Alumnae return to The Academy for fun, future

Women remember good times, contemplate plans for historic Vancouver building

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



Academy photos, dollars wanted

The Fort Vancouver National Trust is trying to raise $16 million to buy and restore The Academy. If you're interested in contributing, visit The Academy Campaign or call 360-992-1800.

There was also a pitch from the staff of the Providence Archives, based in Seattle. The archives include approximately 800 objects from The Academy — like Mother Joseph's own spinning wheel and traveling trunk as well as medical and liturgical artifacts. What the collection really needs, said visual resources archivist Peter Schmid, is photographs — especially candid photos of classroom activities and other interiors.

To explore the archives online or offer your own contributions, visit Providence Archives or call 206-937-4600.

The laughter and fun probably weren't much different decades ago.

Eighty people, mostly women of a certain age, turned up Thursday for a reunion of alumnae of Providence Academy, downtown Vancouver's historic link to Mother Joseph and her Sisters of Providence order of nuns, which raised the landmark building in the late 1850s.

The reuniting students, who attended Catholic school here anywhere from 1942 to 1966, toured their former digs, listened to a pitch to help with the majestic brick building's future — recalled precisely the sort of silly mischief you'd expect of high school girls. Even if they're all grown up now.

Sneaking up to the roof to smoke a forbidden cigarette, or to just enjoy the thrill of trespassing. Pulling practical jokes on the teachers, or catching them bending the rules themselves. Watching forever-fundraising nuns piously demand parents' loose change as they dropped their daughters off for the day.

Underlying it all was an obvious sense of love and loyalty.

"There was so much camaraderie," said Jan (Curtin) Franke, now a Woodburn, Ore., resident. "I am still very close to the people I went to high school with. This is like home for us. I won a speech contest on that stage," she said, nodding at the front of the downstairs auditorium where the reunion took place. "I am very proud to say I went to school here."

"That is where we graduated," chimed in Delores (Emter) Cahill, now of Pendleton, Ore. She still feels deep gratitude to Sister Cecilia Mary, her piano teacher. "Because of her lessons, I play the church organ every week" in Athena, Ore., she said. "She was like a second mother to me. I loved the nuns."

Cahill added that her brothers insisted she try then-Vancouver High School; she lasted only a day, she said, "because it wasn't very respectful and there were just so many kids."

Meanwhile, Mary Ann Haisch attended the reunion but confessed the opposite: After one year, she moved over to public school and left Providence Academy behind. Why?

"No boys," she said.

Ann Hammond remembered one class of girls setting up Sister Alexis Melancon for a shock. What day was it, they asked? "Tuesday." No, what date was it? "March fourth," Sister Alexis replied — so all the girls got up and marched out of the room. Hammond said Sister Alexis, "never one to lose control, just said, 'Now march back!'"

Daryl DeSilva remembered that sleeping quarters for boarding girls were in an auxiliary building — which is still standing to the east — and that the P.E. teacher's own apartment was attached to the back of the open dormitory room. The teacher was supposed to be inside for the night when the kids were, so the whole place could be "locked down." But she frequently missed curfew — who knew what she was up to? — and tried tiptoeing through the roomful of supposedly sleeping girls.

But as she snuck by, the "sleepers" started sweetly serenading her: "Irene, good night. Irene good night. …"

"I never forgot her name," DeSilva told her assembled schoolmates, to peals of laughter. "She hated it."

Preservation plan

Preserving that dormitory building is part of the plans for what's now known as The Academy, according to Elson Strahan, executive director of the Fort Vancouver National Trust. Other historic structures on the property also will be preserved or re-created, he said — like the three-story water tower that once stood behind the dorm but is reduced these days to its 12-foot topper.

In May 2012, the Trust announced its campaign to raise $16 million to spend on The Academy; the first $10.6 million is to purchase the property from Vancouver's Hidden brothers — who dropped their original asking price by $2.3 million to facilitate the purchase — and the rest will be for preservation and restoration work, Strahan said.

Look closely and you'll see that Hidden bricks compose the three-story structure. In a historical retrospective, Sister Susanne Hartung, chief mission officer for Providence Health and Services, said Mother Joseph herself first approached Lowell Hidden and inspired him to start making bricks in 1873. The Academy building eventually required 3 million of them.

Hartung and Strahan both said that contemporary Vancouver doesn't fully appreciate the importance of Mother Joseph, her Sisters of Providence and The Academy — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — in the history of the Pacific Northwest.

The alumnae group sure doesn't appreciate the existence on the historical premises of El Presidente Mexican restaurant, which sits exactly where the school tennis courts used to be. Hartung said she hopes to replace it with something that fits the original humanitarian mission of the Sisters of Providence: a clinic or a food bank, perhaps. "Something to replicate the work of Mother Joseph," she said.

Strahan said an overall development plan for the property is a long way off.

As an official with Providence Health and Services, the corporate descendant of Mother Joseph's original Sisters of Providence organization, Hartung often leads historical tours of the building so Providence staff executives "understand where our spirit and heart is," she said. "Our culture and organization have not changed since the day of Mother Joseph."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525;;