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Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: ‘Westward Ho!’

August 14, 2015
Sister Kitty Lawlor, BVM, and Maureen O’Brien, BVM

Catholic San Francisco is featuring one religious congregation from the archdiocese in each installment of this periodic column marking the Vatican’s Year of Consecrated Life.

San Francisco’s Archbishop Patrick Riordan in 1887 contacted Mother Mary Frances Clarke, the founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, about obtaining sisters to teach the school at St. Brigid Parish. She consulted her local bishop, John Hennessy, Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, about the request. He warned her that if she sent sisters so far away they would lose touch with the motherhouse, separate from their community and form their own. He predicted there was no way they could stay in contact with the Midwest congregation. But the bishop’s crystal ball failed him! Today, nearly 130 years later, there are still BVMs serving in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The original five sisters who Mother Clarke sent to open a school at St. Brigid created a close and lasting relationship between the BVM congregation and the people of San Francisco.

Three days following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake BVMs throughout the country received an urgent message from the motherhouse, “We are in dreadful suspense here about our California sisters. Not one word can we get to them or from them.” Two days later they learned their 15 sisters had taken refuge at the Presidio and were conducting classes under a large tent for the children made homeless by the earthquake, an “unruly lot.”

Mother Clarke had just two expectations of the sisters as educators: Teach students that God loves them, and help them develop the potential that is theirs. They fulfilled these expectations not only at St. Brigid Grade School and High School for Girls but also at St. Paul Grade School and High School for Girls, Most Holy Redeemer, St. Philip, St. Thomas More, and St. Monica. At the time BVMs began teaching the archdiocese also included their schools at St. Vincent, Petaluma; St. Gertrude, Stockton; St. Leo, San Jose. BVMs continued to be committed to the works of education responding wherever they saw a need and in whatever forms served God’s people.

When influenza struck the nation in 1918 BVMs closed their schools in the archdiocese in order to care for the sick. Parishes became vast hospitals. Convent kitchens served as dispensaries of soups and other provisions. Only two sisters contracted the flu and the city rewarded all sisters with free public transportation. The history of this vulnerable joining together of sisters and people contributed to 69 young women traveling from San Francisco to Dubuque to join the BVM community.

In response to the call of Vatican II, BVMs broadened the definition of their mission. They understood the necessity of studying the problems and needs of the communities they were serving. Realizing they had special competencies to resolve social problems and alleviate suffering they moved beyond the school buildings. Sisters joined ministers in prisons, workers in soup kitchens, spiritual directors, special works of the archdiocese, pastoral, parish, ecumenical and archdiocesan councils. They collaborated with the laity to prevent the demeaning of individuals and the exploitation of immigrants.

This Year of Consecrated Life is a challenge for all Christians to renew the year proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2), “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord.”


Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Founding: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1833

Arrival in Archdiocese of San Francisco: St. Brigid Parish, Dec. 15, 1887

Mission: Education

Current service: BVMs are ministering in parishes of the archdiocese, with six BVM Sisters and five BVM Associates in 2015

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