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Clarke, Mary Frances
(December 15, 1802–December 4, 1887)

–schoolteacher and founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary—was born in Dublin, Ireland, the first of four children of Cornelius Clarke, a prosperous merchant specializing in harness and carriage leather, and Mary Anne (Quartermaster) Clarke, whose family had a Quaker heritage. Mary Frances said of herself that she "never went to but a penny school," but an aunt undoubtedly did some home schooling of the children.

    On December 8, 1831, Mary Frances Clarke, Margaret Mann, and Rose O'Toole became members (tertiaries) of the Third Order of St. Francis. Eliza Kelly, already a tertiary, joined the group when they decided to live together in a rented cottage in the suburbs of Dublin. Their experience in commu nity living led to their decision to open a school, Miss Clarke's Seminary, in Dublin in 1832.

    An Irish priest, Patrick Costello, recuperating in Dublin, invited the women to Philadelphia to teach Irish immigrants. The women, joined by Catherine Byrne, sailed to New York. They arrived on August 31, 1833, but dropped their money in New York harbor while disembarking. They continued to Philadelphia, where Terence James Donaghoe, pastor of St. Joseph's parish, assisted them with the process of becoming a religious congregation (November 1, 1833). The sisters opened two private schools and taught children in local parishes. For 10 years, the women taught in Philadelphia's anti-Catholic atmosphere. In 1843 Mathias Loras, bishop of Dubuque, invited them to Iowa Territory to teach Native Americans.

    By that time, the fledgling congregation numbered 19. In 1843 they became the first religious congregation in the Iowa Territory. Working with Native Americans never materialized, but the sisters began opening schools almost immediately, serving the families of pioneer settlers, primarily farmer and lead miners. They first settled in Dubuque near the Mississippi River. St. Mary's Academy (eventually Clarke College) opened in 1843. In 1846 the motherhouse of the congregation was established on the prairie, about eight miles southwest of Dubuque, where it remained until 1893, when it was relocated to Dubuque. The sisters opened boarding schools and taught in parish schools in many towns in Iowa and Wisconsin. In 1867 they ventured to Chicago, where they taught in Holy Family parish at the invitation of Arnold Damen, S.J.

    When Terence Donaghoe died in 1869, Mary Frances Clarke immediately had the congregation incorporated (1869) and began the process of getting papal approval. In 1877 Pope Pius IX issued the Decree of Approba tion, approving the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) for six years. On March 15, 1885, the Vatican gave final approval to the congregation's constitutions. At the same time, the BVM sisters asked that Clarke be allowed to remain the Superior General for life. The Vatican left that decision up to the bishop of Dubuque, who approved.

    Remembered as a private woman, Clarke shunned publicity. When the congregation's records were burned in a fire in 1849, the sisters proposed that one of them write an account of the community's history, but Mary Frances Clarke forbade it, saying that no one would believe all that had happened in the early days. Her humility and spirituality come across clearly in her letters and in the remembrances of those who knew her. In addition, she was a woman with a keen mind, sound judgment, and good business sense.

    Mary Frances Clarke was unusual in that she never had training with an established congregation before founding the BVM, and she never wore the religious habit, which members began wearing in 1853. She never expected others to do as she did. She had the freedom to be herself without imposing her spirituality or practices on others. From the life of this woman comes the BVM mission of "being freed and helping others enjoy freedom in God's steadfast love."

    When Clarke took over the administration of the congregation after Terence Donaghoe's death, she expanded it. By the time of her death, BVM sisters staffed schools in 23 Iowa towns and in areas as distant as Wichita, Kansas, and San Francisco. The community's growth continued through the years to a membership of more than 5,000 sisters teaching in schools across the United States.
Sources Clarke's correspondence and community documents and records are in the archives of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque. See also Kathryn Lawlor, ed., Your Affectionate: Com mentary on the Letters of Mary Frances Clarke (2003); Jane Coogan, Price of Our Heritage, 2 vols. (1975, 1978); Mary Lambertina Doran, In the Early Days: Pages from the Annals of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1925); Ann M. Harrington, Creating Community: Mary Frances Clarke and Her Companions (2004); and Kathryn Lawlor, ed., Terence James Donaghoe: Co-founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1995).
Contributor: Ann M. Harrington