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News / Churches & Religion

Sisters of Providence’s holy ground: Mother Joseph Catholic Cemetery of Vancouver final resting place for pioneering religious women

Sisters built schools, hospitals, cared for the poor

By Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 3, 2024, 6:06am
6 Photos
The five foundresses of the Sisters of Providence Northwest mission in Washington Territory. Front row: Sister Praxedes of Providence, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Sister Mary of the Precious Blood. Back row, Sister Vincent de Paul, Sister Blandine of the Holy Angels.
The five foundresses of the Sisters of Providence Northwest mission in Washington Territory. Front row: Sister Praxedes of Providence, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Sister Mary of the Precious Blood. Back row, Sister Vincent de Paul, Sister Blandine of the Holy Angels. (Photo contributed by the Sisters of Providence Archives) Photo Gallery

Tucked away behind Vancouver Barracks National Cemetery lies another cemetery nearly as old. In it lies the remains, not of soldiers but of pioneering women, such as Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who brought their Catholic faith and personal grit to Southwest Washington, influencing the greater Pacific Northwest region for generations to come.

In the hustle and bustle of 19th century Fort Vancouver, many of the fur trappers for the Hudson’s Bay Company were French-Canadian. The first Catholic bishop from the Northwest region sought out a group of religious sisters to help care for the French-Canadian trappers and their families.

“One reason they called the religious community is because it was cold in the Northwest,” said Sisters of Providence Sister Barbara Schamber, provincial leader for the congregation’s Mother Joseph Province. “They knew that the Sisters of Providence were in Montreal, (Canada) and so could adjust well to the cold.”

When the sisters arrived at Fort Vancouver, they stayed in an attic before eventually building a small home of their own — a convent — at the fort.

With time, the sisters were asked to open a school and a hospital.

“So we have the first Catholic school and first official hospital in the Northwest,” Schamber said.

At the U.S. Capitol, every state has two statues selected to represent it; Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart is one for Washington.

The religious sister, sent in 1856 to lead a group of her fellow Quebecois Sisters of Providence to the Washington Territory, established schools and hospitals around the Pacific Northwest.

“She was asked to go to so many different areas,” Schamber said.

A book in the sisters’ archival records held in Seattle lists all the requests from bishops across the country for Mother Joseph and her congregation’s aid. Most of these requests were denied because there weren’t enough sisters.

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The Sisters of Providence western province is now home to 85 religious sisters, working in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, California and Alaska.

Mother Joseph’s work in Vancouver still stands. The historic Providence Academy is a reminder of her leadership. The sister led the effort to get the building constructed. As the daughter of a carpenter, she was even instrumental in the building’s design.

Schamber said Mother Joseph was known for forcing contractors to take down work and start again if something wasn’t up to her standards.

“She knew what was good workmanship,” Schamber said.

Mother Joseph spent her adult life ministering to those in the Northwest. When she died in 1902, she was buried at the Catholic cemetery that now bears her name.

Other foundresses

Mother Joseph is well known to many in the region. But she didn’t impact the area alone. Many women from the Sisters of Providence left their mark here. And many are buried near Mother Joseph at Mother Joseph Catholic Cemetery, formerly St. James Acres, in Vancouver.

Among those are women who worked as tertiary sisters, who hadn’t taken full religious vows but who put their sweat into establishing the Sisters of Providence in the West and doing manual labor for the sisters’ medical and academic ministries at Fort Vancouver.

There were also four other sisters who helped Mother Joseph establish the Sisters of Providence in the West.

Sister Praxedes of Providence was known for embracing hard work and her devotion to the poor, according to the Sisters of Providence website. She is said to have assisted Mother Joseph wherever her work was needed.

Chosen to lead the Northwest-based Sisters of Providence after Mother Joseph, then-Mother Praxedes went on to establish numerous hospitals and schools in the region and rebuilt Vancouver’s St. Joseph Hospital after it burned.

Sister Blandine of the Holy Angels was fluent in both French and English — a skill that was critical when she became Mother Joseph’s secretary. Being from Quebec, the sisters naturally spoke French, though they needed to learn English as they began ministering in the Washington Territory.

Sister Blandine had taken her vows a couple of months before she was chosen to make the journey to Fort Vancouver; she was only 18 at the time.

Sister Mary of the Precious Blood was also 18 when she came West. At the time, she hadn’t taken full vows as a Sister of Providence. She ended up doing so when she came to Vancouver. Originally from New York, Sister Mary taught English at Fort Vancouver and ultimately also taught first grade at Providence Academy.

At the age of 30, Sister Vincent de Paul — also not a sister at the time — was working as a seamstress for the Sisters of Providence in Montreal to support her family. When she heard that a bishop in the Washington Territory wanted a group of Providence sisters to come there, she wanted to be a missionary.

Like Sister Mary, Sister Vincent had not taken her full vows when she went to Fort Vancouver. But when she arrived here, she planted a garden, did landscaping and hosted Indigenous people who traveled to the fort annually to receive religious sacraments.

Four of these five foundresses are buried at Mother Joseph Cemetery. And many other sisters have been laid to rest there in the years since the original pioneering women journeyed West.

Schamber said the sisters’ initial work still has a great impact on the region.

“When you mention the Sisters of Providence, the work that comes to mind is the care for the poor,” she said. “That’s what the sisters are known for, even to this day.”