St. Elzear ,
“My sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”
Mother Joseph of Sacred Heart, a Sister of Providence, was a legend in her own time. A deeply spiritual woman, Mother Joseph shaped the material world around her as well. Acknowledged as one of the first architects in the Northwest, Mother Joseph acquired a reputation for quality craftsmanship. In addition to designing St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, she was known for the phenomenal range of her skills: seamstress, carpenter, painter, sculptor, blacksmith, farmer, watchmaker, locksmith, and mechanic. But she was most renowned as a builder of services. She devoted her life to seeing that the poor were cared for, the homeless sheltered, the sick tended, the hungry fed. All the rest—the building and the sculpting, the sewing and the painting, the farming and the begging—were done to carry out this goal.
Born on April 16, 1823, in St. Elzear, Quebec, the infant who was later to become Mother Joseph was named Esther Pariseau. This dark-haired, gray-eyed girl, like her biblical namesake, displayed a remarkably bold spirit. Her father was a respected coach maker, and young Esther spent much time with him, learning the craft skills that she later applied to constructing hospitals and schools. At the age of seventeen, Esther’s mother enrolled her in a newly opened boarding school at St. Martin de Laval, determined that her gifted daughter receive formal schooling. Shortly after, Esther decided to enter the newly formed religious community of the Sisters of Providence. In 1856, thirteen years after entering the Sisters of Providence, she and four other sisters traveled six thousand miles from Montreal to the distant Washington Territory. The sisters soon directed their energy toward building services—caring for orphans and the elderly, educating youth, and visiting and healing the sick.
During the forty-six years Mother Joseph established, designed, and built institutions of education, health care, and social service, she employed all her professional and personal skills to promote her vision. Mother Joseph was known for her attention to detail. Donning a tool belt, she worked side by side with construction workers, pointed out inadequate building supplies and methods, negotiated supply contracts, and rebuilt faulty chimney foundations.
Determined to find the necessary resources to fund their projects, Mother Joseph and her companions traveled vast distances. They embarked on trips by horseback and river boat to the mines in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and the Caribou Country in British Columbia, begging for money, gold dust, and nuggets to support their charity work. A tender woman as well as formidable, Mother Joseph was known to shower affection on the orphaned children at the Providence Academy in Vancouver, Washington.
The contributions of Mother Joseph to the West continue to be recognized a century after her death. In 1980, she was named as Washington State’s second representative in National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. And in 1999, at the request of a group of Vancouver sixth grade students, the legislature passed a bill declaring her birthday, April 16, as Mother Joseph Day in Washington State. Her finest building, Providence Academy in Vancouver, still stands as a testament to her aesthetic vision and workmanship.
The corporation Mother Joseph established in 1859 has developed into two major health systems: Providence Health System in Alaska, Western Washington, Oregon, and California, and Providence Services in Eastern Washington and Montana. Her guidance for the Sisters of Providence continues today through the reunification, in 2000, of the two western provinces becoming Mother Joseph Province. By choosing this name, the sisters embrace Mother Joseph’s legacy as a model for the religious community in the twenty-first century.
In 1902, sisters gathered in Vancouver, Washington to pay their last respects to Mother Joseph. The Providence Academy chronicles record her dying words as testament to her moral vision: “My dear sisters, allow me to recommend to you the care of the poor in our houses, as well as those without. Do not say, ‘Ah! This does not concern me, let others see to them.’ My sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”
Providence Health System honors the pioneering work of Mother Joseph and the Sisters of Providence by funding the watercourse in their honor. This stream moves east to west through the park, symbolizing the Sisters’ pilgrimage from Montreal to the Northwest. It is here where their charitable services to the community established—150 years ago—what is today Providence Health System.