Theresa Sweeney and her friend Kathleen Buck slowly made their way up a spiral staircase that led from the first floor of the Providence Academy building up to the Chapel on Tuesday.
As 1950 and 1952 graduates of the former all-girls Catholic school and coed primary school that closed in 1966, they were sensitive to all the changed details in the historic structure, including that the stairs used to be polished wood, not carpeted, as they are now.
But as the they stepped into the freshly painted-white chapel, which was devoid of the familiar pews during continued renovations, neither woman showed signs of bitterness.
“I was here in the chapel when ceiling pieces were falling on the floor and everything was in disarray,” Buck said. “When the roof leaked and stuff, it just broke my heart. Now this is looking good.”
Buck and Sweeney were among 150 other alumni, their relatives and others in attendance at what will soon be an annual event called Together Again.
The event Tuesday was not only a reunion, but also a celebration of the birthday of founder Mother Joseph Pariseau. Originally of Quebec, Canada, Mother Joseph joined the Sisters of Charity of Providence in Montreal. The group traveled to the Pacific Northwest as Catholic missionaries, landing in Vancouver. By 1857, Providence Academy had opened as a school.
Mother Joseph went on to develop 29 more schools and hospitals and formed the original Providence Health system — and has become a beloved figure of Washington history. Her place in history was solidified in 1999 when former Gov. Gary Locke officially designated April 16 as Mother Joseph Day.
Attendees of the event gathered in the ballroom for a lunch before they set off to retrace long-ago footsteps throughout the building.
Gloria Brady, 86, attended with her two daughters. She graduated from the school in 1951, staying in Vancouver. In between laughs, she recalled living near to the Rev. Ron Belisle when they were children. She said that Belisle, sitting only a few seats away from her at the event, always wanted to be a priest — and she a nun.
“So he would say Mass on the back of a flatbed truck. I’d be the nun,” she said. “We’d use prunes for Holy Communion, until his mother had a fit over that.”
Brady’s daughters urged her to tell more stories, saying that she was a troublemaker who would sneak away to smoke.
Sneaking cigarettes was apparently common in those days at Providence Academy.
“Where are the sisters? I just have a question. They’ve been doing a lot of excavating and putting things up into the attic. So some of you boarders might want to answer this too. We found a package of Chesterfield cigarettes. Are they yours?” joked Carolyn Pleny, a docent at the Academy and a 1966 graduate.
There have been many changes to the building since The Historic Trust gained ownership of the 7-acre property in 2015, starting with $2.1 million in repairs to a dilapidated roof and porches. They’ve also repaired electrical systems, heating and ventilation systems and upgraded audio and visual systems.
Workers are still working to demolish a building in front of Providence Academy that had for a time housed a Mexican restaurant. Its destruction was not mourned by those who attended the event.
“I said, ‘Either we give it to the homeless, or we knock the damn thing down.’ Can I tell you, it’s gone,” said Sister Susanne Hartung, the chief mission integration officer at Providence Health & Services, who was met with cheers and applause.
The next planned phase will involve rehabilitation of the north gallery porches, according to Holly Chamberlain, interim director of historic preservation at The Historic Trust. The trust will also work to make the building ADA accessible.
“We’re fingers crossed for receiving a Heritage Capital Project grant from the state Legislature,” Chamberlain said. “We should hear about that in a few weeks. But we’re very high up on the list of their priorities, and we’re hopeful that the state budget will allow that to come to pass.”
The grant requires a 2-1 match, she said, and fundraising efforts are continuing. Additional plans include creating an interpretive center and updating a room near the chapel where Mother Joseph stayed at the end of her life as a “remembrance room” that would include displays of her writings, which were mostly in French.
The Historic Trust is also selling the west end of the property to create a 134-unit mixed-use two-building development. The hope is to alleviate debt and put funding focus on renovations of Providence Academy. It hasn’t all been met with support.
Richard Burrows, The Historic Trust’s director of Community Outreach & Engagement, drew a parallel to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, which was ravaged Monday by a fire that damaged the roof and spire of the 850-year-old icon. It will be rebuilt, according to news reports.
While listening to news reports Monday night, Burrows was struck listening to an interview of an unnamed official saying, defiantly, that Notre Dame had been rebuilt before and will be rebuilt again.
“As I heard that person speak, it resonated for me that this is exactly the repurposing and purposing again of Providence Academy that keeps it alive,” he said. “It’s in your hearts, but … it needs to be available for people.”
Sweeney, as she gazed upon the Academy chapel’s own French Gothic architectural style, said she was grateful to have seen Notre Dame Cathedral after graduating and teaching in the Army for one year. Upon seeing news reports about the incident, she was sad — but saw a bright side.
“To think that they salvaged some of the things that they did and no one was injured, that was remarkable for the size of that fire,” said Sweeney, of Olympia.
She’s also an optimist when it comes to Providence Academy, whatever changes occur.
“It will never be the Providence Academy again, but it’s beautiful,” Sweeney said. “It’s beautiful, and we were here.”