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A Tear in the Universe:
Sisters of Charity, BVM

by Lucille Younger
It is the sense of depth that strikes you, looking over the Iowan corn fields: the endless contrasts of shadows and sun rays as they play tag, skipping and shimmying across the prairie, that undisturbed sound of forever that silence makes, the feeling of unapologetic freedom. Yet, you are held captive, vexed that something is on the other side of those fields. Something powerful that attends the beauty, boxes it in, packages it and places it in your heart.

Still, you try to relax, for as far as the eye can see, the partnership of man and nature holds sway and spans in living testament to our ingenuity at survival and stewardship.

Motoring along US 20 from Illinois, going deeper into Iowa past the fertile border where the two states meet, the countryside burgeons and expands. The power on the other side of the cornfields becomes almost invasive, rapping mind and body into one sensation that continues to build until you are assaulted, grabbed with a force that seems greater than depth, more expansive than the row upon row of yet-to-be harvested corn.

It strikes you that, at that moment and for that instant, you are in a freefall through the universe; a depthlessness having no dimension. Your heart races and your pulse quickens. Forget equilibrium. There is no such thing. You cannot breathe, but cannot die. And, suddenly, you are glutted with feelings of nothingness turned quickly into maybeness, resolving into everythingness--all tumbling helter skelter and, finally, overflowing in one single tear in the universe--you.

The vehicle stops. You disembark. You stand gazing silently. Awed. For the first time in your life, you feel the sense of true freedom.

In the distance on a hill that seems more mountain in this flat Midwestern land, looms an old red brick building that puts a perspective on this blissful blandness and reunites you with a sense of self--a sense of mankind. It is the convent of the Sisters of Charity, BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) of Dubuque Iowa. Later, you come to know that it is also the power on the other side of the cornfield: 900 women who--from this tear in the universe--have ventured to virtually every corner of the world, helping the poor, treating the infirm, educating, enlightening, giving hope, providing paths to freedom.

Today's Sisters of Charity represent the core of the mission of the BVM, founded in Philadelphia in 1833 by Irish immigrants. The Dubuque convent, which set roots ten years later, is as strong as the sturdiest stalk in the Iowan cornfields. This strength is reflected in the mission's credo:

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing
those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the
yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every
yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry.

Isaiah 58:6

The rambling building itself has been carved by time and propped up by goodwill; a perfect blend of old world stealth and Midwest toughness. The Victorian structure echoes back to its origins more than a century ago when those carrying the word and grandeur of God went on the rode and institutions built in his name were celebrated in heavenly proportions.

But, modern necessities of invention and travel have scaled the main building down, partitioning off its geography and use to be more functional--space that not only bespeaks the greatness of God but enhances the utility of man. The convent campus has grown out toward the community. Within the twenty-four-inch-thick walls of the convent, the BVM sisters serve God and minister to mankind at a hectic (albeit, bucolic) clip, mirroring the perfect balance played outside in the fields of corn: intonations of word, practice and deed resulting in ultimate survival and effective stewardship.

In today's convent, space is allocated for woodworking workshops (the nuns build a considerable amount of their own furniture), food preparation (bread baked, harvested vegetables grown and nurtured by the sisters), instruction, facilities for community health care, education, social services, and church ministries. Living quarters are still meager, reflecting unselfish BVM service to the community and world that is laced with humility, gentleness and compassion. Sisters consider it an honor and a privilege to be servant to mankind.

There is no doubt that freedom lives here; freedom born of letting go of the worldly, the material, the vain. It is a true freedom which results from giving, sharing, loving--a depthlessness and everythingness that resolves into the nothinglessness of pure and unconditional altruism that cannot be seen, cannot be touched but is nonetheless palpable.

Freedom is the core of the mission:

"FREEDOM is the gift that permits us to become
our most faithful selves - who we are called to be
at the deepest core of our being."

As freedom is the mission, a quest for justice is the tactic:
  • Justice is the conviction that calls us to be
    faithful to the demands of a relationship.
  • Justice calls us to recognize the dignity,
    quality and rights of all persons.
  • Justice is a core value of the 935 Sisters of
    Charity, BVM.

Armed with freedom, justice and devotion, the BVM convent has grown strong in the prairie and, like the hearty grasses and fruit that surround it, has spread and multiplied. It is a lamp in the window. A tear in the universe.

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Copyright © 1996 by Lucille Younger. All rights reserved.