Our congregation originated in Herford, Germany in 1864 where the needs of many homeless and hungry children touched the heart and conscience of our Foundress Mother Xavier Termehr. Soon other young women asked to join her in this work of compassion and our community was born. With the encouragement of the local pastor and bishop, we staffed an orphanage and went to homes of the elderly who needed nursing care. We ministered on the battlefields of the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars.

In 1875 a new law ordered religious communities not involved in hospital work to either disband or emigrate. We were a community of 29 members at the time, and all 29 desired to remain a religious community, even though this meant exile from our native land. Fortunately, a priest from Iowa who had visited the sisters invited them to Iowa City. They arrived September 8, 1875. In Iowa City we established the first Catholic orphanage in the state. We also nursed the sick in their homes and took English lessons. Bishop Hennessy of Dubuque met Mother Xavier and told her of his intent to open a German Catholic Orphan Asylum, and of his wish that we would take over this work. So Mother Xavier and our community uprooted and moved to Dubuque in December of 1878.

Foundress Mother Xavier Termehr

Mother Xavier Termehr

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Once we became proficient in speaking English, our services as teachers were requested by an ever-growing number of pastors and bishops. In 1876, we were teaching in two schools and by 1915, 44 schools. In addition to teaching, we staffed a home for the aged, a boarding house for working women, the domestic service department of the Dubuque seminary, and a second orphan home in Sioux City, Iowa. By the 1920s we were serving in a number of states in addition to Iowa. The 1930s were a period of continued growth and outreach, with the establishment of Briar Cliff College (now University) in Sioux City, the opening of Corpus Christi School for African American children in Chicago, and the first of our foreign missions in Chowtsun, China. Other foreign missions followed: Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, St. Lucia, and Canada.

We are teachers, pastoral associates, chaplains, spiritual directors, social workers, health care workers, alternative health therapists and volunteers for many other religious congregations and civic organizations. We pray to stay faithful to the vision of service and compassion to the most needy which led to the founding of our congregation so long ago. We are conscious of the many blessings we have received both as a congregation and as individuals, and we remember Mother Xavier’s words: “One beggar must help another. Good people share with us, and we must share with the poor.”


leadership team

From left to right:
Sisters Pat Clemen, Kathy Knipper,
Brenda Whetstone, and Maureen Leach.

Leadership of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque is a ministry of service not only to the congregation but to the church and world.

It is work that is shared among the members with those in leadership serving a term of six years. At the end of this time, as St. Francis says, the community ministers lay down the role as easily as one lays down a towel after washing feet. Four sisters work together in this service. They support the members in their mission and common life, and tend the corporate good of the Congregation.

Currently Sister Kathy Knipper serves as President and Sisters Pat Clemen, Maureen Leach, and Brenda Whetstone serve as Vice Presidents.

About the Team

Sister Kathy Knipper served as vice president for the Sisters of St. Francis Leadership Team since 2014. Her previous ministries include associate professor of education at Briar Cliff University, Director of Curriculum for the Diocese of Sioux City and teacher in elementary schools in Holy Cross, Iowa; Waterloo, Iowa; and Dubuque. Sister Kathy graduated from Clarke University, Dubuque, has a master’s degree from the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota, and a doctoral degree from the University of South Dakota, Vermillion.
Sister Pat Clemen served as Catholic Charities’ coordinator for Parish Health Ministry in Jackson, Mississippi, and volunteered at Excel Learning Center in Morton, Mississippi, teaching CPR. She lived in Mississippi since 1978 and previously served in Jackson as the Quality Improvement Director at Sta-Home Health and Hospice and DRE/RCIA Director at the Cathedral Parish. Her nursing experience includes coronary care supervisor, health facility surveyor, and school health consultant. She received her bachelor of science in nursing at Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa, and master’s degree in theological studies at Springhill College, Mobile, Alabama.
Sister Maureen Leach ministered as a Spanish/English interpreter and worked as a licensed massage therapist specializing in hospice care in San Antonio, Texas. In her 35 years of ministry experience in Texas, she ministered as a social service worker with the National Farm Worker Ministry, a teacher trainer/adult education instructor, and an education coordinator at Visitation House Transitional Housing. She also served in church ministry in rural Guatemala and as activities director at Stonehill Franciscan Services in Dubuque. She edited a book of essays on healing from trauma and co-authored a book on the Psalms. Her bachelor’s degree in Spanish is from the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls.
Sister Brenda Whetstone served previously as a nurse at Lackey Convalescent Home in Forest, Mississippi, and a volunteer at EXCEL, Inc. in Morton, Mississippi. She also served in pastoral care in Gracias, Lempira, Honduras, and in Dubuque as a nurse at Stonehill Franciscan Services, and Holy Family Hall, at Mount St. Francis Center. Sister Brenda received a bachelor’s degree in theology from Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. Following graduation, she served in the United States Army where she received her licensed practical nurse training from St. Philip’s College in San Antonio.