Sisters of Charity

Sisters of Charity

Sisters of Charity, in the Roman Catholic Church, name of many independent communities of women. Most of them owe their origin to the institute of St. Vincent de Paul, founded (1634) for works of mercy. The foundation of Mother Seton in America was affiliated to this institution. The Sisters of Charity are active in parochial schools, hospitals, orphanages, and colleges.

Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known by their initials BVM, is a Roman Catholic religious order founded in the United States by Mother Mary Frances Clarke. BVM Sisters work in twenty-five U.S. states and three foreign countries.


The BVM Sisters have a distinctive philosophy of living that:

  • incorporates the Core Values of Freedom, Education, Charity, and Justice
  • includes strong public witness against oppression brought about by unjust political and social structures.
  • stands in solidarity with those marginalized by society, especially women and children.


In 1831, four Franciscan Tertiaries, all women who had been spending their days nursing victims of the Dublin cholera epidemic, rented a small cottage and began an experiment in community living. Before long, the original four—Mary Frances Clarke, Margaret Mann, Rose O’Toole, and Eliza Kelly—were joined by another, Catherine Byrne. Together, these five opened a school, Miss Clarke’s Seminary, for young girls on North Anne Street in Dublin, Ireland.

A few years later, in 1833, the community of women met Patrick Costello, a priest from Philadelphia who was convalescing in Dublin. From him the five learned about the plight of the Irish Catholic immigrants overseas. After prayerful consideration, and after Fr. Costello agreed to make arrangements for their arrival in the United States, the community, expect for Rose O’Toole who remained in Dublin long enough to settle a family estate, decided to leave their homeland to come teach in America. After several weeks at sea, the women arrived in New York in September.

During their time at sea, the women had entrusted their money to Eliza Kelly. As she was climbing down a rope ladder to depart the ship, she accidentally let the money purse fall into the waters of the harbor. In addition to this setback, the women soon discovered that Fr. Costello had done nothing to prepare for their arrival, and that he himself was nowhere to be found. Determined, the four make their way to Philadelphia. When they arrive, they were taken in by Margaret McDonough, who found lodging, and directed them to a young priest, Fr. Terence Donaghoe, who had just been named pastor of the yet-to-be-built parish of St. Michael’s. After meeting the women, Fr. Donaghoe invited the women to teach in his parish school, as soon as it was completed. In the interim, the women decided to open a school of their own, which they named Sacred Heart.

On November 1, 1833, the women, including the still absent Rose O’Toole, made an act of consecration as the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin. In this act, the band of women took one more step in becoming a formal community of women religious, sisters, within the Roman Catholic tradition. Fr. Donaghoe was named father director and reverend superior of the community, while Mary Frances Clarke was named mother superior. For the next ten years, the sisters continued to teach as well as gain new members.

In 1843, Bishop Loras of Dubuque, Iowa, who had been visiting Philadelphia, invited the sisters to come teach in the Iowa Territory. So the women, by then nineteen in number, moved to Dubuque, Iowa. These, the first women religious in the Territory, opened a new boarding school, St. Mary’s Female Academy, which was the predecessor of the St. Raphael Cathedral school. Before long, the sisters opened additional schools in the Territory.

The first years of prairie life proved to be difficult: there continued to be disagreements between the differing immigrant communities, especially the German, Irish, and French. This fact, along with the need for more space—the community and school continued to grow—led the sisters to decide to move to a new location outside the city proper. So, in 1846 the community established its first motherhouse eight miles southwest of Dubuque on land they called St. Joseph’s Prairie. The campus included a convent, a chapel, a house for Fr. Donaghoe, farmland, and a boarding school named St. Joseph Academy, a complement to St. Mary’s which continued to thrive in town.

An 1849 fire destroyed the convent, school, and chapel. Resilient, the community immediately decided to rebuild. In 1855, to respond to another need of the time, the sisters opened a hospital on 14th Street in town. Though this was a short-lived venture, the building was used for another school, Sacred Heart. In 1859, the building again saw new life when the St. Joseph Prairie boarding school moved to the site. During these early years, the number of towns at which there were schools continued to grow. An especially important era of growth began in 1867 when Jesuit Arnold Damen invited the sisters to open a school at Holy Family in Chicago. After their arrival, the community opened a number of schools throughout the city, including St. Mary’s and Immaculata High Schools.

After Fr. Donaghoe died in 1869, Mary Frances Clarke again took full leadership of the community, which she had, in effect, been co-directing with Fr. Donaghoe for its entire existence. Her first major act was to incorporate the community under Iowa law. A significant benefit of this was that property could then be owned in the name of the community rather than in the name of individual sisters. Following this act of incorporation, Mary Frances Clarke began the process of seeking Vatican approbation of the community’s Rule, their governing constitutions. Approbation was given in 1877, which allowed the sisters to open schools anywhere in the world, without needing to gain permission from the Archbishop of Dubuque in whose geographical territory the motherhouse lie. Shortly after gaining approbation, another building was built to house the St. Joseph school; in 1881, Mt. St. Joseph opened on Seminary Street, which later became Clarke Drive.

After her death in 1887, Mary Frances Clarke was buried at the community cemetery, then still at St. Joseph’s Prairie. The first major act of the next superior of the community, Mary Gertrude Regan, was to build a new motherhouse in town; there was again a need for more space, as well as a need to be closer to train travel to reach the missions, which by then were as far away as California.

Since the beginning, education had been the dominant charism of the community. This became no less true as the community continued to grow. Over the next several decades, community leaders spent significant resources on improving the education of the sisters, who were responsible for teaching a large number of students. In the early 1900s, the superior sent teaching sisters to summer school programs at De Paul, Marquette, and the Catholic University of America, as well as to special institutes run at St. Mary’s, one of the community run high schools in Chicago. This ongoing education was especially important for those sisters who taught at Mt. St. Joseph; in 1901 the school received permission to begin granting three-year college degrees.

To honor Mary Frances Clarke, in 1928 the name of Mt. St. Joseph was changed to Clarke College. The following year, construction began for another college, Mundelein College in Chicago. This school remained open until 1991, when it became part of Loyola University. During this time, the community continued to focus on the education of both the students, and the teaching sisters. In the late 1950s, a scholastic program was established; beginning in 1957, sisters entering the community received two and a half years of additional formation following the novitiate to prepare them for classroom teaching.

During the later half of the twentieth century, the community continued to grow in both size and number of missions. 1937 saw the opening of a school in Memphis at which the sisters began working directly with the African American community. A few years later, in 1945 a small group of sisters opened a school in Hawaii, and by 1961 there were sisters serving in Latin America. With sisters serving in so many locations, the community developed into a well-networked educational system that spanned the country, from New York to California, and beyond.

Throughout its history, the community has faced a number of fires. In addition to the 1849 fire at St. Joseph Prairie, there was a 1955 fire at the infirmary at the Dubuque motherhouse, a 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels, a BVM school in Chicago, and a 1984 fire at Clarke College.

1961 marked the beginning of a new era in the community, the construction of one of the last remaining BVM high school: Carmel High School in Mundelein, Illinois, a joint project with the Carmelite Fathers. 1968 saw the closing of the last boarding school.

Vatican II, a significant event in the lives of Catholics was significant for the BVM community as well. In 1967 the Tenth General Chapter sought to respond to the invitations of the Council. Responses which followed included legislation approving a new government structure, TOPA (Totally Open Personal Application which gave sisters the freedom to apply for jobs of their choice), and an affiliate program, an organized grouping of non-vowed men and women interested in participating in the BVM values.

In recent years, the community has been actively involved in working for peace with justice. During the Civil Rights movement, sisters participated in the 1965 march to Selma. Today, there are a number of sisters who participate in the annual demonstration at the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, as well as sisters who are on the staff of NETWORK and the 8th Day Center for Justice. The community has also taken a corporate stance against the death penalty, and has declared that the Mount Carmel campus in Dubuque is a nuclear free zone.

Since its beginning, the community has responded to the current needs of the day. There are currently sisters living in twenty-three states, and in three other countries: Ghana, Ecuador, and Guatemala. Ministries of the sisters include working as hospital, hospice, and prison chaplains, working with those with additions, people with AIDS, pastoral service, spiritual direction, counseling, and, of course, education.

November 1, 2007 began a year of jubilee to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the community. The theme of the year will be “Crossing the Waters, Currents of Hope: Celebrating 175 years of BVM Presence and Partnership.” There will be a number of local celebrations throughout the United States to mark this historic event.

Notable members


  • Harrington, Ann BVM. Creating Community: Mary Frances Clarke and Her Companions. Dubuque, Iowa: Mount Carmel Press, 2004.
  • McDonnell, Mary Jane BVM, et al. Clarke Lives. Dubuque, Iowa: Clarke College, 1993.
  • Sisters of Charity BVM. Salt: Charting BVM History, 1984.
  • Sisters of Charity BVM. Constitutions. Dubuque, Iowa: Mount Carmel Press, 1989.
  • Official website (10 November 2007)

External links

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