March 29, 2022

Building a Legacy: The Story of Mother Joseph and the Providence Academy

In 1856, five women from the Sisters of Providence, a Catholic religious community founded 13 years earlier in Montreal, set out from the order’s home base with their sights on the Washington Territory in the Pacific Northwest. They carried with them a mandate from Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal to aid people living in the harsh conditions on the frontier.

Under the leadership of a woman then known as Sister Joseph, the small contingent took a lengthy journey through the Isthmus of Panama and up the Pacific coast of North America before landing at Fort Vancouver along the banks of the Columbia River in the area that is now Vancouver, Washington.

A portrait of the five Sisters of Providence, including Mother Joseph, who traveled to the Washington Territory.

photo by: Providence Archives, Seattle.

A portrait of the five Sisters of Providence who initially set out for the Washington Territory in 1856. Mother Joseph is seated in the center.

It was far from easy going for the sisters after they arrived. They had to make do in shabby living conditions and lacked both material and financial resources. To raise funds to expand their mission, they frequently embarked on “begging tours” to mines and lumber camps in more remote areas of the region. Sisters of Providence Archives Director Loretta Greene notes that many of these trips involved the sisters’ having to evade wildfires, fend off snakes, and rein in their anxious horses, among other trials and tribulations.

Despite these hardships, Sister Joseph—who eventually acquired the title Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart—and her companions quickly began to forge a large network of hospitals, as well as orphanages and schools for both white and indigenous children. There is not a great amount of detail or specific accounts of Mother Joseph's personal relationship with Native Americans in the region, though in 1857 she wrote to a colleague that she hoped to "find places for us to live among the Indians" who "had been driven to the mountains" by white settlers during the American Indian wars. Seven years later, other sisters set up a formal mission to Native Americans in Montana.

The effects of the sisters' network can still be felt to this day.

“[Mother Joseph’s] work and the early work of the sisters is the historical basis for health care, education, and social services here in the Northwest,” Greene says. She notes that all 17 hospitals established during Mother Joseph's lifetime have continued to operate in some form.

In 1980, the State of Washington gifted a statue of Mother Joseph to the United States Capitol. It resides in Emancipation Hall and describes the “monumental contributions” Mother Joseph made in the region.

Those contributions wouldn’t have been possible without physical infrastructure, which is where a defining element of Mother Joseph’s legacy comes into play. Considered an architect by many and a builder by others, one thing is clear about “the sister with a hammer” (as she’s affectionately dubbed in the 2014 book Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: Two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America by Carla Blank and Tania Martin): She was instrumental in the construction of her order’s built environment.

The exterior of the Providence Academy in Vancouver, Washington.

photo by: Robert Holcomb

The south facade of Providence Academy in 2019.

It’s not known exactly how many buildings can be attributed to Mother Joseph, but Greene and Holly Chamberlain, the director of historic preservation at the Historic Trust in Vancouver, estimate that there were around 29. Few remain, unfortunately, but the Providence Academy, which is perhaps the crown jewel of her portfolio, is still standing.

The nonprofit Historic Trust bought the Providence Academy, also known as the House of Providence, in 2015 after conducting a three-year survey of the site. The four-story brick Georgian Revival main building, which once served as an orphanage and a school run by the Sisters of Providence, has been undergoing a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation project ever since. (In 2020, it was on the National Trust’s crowdsourced list of 1,000 places where women made history.) The goal, Chamberlain says, is to place a greater emphasis on public access and historic interpretation, which will likely shine a light on the woman who envisioned it.

Building a Community

Mother Joseph was born Esther Pariseau in Saint-Elzéar, Quebec, in 1823. While documented information on her early life is limited, Greene says, it is known that she came from a large family and that her father was a coachmaker. As a young girl, Esther spent a significant amount of time learning woodworking skills alongside her father and brothers in the family’s carriage house.

There are gaps in the narrative of her life as a novice after joining the Sisters of Providence, but it’s likely Esther was assigned to daily tasks such as candle-making, sewing cassocks for priests, and assisting in the pharmacy. During typhus and cholera epidemics that struck in the middle of the 19th century, she reportedly aided her sisters who had fallen ill. Her construction skills, however, really came back into play once she reached the West Coast and sought to build, literally, a community for her sisters and the people they served.

No blueprints exist of the construction projects she oversaw, so it’s unknown whether or how frequently Mother Joseph was the primary designer. But the Sisters of Providence archives maintain various chronicles and memories from her fellow sisters, as well as her own correspondence, that offer a look at how dedicated she was to the execution of her vision.

Mother Joseph was heavily involved in the oversight of her projects, selecting sites for building, negotiating with church and civic leaders to get projects underway, and managing laborers. Once construction started, she was frequently on site. She was known to be quite spirited and stubborn and would, on occasion, go to great lengths to get approval from Montreal for her plans. As one story goes, she once pretended to talk in her sleep so that her superior would hear her express frustration about a project without stepping out of the hierarchical line.

Mother Joseph was skilled in many other creative arts, as well, Greene notes. The list includes wax figure-making—a specialty craft of the Sisters of Providence in general—bookbinding, and embroidery. She is also said to have had a hand in the landscaping around Providence Academy; crafted molds, carvings, and a tabernacle in the Academy’s chapel; and even may have dabbled as a watchmaker, blacksmith, and locksmith.

A Remaining Testament

Ground broke for construction of the Providence Academy in 1873, although the institution already existed in name. The inspiration for the building may have come from Mother Joseph’s several trips back East during which, Greene says, she was always studying architectural styles. Chamberlain says that the design is emblematic of Mother Joseph's Montreal roots.

The school and orphanage opened in 1874. Work continued over the years, with additions like the 1883 Gothic Revival chapel on the second floor. Even after Mother Joseph’s death in 1902, there were plenty of changes, most of them dependent on the sisters’ needs. “[They were] very practical people,” says Chamberlain, adding that the Historic Trust is working on deciding how to interpret the multi-era interior. Some possibilities include focusing on a specific time period or highlighting different ones on different floors.

An 1880s print depicting the Providence Academy.

photo by: Providence Archives, Seattle.

A print dated to the 1880s that depicts the Providence Academy at the time.

By around 1910, the site was no longer an orphanage, though it remained a school until it closed for good in 1966. Chamberlain says there was local concern about the future of the building when it was on the block, but Robert Hidden, the grandson of the academy’s original brickmaker and a local preservationist, and his family purchased it. The Hiddens launched an adaptive reuse project, turning the structure into office space and boutique retail. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The Hidden family put Providence Academy back on the market around 2011, and the Historic Trust (then known as the Vancouver National Historic Reserve Trust) entered the fold soon after that.

The nonprofit completed its purchase of the 7-acre site—which contained not only the Providence Academy main building, but also multiple outbuildings from various eras—in 2015.

Its efforts to preserve and reuse some of the outbuildings proved economically unfeasible. The organization entered city processes to demolish the property’s laundry and boiler plant. They held out hope for the smokestack (which, like the boiler plant, was built after Mother Joseph’s time), but stabilization efforts again proved too challenging, and the Historic Trust will soon receive a demolition permit. Despite the pending losses, the Historic Trust is working on ways to preserve and document the legacy of the structures.

As for the Academy’s main building, the organization immediately began to fundraise after the 2015 purchase. It tackled the most necessary improvements, such as the in-kind replacement of the roof and deteriorated galleried porches.

To further support the preservation of the structure, the Historic Trust sold the western portion of the larger property to a developer around 2018. State funding has aided the efforts, as well.

In 2019, Chamberlain says, most of the signature interior spaces, including the chapel and Providence Hall (formerly known as the ballroom), were rehabilitated, while improvements to the HVAC, electrical, and A/V systems were made. The Historic Trust also oversaw other projects, including the refinishing of the floors and the restoration of the front doors.

The interior of the Providence Academy chapel.

photo by: Robert Holcomb

The interior of the Providence Academy Chapel after its 2019 rehabilitation.

Amid the work, the Academy has continued to house offices for several small businesses and host community events. The Historic Trust also operates tours of the site.

Preservation efforts are ongoing. Chamberlain says the next step is to launch a study to help determine plans for interpretation and rehabilitation, which they’ll be able to do with the support of a $4,300 Preservation Fund grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Historic Trust also aims to repoint and clean the exterior brick, renovate the landscape, and repair the cupola, Chamberlain adds.

Ultimately, the organization wants its work on the building to serve as a testament to Mother Joseph and the Sisters of Providence.

“Providence Academy is one of the most historic buildings in the Pacific Northwest … it signifies a tremendous spiritual and personal commitment on part of the sisters who were running it and were so very concerned about making sure the orphans received proper care and the students received an appropriate education,” Chamberlain says. “They had to have been extremely brave.”

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Tim O'Donnell is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

Learn More