The show, purportedly starring Angie Dickinson, was billed in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald as “the gripping true-life story of a nun from a small town in Iowa whose dazzling rise to mayorship captured the hearts and minds of an entire nation.” No one appreciated the bogus TV listing more than Sister Carolyn Farrell. After all—hyperbole aside—it is her own story.
Farrell, 44, of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity, was appointed mayor of Dubuque by her four fellow city council members last January, and has adapted to her second calling as readily as her first. She avoids the traditional nun’s habit, sips Manhattans, plays golf and doesn’t like to be called “Sister.” “It has a misleading connotation,” she explains. “People think of some wild-eyed liberal or of a nun who taught them in first grade 20 years ago. I am neither of these.”
Instead, she is a calm-eyed moderate, a Carter delegate to this summer’s Democratic convention, whose concerns for Dubuque are largely mundane: better highways, a downtown shopping mall and an industrial park. Although Farrell describes herself as “motivated by women’s rights,” her views are temperate enough for city councilman Michael King to comment, “You feel comfortable with her. From a chauvinistic point of view, she’s just one of the guys.”
Perhaps so, but she is still a nun. Her day begins at 6 a.m. with a half hour of meditation in the modest apartment she shares with another sister. Then Farrell drives to nearby Clarke College, a Catholic liberal arts school where she is dean of continuing education. Moving on to City Hall around 4 p.m., she presides over council meetings that sometimes run on well past midnight. Both the church and her fellow nuns are supportive. Notes Sister Constantia Fox, 78: “I’d much rather have someone like Carolyn serving the people than a sister sitting around in a habit, criticizing others.”
Born in Des Moines, Farrell is the daughter of a wholesale milk supplier who was head of a traditional Catholic family. Her parents were delighted when Carolyn decided to become a nun after high school. She taught parochial grade schoolers in Davenport for 10 years, commuting to Clarke to earn her degree in history in 1966. She moved permanently to Dubuque in 1969 to become an elementary school principal, then was named a dean at her alma mater in 1975. Two years later Farrell was elected to the city council of the predominantly Catholic town of 65,000 on the Mississippi. “Dubuque is small and there’s no political machine, so there are lots of opportunities for citizen input,” she says.
While her $3,500-a-year position as mayor makes her merely first among equals, she does not take the responsibility casually. “You can do as much or as little as you want in my position,” she finds. “I plan to keep moving.” In the meantime Farrell is building a reputation as a down-to-earth civic leader with a gift for creative compromise. But she is fast losing patience with the interminable questions about her religion. “The issue in my choice as mayor had nothing whatsoever to do with being a sister,” she says. “The issue was cooperation in government. Yet the out-of-towners only ask me when I pray, what I eat, and how I’m going to be able to serve the church and the city at the same time.”
Ironically, when colleagues once wanted to put a so-called “adult” bookstore out of business, Farrell fought the move successfully, arguing that the proprietor of the store was within his legal rights. Says Darlene Coomes, manager of the local Chamber of Commerce: “Carolyn is always in. control of council meetings—which can get very emotional. When people bring up their pet projects, they are sometimes childish.” The implication: Mayor Farrell’s teaching experience is at least as valuable as her spiritual vocation.