Mary Frances Clarke founded the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) in 1833. She and four of her friends were invited to teach the children of Irish immigrants in the U.S. They came to Philadelphia in 1833 and moved to Iowa in 1843, where they started a working farm to sustain and support their work as well as all who helped them. The Motherhouse was established in 1852 at St. Joseph on the Prairie near Dubuque, IA. The sisters maintained the farm until the 1950s and one of the original buildings still remains.
Sr. LaDonna Manternach, BVM entered the sisterhood 37 years ago, when there were 2000+ sisters. Currently there are approximately 250 sisters in the BVMs, ages 51 to 102 years. 150 sisters live in the new senior living community at Mount Carmel Bluffs, thirty live and work in the local Dubuque area, two are in Ecuador, one is in Ghana, and the rest live across the country doing God’s work. Sr. LaDonna notes, “It is often stated that where one BVM is, we are all there.” They share a very strong sense of community and that has not diminished over the years. The smaller number of sisters does not discourage them from their work and ministry. After all, they started with only five women who were willing to leave their home and venture out to educate others. They are women who value and recognize the impact of education and they are continuing to learn, to grow and to adapt.
The BVMs have a pioneer heritage and rural roots. Sr. LaDonna, who grew up on a farm, still has two brothers who farm. “There is great faith in farming–marked by unshakable dependence on and faith in God. Rural people see the whole cycle of life; planting to harvesting and birth to death; there is a great dependence on your neighbors and helping one another is vital to functioning. Our rural communities are very important for both economic and cultural reasons.”
The work of the BVMs
In the earliest years, their ministry focused on education. In the mid-70s that grew to include pastoral ministry, healthcare, and whatever else was needed. The sisters describe themselves as “being free in God’s steadfast love.” Their ministries are works of love; expressed in faithfulness to God, faithfulness to each other in their community and faithfulness to God’s people, especially the poor, responding to the needs of the times.
Some of the BVM sisters marched with Caesar Chavez. At one point, they were jailed for 12 days, and considered it an honor to be jailed with them. The National Farmer Worker Ministry organization started in 1971 and has had at least one BVM sister or associate on their board since then.
Recently, they began to partner with Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS) who helped them provide enriched living and memory care at Mount Carmel Bluffs. This is currently serving only the BVM sisters, but, after they become licensed, and space allows, they will open it up to the public. This is a new and welcomed ministry.
Their core values are education, charity, justice, and freedom. Freedom is what most uniquely describes these women. It is a freedom to and for, not freedom from.
When asked about their biggest challenges, Sr. LaDonna noted their transition into more mature women. It can be a frustration when they are not able to be out in ministry as much as they would like. Their transition, however, is a graceful one as exemplified by their new ministry to those who will live in their enriched living and memory care community.
Responding to the needs of the day continues to characterize their commitment to ministry. They freely share 1) the wisdom of their experience, 2) blessings of their prayer and 3) their resources. For example, the sisters shared their stimulus checks with those who didn’t receive that help – immigrants and those who rely on food banks.
When asked what she wanted others to know about their work and ministry, Sr. LaDonna stated, “We are still here and still ministering to those in need.”
– Interview with Sr. LaDonna Manternach. Sr. LaDonna and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary are located in Dubuque, IA. Their mission is “Freed by Love, Acting for Justice.” They are long time members of Catholic Rural Life.
Feature photo of St. Joseph’s on the Prairie provided by Sisters of Charity, BVM.