Five Irish laywomen, Mary Frances Clarke, Margaret Mann, Rose O'Toole, Eliza Kelly and Catherine Byrne, left the comparative security of their school on North Anne Street, Dublin, to minister to the needs of the Irish immigrants in North America. These women of faith arrived in Philadelphia in September of 1833. By November 1, with the help of Reverend Terence J. Donaghoe, they had organized formally as the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin. Because it was the outstanding need of the day, the Sisters moved into the ministry of education.
Ten years later they responded to Bishop Mathias Loras to join other pioneers in the Iowa Territory. In 1843 the total community of nineteen members, the first women from a Catholic religious order in Iowa, settled in Dubuque on the Mississippi River. Originally Bishop Loras wanted them to minister to Native Americans. Upon the arrival of the Sisters in Dubuque, however, he directed their activities to the teaching of pioneer settlers, the families of farmers and lead miners.
The Sisters of Charity established boarding schools and taught in parish schools in cities and towns of Iowa and Wisconsin under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Dubuque. In 1867, at the invitation of the Reverend Arnold Damen, SJ, they expanded their apostolate to Chicago, Illinois.
After the death of Father Donaghoe in January, 1869, Mother Mary Frances Clarke continued the expansion of the Congregation, opening houses as far west as San Francisco, California.
Following the death of Mother Clarke, the Foundress of the Order, in 1887, Mothers Mary Gertrude Regan and Mary Cecilia Dougherty guided the institutional expansion of the young community. They recognized the need to develop programs which would advance the professional competencies of the Sisters as educators. Today there are over 1000 Sisters continuing the BVM mission of freedom expressed in the ministries of education, justice and peace.
The Motherhouse of the Sisters is located in Dubuque, Iowa.