodate the growing numbers of women entering the community and to be closer to rail lines. And as the mid-20th century dawned, these educators became part of the growing trend of parish high schools merging into central Catholic schools: Wahlert in Dubuque, Columbus in Waterloo, Newman in Mason City, Xavier in Cedar Rapids, and across the country.
After the Second Vatican Council, they expanded their education ministry beyond the classroom, and into parish educational programs, justice and peace ministries, diocesan centers and pastoral care. Grounded in God’s steadfast love, they strive to embody the congregation’s core values of freedom, education, charity and justice.
Today, the congregation sponsors the Roberta Kuhn Center in Dubuque, where more than 500 adults age 55 and up have a choice of more than 30 courses which meet weekly. BVMs can be found advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, environmental justice, gun control, nonviolence, peace initiatives, and anti-trafficking. They engage in outreach to the homeless, retreat and spiritual direction ministry, reading to the visually impaired, volunteering with Hospice and drug court, teaching ESL. The Sisters are setting up scholarships at schools where they have taught, passing on the value of education to a new generation.
In a rapidly changing environment, more than 325 BVM Sisters in the congregation join with nearly 200 Associates, and numerous other partners in mission. “BVMs have gratefully received Dubuquers’ gifts of friendship, care, challenge and support,” said Sister Teri. “We are the congregation you see today because of our Irish roots, the vision of our founder Mary Frances Clarke, and God’s good grace. The sustaining warmth of the women and men in Iowa’s key city and their friendship through thick and thin invited us to call Dubuque home. We did, we do, and we are grateful.”