The Sisters of St. Francis continue their special historical role with Briar Cliff

June 30, 2023

For as long as there has been a Briar Cliff in Sioux City, also present has been the thoughtful and caring involvement of the Sisters of St. Francis, geared to provide a well-rounded postsecondary education that includes the ability to delve deep into Catholicism.

The Sisters of St. Francis, headquartered in Dubuque, Iowa, founded the institution as Briar Cliff College in 1930 and approaching 100 years later, the sisters still play an important participating role in the institution now known as Briar Cliff University.

With the approach of the 2023-24 school year, the campus staff includes Sister Sarah Kohles, who is the Theology Department Chair, and Sister Mary Jane Koenigs, an assistant in the Bishop Mueller Library. Additionally, Sister Kathy Knipper through 2026, will serve as president (and was previously vice president) for the Sisters of St. Francis Leadership Team and is a BCU Board of Trustees member, as are two other Sisters, Renae Hohensee and Kate Katoski.

Over the years, almost 200 Sisters of St. Francis sisters have had roles on campus, whether for a few years or decades, the latter of which is the case with Sister Mary Jane. She started her tenure in 1973, which now equates to a half-century of work in support of Briar Cliff. She also attended the college from 1969 to 1971, and graduated with a degree in Speech and Hearing Science.

Sister Mary Jane said some people living nearly 100 years ago were surprised the Sisters of St. Francis pursued creating a college, but she noted it fits greatly into their realm of serving people.

“Education has always been one of our strongest ministries,” Sister Mary Jane said.

Sister Kathy’s first view of BCU came in the late 1980’s, when she had a coordinating role in a conference on campus. She greeted people at the bottom of the hill and directed them to The Cliff, where she fondly remembers some great fellowship that day with attendees on the outdoor Heffernan Mall.

Sister Kathy said what the Founding Sisters had in mind in the 1920’s as the concept for Briar Cliff was to provide access to a college education that many women at that time didn’t have amid The Great Depression.

“Briar Cliff continues to welcome all, to meet the needs of some students who may not have such opportunities at another university,” Sister Kathy said. 

In 1929, people who pondered a college came to focus on the 175-foot-high hill located on the city’s western outskirts that was covered in briar patches. Mother Mary Dominica Wieneke, Major Superior of the Sisters of Saint Francis, and Reverend Edmond Heelan, Bishop of the Sioux City Diocese, were ready to proceed, so they met with members of the Sioux City community. Businessmen raised $25,000 to create the college, and 25 female students in September 1930 began taking classes in Heelan Hall, the sole campus building. By 1937, Briar Cliff’s two-year programs were extended to four years. 

Sister Sarah said one theme over Briar Cliff’s history has been methodically providing sound education in a wide range of degrees without a lot of showy glitz or the economic largesse to which some universities have access. 

“I think of it as Franciscan simplicity in how we are. We are not always fussy in what we have,” she said.

Sister Mary Jane said her long tenure has shown that the biggest periods of change on campus in programs and other offerings came in the mid-1960’s and early 2000’s. Sister Sarah agreed with that observation since that was when she was a student, when adding graduate programs meant the institution met the criteria to shift from the college demarcation. 

“Briar Cliff changed from being a college to a university, and added football. There was a big shift towards sports, and it still continues.” Sister Sarah said.

Sister Sarah said while things have changed in terms of offerings and buildings on campus, the mindframe of the Sisters of St. Francis continues to flourish: “What is still in our bones, in our DNA, is that very particular concern for the student – you still see that here.”

Sister Sarah said lots of Sisters got their college degrees at Briar Cliff and have enjoyed serving as instructors here as a way to give back to the institution. Sister Sarah said in her first year as a professor, she enjoyed having Sister Mary Jane as a sounding board, and added there are a lot of similarly supportive people working in many roles on campus.


The Sisters of St. Francis convent is located on 130 acres in the rural north edge of Dubuque, Iowa, and there are currently 155 Sisters in the congregation, with the large majority of them at retirement age. Sister Kathy recalled being at a Sisters of St. Francis event, where the attendees were asked to raise their hands if they had experience with BCU in some capacity, whether as a student, instructor or some other support role. 

“Almost every hand was raised,” Sister Kathy recalled.

The roles that the Sisters have carried out over 95 years is very broad, Sisters Sarah and Mary Jane said. They listed off instructors, housekeeping, food service, deans and presidents, campus ministry, grounds work, coaching and even doing laundry for priests, plus creating a 9-hole golf course on campus when other existing courses in Sioux City wouldn’t allow women in the 1930’s. 

Sister Kathy said the Sisters of St. Francis want to be appraised on what is happening on campus in Sioux City. Frequently after the quarterly Board of Trustees meetings, she will give recaps by emails or social media posts or writing a recap that is posted in the Dubuque convent, since some Sisters like that old school method.

“They want to know, so we want to share as much as we can,” Sister Kathy said. “The university continues to evolve and change, and the sisters want to have their voices heard.” 

Typically, the process for determining which Sisters come to Briar Cliff involves discernment, whereby any Sister expressing an interest in being part of BCU would discern that calling with the Sisters of St. Francis Leadership Team.  There will be a check with the BCU Human Relations Department personnel, in order to follow all policies like any other applicant for a BCU position. Additionally, if the interest is for a faculty position, there must be a match in an ongoing timeline because of the educational preparation required.

Sister Mary Jane went through a different route to begin her work career at Briar Cliff in 1973, as she was asked by Sister Margaret Wick after getting an advanced degree at the University of Northern Iowa. Wick was a dean at that time (before later becoming a president), and she called Sister Mary Jane to return and teach in the Speech and Hearing Science Department. Her role later shifted to working in the new Learning Resource Center in 1980 and then onto the library in 1981, where she continues to work.

One unmistakable trend is that the number of Sisters on campus has dropped off. Sister Mary Jane said there were about 22 when she attended in 1970, and 12 when Sister Sarah got her degree in theology from 1999 to 2003 after leaving her native state of Texas. 

Sister Sarah pondered Franciscan colleges in high school, and dwindled her finalists to two. One was Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois, but when she learned BCU had been founded by Sisters instead of men, she picked Briar Cliff. 

“That was my a-ha moment,” Sister Sarah said. 

The previous ministries for Sister Kathy included time as an associate professor of education at Briar Cliff from 2000 to 2014 in a full-time role, plus a few additional years as a teaching adjunct. Her time as a BCU instructor included focusing on elementary teacher preparation. Sister Kathy was pleased to instruct students at both ends of their Charger tenures, with a freshman education introduction class and also the Senior Capstone. 

Sister Kathy said what Briar Cliff looks like today could not be envisioned by the Sisters in 1930, but they would be pleased overall with the changes. That includes originally being a college for women to adding men in the late 1960s and now serving a much more culturally and racially diverse group of students. 

“We make the path by walking it. I always say, ‘There is not a road map,’ “ Sister Kathy said. 

Sister Sarah likes the demographic diversity of the student body in 2023, saying that diversity has grown even more over the 20 years since she was a student. She said the diverse group of perspectives from people coming with differing life experiences really informs and enlivens BCU classroom discussions.

“It enhances conversations,” Sister Sarah said. 


Sister Mary Jane said students have changed over her 50 years at Briar Cliff, as today “they have much less time to study, they are so busy” with full personal lives. But she said one constant remains, which is that undergraduate students still show a lot of growth over the course of four years on campus, with a lot of personal and academic advances that poise them for the rest of their lives. 

Sister Kathy described some of the most recent work by the Sisters of St. Francis in support of BCU, which includes presidential search tasks that resulted in Dr. Patrick Jacobson-Schulte being selected in March as the 12th president of Briar Cliff, following the four-year tenure of Dr. Rachelle Karstens. 

“(Jacobson-Schulte) hit the ground running, it is very evident in his involvement on campus and in the community,” Sister Kathy said. “There is much momentum on campus and energy and forward thinking, so I am encouraged.” 

Summarizing what Briar Cliff does best in 2023, Sister Kathy cited building communities and relationships, particularly in “preparing people for service-minded professions and occupations.” She also is pleased with the current thriving academic, faith, and athletics communities on campus, along with student support offices that buoy students who at times are in need academically, emotionally, and financially.

As for what ideally should occur during the upcoming years, Sister Kathy said the BCU endowment fund and revenue streams should be improved to put in place academic programs that support student growth and to modernize campus infrastructure. She added all that needs to play out amid reminders for students and BCU employees of the necessity of the four Franciscan values – building a caring community, peacemaking, reverencing creation, and connecting with joyful service.

“That is a niche the world needs today in the challenging space and time in which we live. If we can keep witnessing those values, Briar Cliff will prevail for the next 100 years,” Sister Kathy said. 

Sister Sarah agrees with that outlook.

“We need to continue to share the Franciscan values to the students and the world. The Franciscan values are very countercultural right now, but needed to make strong human beings,” Sister Sarah said. 

Also looking ahead, Sister Mary Jane said students need soft skills, so delving into liberal arts hallmarks such as writing and learning highly translatable skills will be important as they move into adulthood, where their lives and occupations will often change. 

“The liberal arts are valued, needed, and essential in our world. They bring fullness and depth to life to living,” Sister Sarah added.

Additionally, Sister Mary Jane said college officials should continue to champion diversity, and she is optimistic for the makeover of Toller Hall from its decades of usage as a dormitory into the College of Health and Equity, saying, “We will be able to reach out to another underserved community.”

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