BVM sisters, Presbyterian nonprofit break ground on new senior living community

By Dan Russo
Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — With the sun shining above and a picturesque view of the Mississippi behind them, Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary stood side by side with their partners at Presbyterian Homes and Services (PHS) while breaking ground  recently on a senior living community that will be called “Mt. Carmel Bluffs.”

At a ceremony and prayer service June 13, Sister Teri Hadro, BVM, president of the congregation, explained that the members of her religious order  believe being involved in addressing the growing need in society to care for older adults is an appropriate way to continue the BVM mission as many of the sisters themselves reach the later stages of life.

“The era of expansion is well over, but we’re still here,” said Sister Teri. “That’s the thing about religious sisters — their mission until their last breath. The challenges of our present are creatively to continue our mission of making God’s love known through service to others, while providing care for our sisters in a community setting.”

The project will transform the 130-year-old property, which contains the mother­house of the BVM religious order. The sisters’ home will be preserved, but their campus will undergo major changes. In Phase 1, 40 assisted living apartments, 20 memory care apartments and 60 long- term care center suites will be built south of the motherhouse. Phase 2 will involve deconstructing buildings north of the motherhouse to make way for 112 senior living apartments.

“Our demographics tell us that we will need to continue caring for our sisters for at least 30 more years, Sister Teri told a crowd of supporters and dignitaries that had gathered at the motherhouse for the occasion. “We need help providing that care, and our facilities will be underutilized unless we make some changes.”

Founded in 1833 by Mary Frances Clarke of Ireland, the BVMs started in Philadelphia before coming to Dubuque in the 1890s. Since then, about 4,000 women have been part of the congregation, which over time has staffed about 300 schools in 21 states. The BVMs founded Clarke University in Dubuque. Today, the order’s 300 sisters and 190 associates minister as educators, advocates for the elderly and underprivileged, hospital and hospice chaplains, parish ministers and spiritual guides. They are committed to working for justice and care for the earth. Mt. Carmel is home to about 160 retired sisters and is the administrative headquarters for the order.

With the median age of their sisters now 82, the congregation went through a period of contemplating the future of their order and the needs of the community before coming to the decision to work with PHS, according to Sister Teri.

The St. Paul, Minnesota, based ­nonprofit organization operates on the foundation of Christian principles, which is one of the key reasons why the sisters decided to enter into the partnership.

“It will make possible new relationships and bring creative ways to serve others, while ensuring quality care for our members,” said Sister Teri.

The company serves 27,000 older adults through 56 PHS-affiliated senior living communities in three states, including Iowa. The design and planning for the Mt. Carmel project was done in cooperation with Senior Housing Partners, the development arm of PHS. Construction is being handled by Conlon Construction Co., a Dubuque-based general contractor.

Citing national research and local statistics during his remarks, Dan Lindh, president of Presbyterian Homes and Services (PHS), emphasized that the ­number of people 75 and older is increasing significantly. This trend will be a critical long- term issue for society, Lindh said. He hopes the partnership between PHS and the BVMs will help fulfill the emerging need in a compassionate and faithful way.

“We have a shared mission,” said Lindh. “We have a lot of things in common. We have a commitment to ministry that will be enduring.”

After speeches, prayer and the singing of hymns inside the motherhouse, selected representatives of the BVMs and PHS joined elected officials and other guests to move the first bits of earth with golden shovels, symbolizing the beginning of the building process.

“It’s going to be a journey,” said Lindh. “It’s going to take more than two and a half years more or less (to finish construction). But it’s exciting, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it, so again, we say thank you.”


Representatives of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Presbyterian Homes and Services, and guests break ground on the senior living community called Mt. Carmel Bluffs June 13 in Dubuque. (Witness photo by Dan Russo)