By Lisa Bellomy
DAVENPORT — The Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM) has purchased the land on which Humility of Mary Center is built from St. Ambrose University. The Sisters built the center in 1982 on property that was then leased from the Diocese of Davenport.
St. Ambrose acquired the entire diocesan property last summer from the trustee in the diocese’s bankruptcy case.
Last month, the diocese purchased 5.5 acres of the property it previously owned, including the St. Vincent Center, which is diocesan headquarters.
On March 31, the Sisters and university closed on the sale of the nine-acre site on which Humility of Mary Center is located. The purchase price was $20,000, fair market value, the university said.
Sister Mary Rehmann, president of the congregation, said, “This action concludes a process that we have been considering for some time. This site has been our home for almost 30 years and we are glad now to have legal ownership of the land and our building — Humility of Mary Center.”
The congregation’s administrative offices are located at the center which is also a residence for Sisters, many of whom are retired. The congregation will have future events to celebrate the purchase.
Pursuant to their mission statement, the Sisters are committed to “care for the earth,” which implies being good stewards of the land. They are exploring improvements to reduce surface runoff and erosion of the tributary to Duck Creek that runs through the property.
Mike Poster, St. Ambrose University’s vice president of finance, said it made fiscal sense to sell the property to the congregation.
The Sisters had entered a 99-year lease on the property in 1981, with a possible 99-year extension.
“We really do not want to be landlords, which is part of the reason for the sale to the diocese as well,” he said. “It just made sense to remove our liability and sell the property to them.”
For more than a century the Sisters of Humility and St. Vincent have a shared history. It was to care for orphans that the Sisters came to Davenport in the first place. But the story begins in Ottumwa.
In 1877 the Sisters of Humility came from Missouri to Ottumwa, where they began caring for the sick. Soon they were caring for needy children as well. The citizens of Ottumwa had assisted them by holding annual fairs to support their work. In the late 19th century the number of needy and abandoned children increased greatly due to the aftermath of the Civil War and the hardships of immigration and cholera. There was a growing interest in having a home where children from the Davenport Diocese could be placed.
St. Vincent Home had its beginnings as “Sacred Heart Asylum” in a building located at 15th and Grand Streets in Davenport. It was managed by the Sister Servants of the Sacred Heart who came to Davenport at the invitation of Bishop Henry Cosgrove. However, the Sister Servants were recalled to France in 1896. In March of that year Bishop Cosgrove invited the CHMs to take care of the 35 orphans in Davenport, to provide for their education and also to obtain funds for ongoing expenses. An article in the Iowa Catholic Messenger dated March 21, 1896, stated, “An orphanage such as the sisters contemplate founding here, is an absolute necessity, and it should be the pride of the Catholics to build up an institution in every way worthy of the young and enterprising Diocese of Davenport.”
But the Sacred Heart Asylum, housed in a family-sized home, proved inadequate for the increasing number of children. Plans were made for a new orphanage to be renamed St. Vincent Home. Bishop Cosgrove issued an appeal saying, “To support this institution we will have no other means than by calling upon your charity.” The Sisters went on “begging tours” throughout the diocese. With a staff of four Sisters, the congregation purchased 10 acres of the present property at North Gaines Street and the new building was ready for occupancy on Nov. 4, 1897. Soon St. Vincent Home became the favored charity of the diocese and a unifying mission of southern Iowa Catholics.
The Sisters of Humility owned the property legally until 1917 when a separate corporation under the control of the diocese acquired the title. This corporation had been managing the home prior to the turn of the century, based on the premise that priests could better oversee the property; however, the Sisters continued to operate the home. During that same year the barn and a chicken house were built as the Sisters were raising crops and livestock in order to feed the children.
In 1922 another 50 acres were purchased and an addition built on the original building. In 1946 the north dormitory (Martin Hall) and gymnasium were completed. Marian Hall, the south dormitory, was dedicated on Nov. 12, 1950.
The number of children in the home varied through the years with a maximum of 165 in 1921. An elementary school was operated by the Sisters for the children of the home from the early days of its existence. Later the school was opened to the children of the community. The Sisters recruited students from adjacent parishes and the school was noted for its excellence. Beginning in 1939 the school was operated as a laboratory school for student teachers from Marycrest College until closing in 1966.
In the 1960s the trend in caring for needy children was to place them in foster homes. Alternatively, widowed and single parents could receive government benefits through Aid for Dependent Children (ADC) and/or Social Security survivors’ benefits. Further, as employment opportunities for women grew and day care became available, more women were able to be self-supporting.
With these social changes, St. Vincent Home was closed as an orphanage in 1969. The next year the facility was used as a shelter for delinquent youth ages 12-18. Several Sisters remained at St. Vincent and continued on the staff. After a difficult 20 months the diocesan administrative board decided St. Vincent could be better used for retired priests and the site of diocesan offices.
Remodeling of the facility began immediately, first to provide priest retirement quarters in Marian Hall, an apartment in the boiler house, and then office space in the main building. The Diocese of Davenport consolidated its offices at St. Vincent in August 1974. A few Sisters continued on staff in various capacities and/or lived there. Funds which had accumulated from gifts and bequests to St. Vincent Home were managed under the St. Vincent Foundation, from which grants are distributed for projects benefiting children. From its beginning, at least one Sister of the Humility of Mary has always been on the board of the Foundation.
So the story has come full circle in that the Sisters of Humility again own approximately 10 acres of the former St. Vincent property. The fact that they are still here is of particular interest to former St. Vincent residents and students who come back to visit, to meet the Sisters, and to show their families where they spent part of their early lives.
(Lisa Bellomy is communications director for the Congregation of the Humility of Mary.)