Our History - A Promise Fulfilled

Kentucky Years

The story of the Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton, Iowa is one of hope, love, and deep faith. It began in the shadow of the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky. The farmers in the area assisted in building the monastery in the 1850s in exchange for the promise that their children receive free education. This promise was kept. In 1863 a young widow named Caroline Cambron Warren, who worked as a seamstress for the monks, was asked by Abbot Benedict Berger to conduct a school for girls. Her niece Sally Walker and Lizzie Lillis joined her. These three women were the founding members of the Clinton Franciscans. Sister Elizabeth (Caroline Warren) and Sister Angela (Lizzie Lillis) left the community; Sister Mary Frances (Sally Walker) celebrated her golden jubilee on July 14, 1920, and died January 22, 1921.


In 1866 Bishop Lavialle, Louisville, Kentucky, declared that the congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was established with his approbation.


In 1873, at the request of Bishop William McCloskey, Diocese of Louisville, the sisters left Gethsemani for Shelbyville, Kentucky, and became incorporated under the title of The Literary and Benevolent Society of Our Lady of Angels. These were hard years as their school did not prosper and the area was afflicted with influenza.  


Moving to Iowa

Two Jesuit priests who were in Shelbyville to give a mission in September 1888 were appalled at the living conditions of the sisters and urged them to apply for acceptance into the Diocese of Dubuque, Iowa. This seemed to be a promising suggestion. The move started in September 1890 and by December all thirty-three sisters had arrived in Iowa and were welcomed by and stayed with the Dubuque Sisters of St. Francis. Immediately upon their arrival most of the sisters traveled by train to western Iowa and opened elementary schools.


Dubuque’s Bishop John Hennessy decided their motherhouse would be established in Anamosa, Iowa. In 1891 Father James Murray, an Irish priest and pastor of the newly-organized St. Patrick Parish in Clinton, Iowa, invited the Franciscan Sisters to staff the new parish school. This was a new beginning. The sisters purchased the Judge Chase property and moved to Clinton in 1893 and named the motherhouse and academy for girls, Mount St. Clare.  


In 1911 a new Mount St. Clare structure was built on the Dr. J. S. Corbin property. This five-story building became the motherhouse, the novitiate, and Mount St. Clare Academy. Mount St. Clare Academy received accreditation from North Central Association in 1931. The boarding school closed at the end of the 1971 school year and male students were admitted in the fall of 1972. In 1980 the Academy and St. Mary High School merged, and the new high school located at the St. Mary’s campus was named Mater Dei High School.  


The original Chase building was first used as a school for boys from 1911 to 1914. It became Mount Alverno in 1914, the first home for the aged and infirmed in Clinton County. It operated until 1971 when the new facility was built and became The Alverno. In 2013 it was transferred to Trinity Senior Living Communities who previously managed the facility for six years.


Mount St. Clare Junior College, an outgrowth of the Academy, was chartered in 1918 by the State of Iowa as an institution of higher education, a junior college for women. In meeting the needs of the time, the State of Iowa certified the college to provide teacher education courses in 1932. During the period of 1932 to 1954, sixty-two percent of all the teachers who worked in the schools of Clinton County were Mount St. Clare graduates. In 1950 the college received its North Central Association accreditation. Enrolling thirteen male students, the college became coeducational in 1967. In 1979 the college offered baccalaureate degrees; the first degree was Business Administration. The first lay board was empowered to oversee the management of the college in 1983. The college was renamed The Franciscan University of the Prairies in 2004. It was sold to Bridgepoint Education in 2005 and became Ashford University.


In 1943, the St. Michael Speech and Hearing, later called Mount St. Clare Speech and Hearing, was started and served Iowa and Illinois residents. The Speech and Hearing Center was incorporated in 1996 and ceased operation in 2012.


Three hospitals and two schools of nursing were established in Iowa and Illinois. St. Francis Hospital in Macomb, Illinois, started in 1903; a nursing school was added in 1913. It closed in 1967. St. Francis Hospital in Grinnell, Iowa, was built in 1919 and ended in 1967 when the Grinnell General Hospital came into existence. Mercy Hospital in Burlington, Iowa, was acquired in 1922 when the small group of Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were amalgamated with the Clinton Franciscans. The school of nursing was added in 1944. It became the Burlington Medical Center in 1969.


Ministries Beyond Clinton
The early ministry of teaching expanded rapidly. The sisters received invitations to staff schools in many states: Minnesota in 1891, Ohio in 1910, Nebraska in 1917, Missouri in 1920, Illinois (Chicago) in 1924, and California in 1950, as they continued to serve schools in Kentucky. Teaching was a major ministry that found sisters teaching and serving as campus ministers in high schools, universities, and schools of nursing in several states.


At the request of Bishop Paul Hagerty of Nassau, Bahamas, the sisters opened a hospital clinic and elementary school on the island, serving from 1960 to 1999. The Second Vatican Council ushered in a new era and a global world view. In 1965, four sisters opened the mission in the Diocese of Chulucanas, Peru, South America, and sisters served in schools, parishes, and chancery office until 2018.


Post-Vatican II Years

The Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, with the desire of bringing the church into the modern world. It was a call for women religious to read the signs of the times and serve where people were suffering. This was a major change, which opened the sisters to many people. Using their talents and gifts, they responded.


Our sisters founded three L’Arche communities: Clinton, Iowa, in 1974; Chicago, Illinois, in 2000; St. Louis, Missouri, in 2011.


In December 1971, Clinton Franciscans were part of a group of Catholic sisters who created a nationwide “network” of women religious who would engage in political activism at the federal level for social justice. Today this is NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice in Washington, DC. One of our sisters was a co-founder of the Franciscan Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations in 1982. Today it is called Franciscans International. In 2007, sisters were part of the creation of the Franciscan Action Network, which calls for civic action through advocacy for change.


Advocacy for change was occurring throughout the congregation, one sister at a time. One sister co-founded the AIDS Ministry of Illinois; another served as an attorney with Legal Aid. Many sisters served in parish and diocesan ministries and several were with Catholic Worker houses in Missouri and Iowa. Additionally, sisters ministered to the Latino communities in Illinois and Iowa, served as campus ministers, presented restorative justice programs, and assisted with other organizations that walked with people who lived on the margins.


The sisters were singing together for many years as a sideline to their professions as teachers, therapists, and administrators. Through the encouragement of their friends and sisters, they cut a record, Come Along, in 1974. It contained some of their favorite songs and some songs composed by them.


Lay women and men partner with the Sisters of St. Francis in following the Franciscan way of life. The Associate partnership started in 1986. The Sojourner relationship, living a covenant relationship with the sisters, began in 2003.



Journey to a New Corporate Mission

The Clinton Franciscans underwent a communal journey which resulted in their acknowledgement that they have a new corporate mission of active nonviolence and peacemaking. Their journey came as a result of answering the call of the Second Vatican Council to return to their founding charism and adapt it to the times. The corporate mission of living and promoting active nonviolence and peacemaking gives the Clinton Franciscans a focus, shapes who they are, continues to transform them, and gives them impetus for the future.


In the late 1980s one sister participated in a Faith and Resistance Retreat and civil disobedience. Many sisters participated in retreats and actions at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in the 1990s. They continued to attend workshops on nonviolence training and gave witness at the School of Americas Watch protest gatherings to close the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, starting in 1996.


The communal journey led the Clinton Franciscans to the 1992 Chapter Commitment to deepen their understanding of active nonviolence and each Chapter since then they have committed themselves to this corporate mission, allocating resources and integrating Franciscan spirituality with this mission of active nonviolence and peacemaking.  


At the 2000 Chapter several committees were formed to carry out the Chapter call to establish a “Center” for Active Nonviolence. The “Center” did not have a tangible site. The “Center” was a catalyst, a leavening agent for education, training, planning, and involving the community and laity at this critical time of systemic injustice. Members of Pace e Bene accompanied them. The “Center” began hiring staff in 2009 and the name changed to the Franciscan Peace Center in 2014.

Land Stewardship


God-given land in Clinton is a gift the sisters have for a short period of time. In 1993 the Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest did a resource assessment of the convent, college, senior health care facility, and farmland, approximately 120 acres. This audit and the Conservation Design Forum audit in 1996 are still on-going projects. It was decided to bring back the natural ecosystem to the land entrusted to them. They would reserve and restore the plant system that is native to Iowa. Today on the land you will find the tall-grass prairie, woodlands, and habitats for raptors, birds, animals, insects, and bees.


Solar panels changed their fossil fuel footprint. The current motherhouse, The Canticle, and administrative building embody their commitment to Mother Earth. The geo-thermal heating and the overall selection of products and building materials indicate the sustainable nature they desire.


Corporate Stands


Starting in 2003, corporate stands were a communal action affirming the congregation's beliefs in nonviolence as they advocate for those who have no voice. They act to be a healing, compassionate presence to those in need and to bring forth systemic change.


Corporate Social Responsibility


The Sisters of St. Francis history is rooted in the corporate responsibility movement of religious congregations in the 1970s. Using their corporate investments, religious institutions were present at shareholder’s meetings to challenge the companies to provide better working conditions and to be responsible on the effects of their companies on the environment. Corporate social responsibility is activism through investments for ethical and social change. It is making alternative or impact investments that will positively impact society as well as give a return on the investment.


A lay finance committee assists the congregation in monitoring their investment portfolio from a moral and ethical perspective as part of their mission of living and promoting active nonviolence and peacemaking.


The Future


God’s promise of love and of being with them sustains the Sisters of St. Francis as they move into the future. There is more than this moment of history. The call to right relationships with all creation, empowering all as sisters and brothers, is the Franciscan spirituality the world needs today. Their response fulfills the call to encounter each person and all creation as visible images of the invisible God and as sister or brother in Christ.



Updated January 2021


An interactive historical map of the Sisters of St. Francis and their missions is available HERE.