Two Pioneer Mothers

Two Pioneer Mothers: Gertrude and Cecilia

by Doris M. Walsh, BVM


Sr. Doris writes about the two Presidents (and Mother Generals) who led the BVM congregation (Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary) after the death of its founder, Mary Frances Clarke, on December 4, 1887. (Mary Frances Clarke led the congregation from its inception in 1833 to 1887.) Sr. Gertrude Regan and Sr. Cecilia Dougherty alternated two three-year terms as President of the community for almost 30 years, from 1888 to the death of Sr. Cecilia in 1919. (The only exception was the three-year term of Sr. Ascension Lilly in 1912-1915).

Sr. Doris describes the book as "an informal biography of two women [written] as a memoir." She crafts the two stories with the skill of a mystery writer, yet supports her observations with hundreds of endnotes drawn from archival documents related to the two women. Two Pioneer Mothers is a tour de force.


Chapter 1

The Election of a Mother

"The story begins with the precipitating event—the death of the founder/mother superior.
On December 4, 1887, Mother Mary Francis Clarke, founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, died of pneumonia at St.Joseph convent, Tablemound township, Dubuque county, (IA)." more


Chapter 2

The Second Mother's Resume

"Maurice Duffy, Arcadia Haugh, Magdalen McCrystal and Seratina Mulick—the first four for the West, left from Chicago for San Francisco after Christmas 1887." more


Chapter 3

New Mother, New Time

"After the January 1888 elections, any lingering desire within the congregation for continuity was surely satisfied." more



Chapter 4

The House that God and Gertrude Built

"The true story of the new motherhouse, a story of lots of nuns and a shrinking number of feet and inches to hold them, began at least 30 years prior to 1888." more


Chapter 5

"Unless the Lord Build" Ps. 127

"By 1889 (according to Bishop Hennessy), the congregation had been invited to New York, Boston, Europe, Ireland and Australia." more



Chapter 6

Mandate for a Builder

"Carrying the January 1891 elections 'by a large majority' showed support for Gertrude Regan in completing the new motherhouse." more




Chapter 7
Bricks and Stones
"The account below was handwritten by someone on the Council, probably by Council secretary Cecilia Dougherty. It is information sent to the Dubuque paper and subsequently published." more


Chapter 8

Cecilia Dougherty – Third Mother

"So the third Mother took office. And she was new, kept young by her 10 years with the novices. And she was wise and seasoned, made so by her 10 years on the Council." more


Chapter 9

Life at the Old Home

"When Cecilia entered in 1856, the life of a novice was hard, demanding physical stamina rarely needed or experienced in the 21st century with its push buttons and automatic appliances." more

Chapter 10

Davenport and ICA

"In the decade from 1850-60, Iowa's population tripled from just under 200,000 to almost 700,000." more


Chapter 11
The Call That Made All the Difference 

 "Leave-taking is never an easy affair and it was hard for Cecilia to leave ICA Davenport. At Immaculate Conception Academy, she had been happy and successful, loved by students and fellow teachers, familiar with the quirks, humors and traditions of the school." more




Chapter 12

The Potter's Wheel and Clay

"The novitiate that Cecilia moved back to was not quite a boarding school, not quite a parish convent, not quite a hothouse, not quite anything as much as a place…" more



Chapter 13

The Educator and the Novices

"During her years with the novices, Cecilia prepared young Sisters for the missions." more




Chapter 14

Money and the Motherhouse

"Cecilia Dougherty usually admitted that she could 'do anything except raise money.' Her record shows just the opposite. During her years as superior in Clinton (IA), she managed to pay off the entire $6,000 debt." more
Chapter 15
The Wild Idea: St. Mary High, Chicago!
"With the help of Mother Cecilia, the educational orbit also shifted in 1897 to a new type of central high school for girls." more

Chapter 16
How Cecilia Educated Her Novices
"One fall day in 1894, so interesting was Maurice Duffy's class that the novice bell ringers (she admitted in 1967) became so absorbed in reading for it that she missed ringing the examen bell."  more



Chapter 17

Introducing the Amazing Summer Institutes

"The problem of summer school for Sisters presented more difficulty than merely securing tuition or finding a school and a program."  more




Chapter 18

Re-enter a Familiar Figure

"During Cecilia's six years as Mother (1894-1900), Gertrude Regan had not been far from the center of activity. In fact, in 1894 Gertrude and Cecilia literally ex-changed places – Cecilia becoming Mother and the Council appointing Gertrude novice mistress in her place."  more




Chapter 19

Gertrude's Brief Time in the Backwater

"Not all Gertrude Regan's affectionate and peaceful novice watching prevented one hair-raising night. Her room was on the first floor in the south wing…" more



Chapter 20

The Delicate Art of Juggling Funds

"When Mother Gertrude returned to office in 1990, she and the Council approved and supported two building projects: St. Mary High School (Chicago) and St. Joseph Academy (13th Street,  Dubuque). Both schools needed additional space."  more




Chapter 21

Coming Soon






Chapter 22

Coming Soon






Chapter 23

In Short Supply – Money & Sisters

"Most of the protest over Cecilia's treatment in Davenport, receiving no encouragement from her, sank underground by 1902." more
Chapter 24
Coming Soon
Chapter 25
We Have No Sisters to Send
"Following her week of travel, Mother Gertrude planned to stay at her desk answering letters, and in June began quietly with the usual task of refusing new offers." more
Chapter 26
Keeping All the Balls in the Air
"In August 1903, some new arrangements settled into place. Cecilia Dougherty arrived in Council Bluffs to begin her three-years as superior of St. Francis Academy. In Chicago the St. Charles Sisters moved into a new convent in Muldoon's parish across from St. Mary High School." more
Chapter 27
Council Bluffs – Bootstrap Tutorial
"Council Bluffs, where Cecilia moved as the new superior, had always been a puzzle. By 1903, the city had grown because of its position as the terminus for eastern trains. These connected with Pacific lines ending across the Missouri River in Omaha." more
Chapter 28
Turn of the Century Marvels
"Occasionally the wider world threw a disturbing stone into the relatively placid waters of Dubuque (IA). All the bells had rung out to celebrate the election." more
Chapter 29
Chicago Schools Expand
"If Gertrude had looked to count the gravestones of her friends after the funeral of Agnes Burke, she was abruptly brought back to a count of the living by a Chicago pastor." more
Chapter 30
Walk the Walk with Gertrude
"Near the end of June 1904, after the bruises healed from her fall in Washington (IA), Mother Gertrude resumed her round of visits to Iowa pastors to explain recent community decision." more
 Chapter 31
TripTik for a Peripatetic Mother
"At the start of 1905, Mother Gertrude accepted four schools 'if the pastors agreed to wait at least three years' — RE." more
Chapter 32
The Past at Last – Written History Begins

"Mother Gertrude's gift for stretching another's talent involved the 'Annals' writing by Council Secretary, Pulcheria McGuire." more



Chapter 33

Fire and Earthquake

"Financially, Mother Gertrude left community affairs in good order in 1906. Only a few building projects remained undecided. " more
Chapter 34
North Wing Infirmary and The Round
"After the 1907 election, age and a change of duty curtailed Gertrude Regan's travels, but her ability to pop in on the infirmary or the novitiate for brief visits was not affected." more
Chapter 35
The Trouble with Novices
"Her first year back in office, Mother Cecilia turned to the now pressing problem of preparing teachers. She asked each mission to set up its own summer school using correspondence courses sent out by the high school or the college departments at Mt. St. Joseph. " more
Chapter 36
The Solution is Shared
"Once she had worked through the problem of how to shuttle novices from the missions to a year of novitiate at the motherhouse, Cecilia realized she had not been alone on Falconio's agenda." more
Chapter 37
Boys! – Girls! (Boys n' Girls!)
"BOYS! The question of teaching them or not plagued Cecilia in 1899 and came back in 1909 to bedevil her again. In 1885, Mother Clarke had requested Rome to 'allow BVMs to teach, while the necessity of the times requires it, boys up to 10 years, but no older.'" more
Chapter 38
A Little Less Tilt on the Playing Field
"Some of Falconio's first decisions on rules for American Catholic education were based on European models. To shift American parish schools to match, he ordered the immediate separation of girls and boys in all parish classrooms and informed the BVMs they were no longer to teach boys – much to the outrage of American pastors and bishops." more
Chapter 39
Women's Colleges
"The urgency of Cecilia's appeal to Catholic U. rested on the specifics of affiliation with DePaul University in Chicago (founded 1889) and Marquette university, Milwaukee, (founded 1881) and the establishment of colleges for women at both in September 1917." more
Chapter 40
The Plan for the Many
"Mother Cecilia tried simultaneously to educate a few very well and to raise the teaching capabilities of the many she could not send off to universities." more
Chapter 41
Coming Soon
Chapter 42
Old Rule – New Time
"Cecilia Dougherty's early experience at the old motherhouse on St. Joseph prairie directed her interest not only toward the education of young teachers and the training of young Sisters, but to the Rule and Customs by which BVMs were formed." more
Chapter 43
1914 Rule and Perpetual Vows!
"From 1912 – 1914, Sisters across the BVM community discussed every article in the Rule that might possibly be changed." more
Chapter 44
The 1914 Rule and Younger Sisters
"The 1914 Rule changed more than vows. It also limited the number of Sisters writing back about those requesting vows." more



Chapter 45
Coming Soon



Chapter 46

Coming Soon






Chapter 47

"We're Going to Have a Board of Education."

"In her preparation for the revised Rule, Mother Cecilia included a proposal for the BVM Board of Education. When her term as Mother ended in 1912 with the proclamation by Rome of Ascension Lilly's plurality election, she continued as president of the Board of Education, succesfully supporting the new section in the Rule on education." more




Chapter 48

Old Mothers Fade Away

"Aware that sentiment might elect her to a position which she considered herself too old and/or too ill to do well, Gertrude requested her name not be placed on the 1912 list of nominees. After that, she kept herself busy as local treasurer, wrote letters to former novices and prayed her rosary in "D", her little room in the novice corridor." more


Chapter 49
Gertrude Regan 1827-1919
"In 1916, BVMs all over the country joyfully prepared for the 75th anniversary of Mother Gertrude Regan. So busy were the Sisters in the sewing room that the postulants wore their clothes to rags before anyone had time to sew 'poplins' (a work habit made of poplin material – fatigues)." more
Chapter 50
Cecilia Dougherty 1838-1919
"By 1919, the last year of Mother Cecilia's life, Chicago neighborhoods south of the Loop near Holy Family, had changed radically from those to which the BVMs first came in 1867. So had those north of the Loop." more