Sole Sister moves on

Presence of Sisters of Providencein Vancouver Ends After 156 years

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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A tradition of service that started more than 155 years ago is ending with the departure of Vancouver’s last Sister of Providence.

Sister Mary Fox recently moved to Portland, marking a transition in eras as well as addresses.

It’s the first time there hasn’t been a Providence sister living in Vancouver since 1856, when Mother Joseph and four other nuns arrived from Montreal.

And their arrival wasn’t just a Vancouver milestone.

“The Providence sisters were the first to come to this area. There were no other religious sisters until that time” in the Northwest, said Greg Magnoni, communications director for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Sister Fox said she is a product of the environment created by those Providence pioneers.

“I grew up on N Street, near Mother Joseph Cemetery,” Fox said.

She attended Washington Elementary before transferring into sixth grade at Providence Academy, the first institution founded by Mother Joseph in the West.

Her high school years were marked by World War II.

“We collected tin cans and glass. There were blackouts at night, and gas was rationed, so dad took the bus to work -- first, the plywood mill and then the shipyard,” she said.

The example provided by her teachers, as well as family members, got the high school girl thinking about her own future, she said.

“An aunt and a cousin were nuns,” she said. “The teachers at the Academy were wonderful, and it would be nice to be like that,” she thought.

“I couldn’t have had a better education. They gave so much of themselves, without thinking of themselves. My senior year, I decided it was what God was calling me to,” she said.

But there were some practical issues involving that calling, she added.

“At first, I didn’t want it,” she said.

That’s because the nuns she saw were working in the fields of teaching and nursing.

“I had no qualifications,” Sister Fox, 84, said.

A nun explained that the Sisters of Providence — following the multi-talented Mother Joseph — had a lot more career opportunities than that.

So, when it was time to start working, “Several companions drew teaching assignments,” Sister Mary said. “Not me. I went to St. Vincent Hospital as a bookkeeper. I learned on the job.”

She worked in other hospital business offices in Seattle and Portland. She also worked at the center for novice nuns at Mount St. Vincent in Seattle.

Fox was a switchboard operator and receptionist at Providence Heights in Issaquah before moving back to Vancouver in 1972 to become secretary of the St. Joseph parish school; she was there until 1990.

In her final assignment, she spent 12 years as secretary to the director of volunteers at Providence Portland Medical Center.

She has had 10 active years of retirement since then. Fox continued to work at St. Joseph as a parish volunteer. She recently left the Vancouver apartment that was her home for more than 30 years, and now lives in Portland with two other Sisters of Providence.

Fox has spent 65 years in the order.

“They’ve been very rewarding years. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a Sister of Providence and be of service,” she said.

That’s a long tradition of service. After founding Providence Academy in Vancouver, the pioneering nuns founded St. Joseph Hospital, which eventually led to the Providence health care system. The nuns also provided Washington’s first organized system of mental health care.

“Mother Joseph’s legacy is alive and honored today in the spirit that continues to be lived at the hospital” now known as PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center,” said Sister Judith Desmarais. She spoke on behalf of the leadership team of Mother Joseph Province, which includes 145 nuns and about 270 associates in Alaska, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Washington and El Salvador.

“The presence of Mother Joseph and approximately 150 other Sisters of Providence in Mother Joseph Cemetery are a witness to her life and the life of the religious community,” Desmarais said.

It’s a historical note that Sister Fox hasn’t forgotten.

“There still are lots of Sisters of Providence in Vancouver,” she said. “They’re part of Vancouver’s heritage. I’m just the last living sister.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; tom.vogt@columbian.com.