Mary Frances Clarke was born in Dublin in 1802. During an outbreak of plague in the city, she and four companions moved into the slums to start a school for girls. There they met a missionary priest who encouraged them to move to Philadelphia to assist with the children of Irish immigrants. Accepting this challenge, they sailed for New York in 1833. Their arrival was inauspicious; while disembarking the ship, they accidentally dropped all their money into the sea. Nevertheless, with borrowed funds, they made their way to Philadelphia and started a school. They also took religious vows, the foundation of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (popularly known as the BVMs). Mary was chosen as superior—a post she occupied for the rest of her life.
After ten years in Philadelphia the sisters received an invitation from Bishop Mathias Loras of Dubuque to move to the Iowa territory. There, in a log cabin, they built a school for girls. Clarke advised her sisters to “teach without seeming to teach,” and to “incite” in the girls a questioning spirit and a desire to think for themselves. Clarke adopted a collaborative style of leadership, unusual for the time. She regarded her sisters as “a circle of friends”—affectionately addressing letters to “My darling Sisters,” and signing them, simply, “Mary.”
By the time of her death on December 4, 1887, the circle of five sisters had grown to 449.
“My dear Sister, but have courage and confidence in God who is always ready to help our weakness.”
—Mother Mary Frances Clarke