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Mary Francis Clarke Photograph
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Exploring Our Roots

BVM History

In 1831 five women in Dublin, Ireland, led by Mary Frances Clarke, came together to teach the poor children of the city. They soon migrated to Philadelphia to teach the children of Irish immigrants. There, on Nov. 1, 1833, they officially became "Sisters" with the assistance of Rev. Terence Donaghoe.

Ten years later, in 1843, at the invitation of Bishop Mathias Loras, the Sisters moved to the Diocese of Dubuque, Iowa which remains their headquarters to this day. These pioneer BVMs soon discovered the immense need for education, particularly of girls. They established a boarding school on the prairie near Dubuque. It later became Clarke University.

As the community grew, the Sisters founded and staffed elementary and high schools, including boarding schools. They began teaching in Chicago in 1867, and opened their first school in California in 1888. They opened Mundelein College in Chicago in 1931.

At each point in their expansion the Sisters attracted new members—nearly 5,000 in all—and developed a cross-country educational network from New York to Hawaii, Minnesota to Mississippi.

The Sisters also became engaged with the issues of the times: social justice, equality, inclusiveness, peace and ecology. They followed closely the Second Vatican Council and followed its call to renewal in the spirit of the founders.

Today 400 sisters serve in diverse ministries in 17 states and two foreign countries, continuing the adventurous lives of their founders.

A Timeline of Historical Highlights pinpoints significant events of the past 175 years, as do Snapshots from BVM History and a more detailed timeline.