Her nimble peasant fingers could do anything, cook, sew, work wood and write lengthy letters. Born in the Canadian village of Saint-Elzéar, her parents, Joseph and Francoise Pariseau, named her Esther. A petite child, she often worked beside her father in his carriage shop. Her mother taught her embroidery, reading and writing. Today Esther Pariseau is better known as Mother Joseph (1823-1902).
Her father traveled to Montreal in 1843 and presented Esther to the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor at the Diocese of Nisqually. (The name was later shortened to the Sisters of Providence.) Her father extolled Esther’s talents, adding one day she’d make an outstanding superior. The order accepted the 20-year-old, renaming her Sister Joseph. For the next several years, while managing the group’s kitchen, bakery, garden and wood shop, she cared for the poor and ill.
Needing help in Oregon Territory, Augustin-Magloire Blanchet, the bishop of Nisqually, requested several sisters in 1852. Sister Joseph volunteered but was too valuable to send. Four years later, she got her chance when Bishop Blanchet made a second plea for help. Sister Joseph found herself in charge of the four nuns traveling from Canada across the Isthmus of Panama to the St. James Mission near Fort Vancouver, Washington Territory.
Disembarking at Vancouver from the ship Brother Jonathan, the nuns walked about a mile to the bishop’s place only to find three rough 10-feet-square rooms and a passageway that led to the school, the kitchen and the church. The nuns slept in the building’s unfurnished loft. They opened Providence Academy, the Northwest’s first parochial school, with seven little girls three weeks later.
Shortly after, a penniless 85-year-old man appeared, and Mother Joseph took him in as well. Once again, Mother Joseph was caring for the poor and sickly. Early records show the nuns listed 34 night watches at the homes of the ill. They also taught, gardened, cooked and maintained the bishop’s house.
As an architect, Mother Joseph designed and erected buildings all over the Northwest, including 11 Providence hospitals, five Native American schools and two orphanages. A stickler for detail, she often inspected rafters and bounced on planks to ensure their strength.
Locally, she designed and built Providence Academy, which closed in 1966. Her need for bricks for the school pushed Lowell Hidden into the brick-making business. To fund all her efforts, she conducted monthslong “begging tours” to mining camps in Idaho and Montana to meet her goals. Each realized between $2,000 and $5,000.
Confined to the infirmary with a brain tumor during the winter of 1901, Mother Joseph lay in anguish, her face twisted in pain and denied sleep. Yet she placed a box of chocolates at her bedside to encourage children who visited to repeat the rosary with her. About two weeks before her death, she took her last rites surrounded by her nuns. Pausing between fits of agony, she told the nuns, “whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”
In 1980, in appreciation of her faith and accomplishments, a statue of her was placed in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.