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BVM Sisters, Clarke University Students See Unexpected Friendships Blossom

The egg survived! BVMs Bertha (Dolorose) Fox (second from r.), Karen Conover, and Carol (Conrad Ann) Cook and Clarke University students celebrate when a cushioned egg didn’t break from a two-story drop.

by BVM Associate Lori Ritz
Summer 2020 issue of Salt magazine

When I think about the Prayer Partner relationships between 17 Clarke University students and 17 Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa, I am reminded of a well-known children’s book, The Tiny Seed, by Eric Carle. A tiny seed travels through the wind, weather, and various climate changes and finally lands on rich soil and grows into a beautiful, tall flower.

So it is with the Clarke/BVM Prayer Partners project. What started out as a small idea, shared in a hallway, continues to grow, spread, and touch the lives of many.

In July 2019 Brenda White, director of student life at Clarke, and I, as director of the Office of BVM Life and Mission, met to brainstorm what Prayer Partners between the Clarke dormitory resident advisors (RAs) and BVM sisters might look like.

For me, I recalled my student days at Clarke when sisters lived in the dorms as RAs. Relationships, trust, and some long-time friendships were built between generations.

As Brenda and I talked, we discovered that somewhere in the history of Clarke there had been “Prayer Pals.” Together we saw a rekindling of the spirit that once was a part of the BVM history at Clarke. Our ideas started to become reality.

The sisters and students were paired based on personality, interests, and special characteristics. The 17 pairs of Prayer Partners met for the first time on an August afternoon at Mount Carmel.

The focus was getting to know one another as new friends and as leaders. Conversation flowed over the creation of a self-portrait paper doll. Photos were taken of the partners and dolls they created. The dolls were exchanged between the partners to hang in a prominent place, to be seen and remembered daily.

Catherine Dunn, BVM and RA Tyler Offield shared their insights on leadership. “Leadership calls people to be encouraging and compassionate,” Tyler said.

Creative canvas paintings focused on three words that described leadership to each person. Decorated bottles containing special quotes on leadership from the sisters were sent home with each RA. The afternoon ended with a blessing over the RAs by the sisters.

And so began the story of the “tiny seed.”

BVM Joyce (Petrine) Cox and her Prayer Partner Alex Gaber make self-portrait dolls to exchange. The Prayer Partner program between sisters and Clarke University resident advisors enhances the longtime connection between BVMs and Clarke students.

At the encouragement of the sisters and students, the plan to meet twice during the 2019–2020 academic year quickly changed to meeting monthly. The themes of relationship, leadership, and fun soon became the focus for our time together.

Sometimes the gatherings were at Mount Carmel and sometimes at Clarke. Food, prayer, and activities brought the group together. Unexpected friendships, mutual interests, problem solving, creativity, and shared energy emerged.

What do you learn about things for which you are grateful by playing Jenga? How do you turn a White Elephant Gift Exchange into a service project? How fun is it to play Bingo with New Year’s vocabulary? What do you do with a variety of unrelated things to build the protection around an egg so it does not break from a two-story drop?


What Sisters and Students Say About the Experience

Irene Lukefahr, BVM comments that “these times together make me more aware of the energy, hopes, and passions of our young adults.”

The times together were filled with laughter and conversation. In addition, Carol Marie (Joseph Louis) Baum, BVM, refers to the “interaction with young men and women through prayer, games, and topics that pertain to how one leads as they go about their normal daily activities.”

They shared true mutual interest in each other’s lives. “One consistent link Gavin [Collingwood, her Prayer Partner] and I have is Vail, Colo., where my past and his future converge,” says Josette Kelly, BVM.

Josette’s family has had a Vail home since the ’60s, and she ministered in Colorado for 41 years. Gavin spent school holidays working at Vail’s sports industry as an apprentice and now has a full-time job there.

Students shared similar reactions regarding the Prayer Partner exchanges. Claire Ronnebaum, a sophomore, “enjoyed learning about the history of Clarke and how the BVMs play such a big part in Clarke history.”

The relationships that we have built have been unexpected,” says junior Sammi Moehle, “I know for sure that I did not expect this partnership to mean so much to me, not only for my own partner to have such a big impact on me, but also for the other sisters that are involved that I have made friendships with.”

Similarly, Nathan Dettmer, a sophomore, comments, “The random, unexpected friendships and bonds that you would never expect happened.”

Josh Sanchez, a graduating senior, knows his relationship with his Prayer Partner Karen Conover, BVM will continue and be an important part of his future.

More than expected

The interactions between the RAs and the sisters were not limited to monthly meetings. Taylor Foecking often visited BVM Julie O’Neill for the noon meal and an afternoon visit. BVMs Carol Marie Baum and Kathy Carr invited RAs Caity Cox and Rebecca Underwood to their home for a visit and home-cooked meal. BVMs Mira Mosle and Karen Conover attended a play at Clarke University starring Rashaud Colbert. And Delaney Dicus is convinced that Bertha (Dolorose) Fox, BVM will be an honored guest at her wedding.

So the story of The Tiny Seed continues as the seeds are released into the air and spread to become more flowers.

The time together was truly a gift: friendship, caring, sharing, fun, and prayer.

The coronavirus pandemic abruptly interrupted the program. The students left. Classes continued online. A good-bye was not said.

But how the lives of the BVM sisters and the Clarke students were transformed by one another will be there for a very long time.

About the author: Associate Lori Ritz is director of the Office of BVM Life and Mission for the Sisters of Charity, BVM in Dubuque.


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