Monday, September 21, 2020
Sept. 21, 2020

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Tour reflects on the 1856 arrival of the Sisters of Providence

Hundreds of years of Vancouver history featured in walk

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
12 Photos
Several dozen people arrive at Providence Academy, completing a 1.6 mile-walk from the Vancouver waterfront on Sunday. The event was hosted by The Historic Trust and retraced the steps of the Sisters of Providence arrival in Vancouver in 1856.
Several dozen people arrive at Providence Academy, completing a 1.6 mile-walk from the Vancouver waterfront on Sunday. The event was hosted by The Historic Trust and retraced the steps of the Sisters of Providence arrival in Vancouver in 1856. (Elayna Yussen for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As Richard Burrows prepared to begin a tour through hundreds of years of Vancouver history, he paused as a large commercial plane flew overhead.

“This place is a complex place to talk about,” said Burrows, director of community outreach and engagement for The Historic Trust.

The Historic Trust hosted a 1.6-mile walk Sunday afternoon from the Columbia River to Providence Academy that reflected on the 1856 arrival of the Sisters of Providence. The land featured in the walk had a deep history before the sisters arrived to establish a Catholic mission, and it continues to evolve.

“It wasn’t a single experience,” Burrows said of the sisters’ work. “It was experiences over 160 years by multiple people.”

The sisters arrived on the land, which was home to Native Americans for tens of thousands of years, toward the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s decades-long presence at Fort Vancouver. After arriving on shore, the sisters likely encountered Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree, planted 30 years before their arrival and thought to be the oldest apple tree in the Pacific Northwest.

Surrounding the point near the Vancouver waterfront where the walkers met Sunday was state Highway 14 and the BNSF Railway to the north and the Interstate 5 Bridge to the west. Burrows asked the group of roughly 40 people to picture the land in 1856, but its intricate history was a theme throughout the walk.

“It’s wild,” said Ambrose Palena, who was born in Vancouver and attended the walk. “You can have dozens of different topics in the exact same footsteps.”

After arriving onshore, the sisters were thought to have trekked to Fort Vancouver in knee-deep mud. The tour, on paved sidewalks, first stopped at the Old Apple Tree before arriving at the Vancouver Land Bridge over Highway 14.

Overlooking the plain that includes Fort Vancouver to the north, Burrows spoke of the abundance of resources that were available to the various people that have occupied the land. Berries, salmon and venison were just a few options.

“This was Disneyland. This is where it was pleasant and beautiful,” Burrows said.

Native Americans were able to collect 2,000 calories worth of food in two hours, Burrows said. As he spoke, Who Song & Larry’s and Joe’s Crab Shack were situated just a few hundred feet southwest.

“Now you can find 2,000 calories of food at many fine restaurants,” Burrows joked.

The group stopped again after crossing the bridge. Burrows explained the tension between the U.S. Army and Hudson’s Bay Company in the years between the army’s arrival and British company’s departure.

“It was kind of, just, a wild west experience here,” Burrows said.

Strolling past Fort Vancouver Historic Site, which was situated to the east, the downtown Vancouver skyline and Pearson Field were also visible.

Historical inconsistencies and constant change to the landscape have created knowledge gaps regarding where past structures were located. On past tours, former students at the Providence Academy — established by the Sisters of Providence in the years after their arrival and closed in 1966 — have attempted to correct Burrows.

“‘Oh no, that’s not the way it was. Oh no, I was here in 1939,'” Burrows said, imitating past tour-goers.

Busy establishing roots in the area, the sisters waited 30 years to begin documenting their experiences in earnest. The youngest sisters were nearing 50 years old, and certain aspects of their journey — such as the name of the steamboat they rode to Vancouver — were misremembered.

“History is what you write down,” Burrows said.

One of the final stops took place at the Vancouver Barracks. There, Burrows reflected on what had transpired since from the Providence Academy’s opening to its closing from the Civil War to the Vietnam War.

“You see the world pass before you,” Burrows said of those who spent years at the school.

Denise Spicer, of Vancouver, has volunteered at Fort Vancouver before. She was largely interested in taking the tour to hear about Mother Joseph Pariseau, one of the five sisters who arrived in Vancouver and the Providence Academy’s founder. Even for someone who has been interested in the history of the land for years, she is still amazed by how many layers are in the story.

“Over this time period, many significant things have happened,” Spicer said. “Mother Joseph was a part of that, but other things have happened.”

The final stop, after crossing a street bridge over Interstate 5, was the academy. Earlier in the tour, Burrows asked each of those involved to leave with one major takeaway. Considering what had happened over centuries in the small amount of land, that wasn’t an easy task.

“Everybody has their interest. I think that’s how you do it,” Palena said about how to best study the land’s history as a non-historian. “You have to find your specialty.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter