BVMs Leave Long Lasting Legacy in Des Moines

By Sandy Rodemyer, BVM for the Catholic Mirror

The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the BVMs) were founded by five young Irish women who left their homeland in 1833 to teach Irish immigrant children in Philadelphia. 

In 1843 they arrived in what is now Dubuque, after accepting an invitation from Bishop Mathias Loras to come teach in the Iowa Territory.

From 1865, when the first BVM sisters came to teach at St. Ambrose Grade School, to the present, over 1100 BVMs served the Des Moines Diocese. Their primary ministry was education.  In addition to St. Ambrose, they staffed St. Michael’s (later known as Visitation) in 1881 and St. John’s in 1906.

The sisters owned and operated two boarding schools.  St. Francis Academy in Council Bluffs was opened in 1872, and sold to St. Francis Xavier parish in 1915.  In Des Moines, the sisters purchased the estate of W. H. Welch in October 1884 for $20,000. (The land was in a suburb called Greenwood Park.) The Welch home, christened Villa Maria, served as both school and convent until brick school buildings were built.

St. Joseph Academy was dedicated on March 19, 1885, and opened immediately.  Two girls graduated in 1892. St. Joseph Academy Pre-school was in operation by 1950, and remained open until the merger of SJA and Dowling High School in 1972.

The BVM Charism of “being freed and helping others to enjoy freedom in God’s steadfast love” is reflected in the BVM core values of freedom, education, charity and justice. 

Originally these values were lived out through formal education.  But as schools closed or merged, BVMs found a myriad of ways to serve in the Diocese. They were in the Diocesan Schools Office (Dolores Marie McHugh), Family Life Office (Joan Stritesky)and the Communications Office (Mira Mosle); in parish ministry  (Christella Dee, Therese Jacobs); Drake campus ministry (Mira, Carola Broderick); a Drake Education Specialist counselor (Kathy Carr); at Mercy Medical Center as Chaplain (Carola)and volunteer visitor (Carolyn Weibeler.); the Beacon of Life Women Shelter (Margaret Drain); in Church Women United (Margaret D.); teaching music (Gertrude Bussanmus); cooking at Orchard Place (Eletta Mohrs); Director of the DMARC Food Pantry (Sandy Rodemyer); Assistant Manager at Mercy Park Apts.(Carol Marie Baum), prison ministry (Sandy);  the Iowa School for the Deaf (Nancy McCarthy); in senior day care centers and nursing homes (John Agnes Smith and Genevieve Kordick.) 

Approximately 123 women entered the BVM community from Council Bluffs and Des Moines.  Of those, 30 returned to serve their home Diocese.  Some BVMs literally gave their lives in ministry.  Many young sisters died of tuberculosis in the late 1800s. But the most tragic deaths were those of two SJA music teachers.  They were struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on Nov. 2, 1921, as they attempted to cross Grand Avenue to return to the Academy.  The grand jury did not find enough evidence to charge the man who was the most likely suspect.  Thus the case is considered unsolved and is listed on Iowa’s Unsolved Murders website. 

Sandy Rodemyer, the last BVM in the Diocese, volunteers at the women’s prison and is on Holy Trinity’s Stephen Ministry team.  The BVM spirit lives on in the Diocese.